Re-envisioning the Macho:
Masculinity in Philippine Visual Culture
Reuben Ramas Cañete
"...there simply exists an immense and incommensurable need for Filipino masculinity to define itself against feminine identities...in order to maintain itself. Indeed, it almost appears that masculinity can only exist alongside these identities..."–J. Neil Garcia, Slip/pages
Gone are the amorphous bodies draped in flat, nondescript clothing of the previous generation, replaced by designer outfits, buffed physiques and polished faces. The bad boy, street-tough cowboy of the golden age of Philippine cinema has been replaced by a working/professional-class young male with a complex psychological, sexual, and social status, and imbued with a softer, more considerate attitude among both women and gays. The new macho is a metrosexual, characterized by a diverse range of talents: singing, dancing, modeling, cooking, and maintaining a household through their own income. Crucially, this is not attuned to a specific audience, like ’straight women,‘ but to any public who sexually desires him, which would include the Filipino gay, or bakla. The increasing emergence of Filipino gay culture, in the fields of film and television directing since the mid-‘80s, has impacted upon the cultural construction of the macho.
The macho is a descendant of the Hispanic majo – late 18th century Madrid street toughs famous for their outlandish costumes, exotic blend of Spanish and gypsy culture, and assertive violence. The macho is assumed to be a heterosexual male who fathers children from multiple women, fraternizes with other males in public displays of masculine bravado (like drinking, gambling, and fisticuffs), and establishes their social status through dominance over other sexes and genders, such as women and queers.
This macho as an aggressive, petulant, and ’irresponsible‘ male who inhabits the center of the social stage – and has defined for its popular audience what ‘being a man‘ is – has been reinforced by novels, films, plays, music and dance. It reached a plateau of sorts through the various filmic characters (particularly the American cowboy) of the post-World War II period. It has since expanded to such disparate cultural manifestations as the glamour spy (James Bond), the scarred war hero (John Rambo), or the hip hop gangsta (Eminem). The Philippine cultural construct of the macho can be seen, on its surface, as a confirmation of these Western models of machismo, perhaps because of its unique historical position as a Hispanic-American colony until 1946, and the continuing dominance of ’global‘ (Western) culture through film, radio, television, and the Internet.
The emergence of the Philippine macho icon can be traced back to the great Philippine cinema of the 1950s. The film genres of war, action, and the occasional fantasy flick established the brown-skinned heroic persona as a desirable category not only among ’fellow‘ males, but also among women and then-oppressed gays as someone who displaces the white cowboys/soldiers/heroes from their theatrical throne. The emergence of the spaghetti western cowboy, as well as that of the urban street tough, from the movie studios of the ‘60s and ‘70s also fuelled the Filipino macho icon into the current set formula of physical dominance among fellow men, heterosexual licentiousness, and a masculine role model for children and ’weaker men‘ to emulate. As in the film and political roles of Fernando Poe Junior and Joseph ’Erap‘ Estrada, respectively, the Filipino macho strides across the Philippine social space as an unquestioned, often brutish being with a soft heart for the downtrodden, a winning smile for the ladies, and an ambiguous disdain for gays, who end up being marginal comic characters that further its contrast with the macho‘s ’good guy‘ masculine virility.
When we look closer at the ’traditional‘ culture of machismo, his identity is incomplete because the relations established with others, like women and gays, are simplistically characterized by oppression, separation, and invisibility. Ironically, it is the macho that constructs this web of injustice through the very things by which his character achieves stability: he establishes sexual relations with a woman, only to break it for another one, or to endure long periods of segregation due to the necessity to fulfill his ’manly‘ role as provider, worker, or warrior; he encounters, and is despised by, the effeminacy of the gay, who provides the opposite traits (weak, indecisive, and passive) to his own character (strong, decisive, and active), an assertion of difference that calls for attempts to either ’reform‘ the ’weaker man,‘ or leave him to his doom – if not pre-empt his destruction.
What we fail to see is that, in the Latin American context, which holds comparisons to Filipino cultural life, the macho‘s ’sociality‘ is sexually stabilized not by one, but two other beings: the heterosexual woman, and the maricon/puto/cochon, or homosexual male. The stability is premised on the macho‘s sexual role as ’top‘ sexual partner, while the two others are passive ’bottom‘ receivers. The fact that the macho‘s sexual identity is assured by his being ’on top‘ does not negate the fact that it takes two ’partners‘ to correlate a macho, both existing side by side in a seemingly confusing contradiction of sex roles: heterosexual and homosexual. In addition, the social roles that machos now play with these other sexes goes beyond sexual intercourse, and include – or conflate – life issues like income, progeny, and intimacy, a multi-dimensional male subjectivity that screenwriters, composers, playwrights and novelists often ignore.
The narrational formula, while based on Philippine socio-gendered norms, exists within a phantasmatic world that privileges the heterosexist patriarchal values among the dominant lowland Christian Filipinos of the islands of Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. What it often hides is the uncertain status of the macho itself as a potentially hegemonized group. When the macho ’bad guys‘ (often corrupt politicians, rural warlords, and police/military officials), enter into violent role relations with the macho hero, the ethical dialectic of ’good triumphing over evil,‘ is realized. Nevertheless, it is one that is populated primarily by men. Women are restricted to mostly supporting characters. Yet they can also exert potentially emasculating power through the leading lady who is married-to-the-hero as a kumander, that is, as the hen-pecking dominating female partner of the household, who constantly dismantles the macho‘s social status through her assertion of the man‘s devotion to herself, the surrender of macho–derived income for family expenditures, and to his penance-like acceptance of menial household chores (doing the laundry being an especially humiliating category of macho labor).
The willingness to expand the macho‘s sexual availability to encompass the third term of the sexual binary between masculine ’top‘ and feminine ’bottom‘ may be traced to the ’macho dancer‘ films of Lino Brocka and Mel Chionglo, a depiction of the seedy world of the gay bar sex worker that has broken the spell on the macho‘s imagined hold on heterosexual stability, and has opened the gates to an understanding of the complex sexual relationships that the urban macho often has to contend with. Dethroned from a position of uncontested dominance, the macho is now one party of a three-way relationship that configures the male‘s desirability (hence, his stability) as the masculine partner, or papa/jowa in the Philippines‘s gay language called ’swardspeak.‘ This capacity of being ’on top,‘ however, is negotiated by the ability of the feminine ’bottoms‘ to provide various incentives for the male, such as money, companionship, and social support. These incentives form the vital series of ’intertextualities‘ that stabilize the configuration of the macho as ’male insertive,‘ and prevents the emergence of its abjected double, the ’true homosexual.‘ Hence, the macho is both ’heterosexual‘ and ’bisexual‘ at the same time, both terms being supplied separately by its two ’bottomed‘ partners.
This sexual confusion could be clarified if we take a look at the resulting social roles: women would have male partners that complete a socio-sexual union, and provide her with children; gays would have a masculine lover from whom they could derive pleasure as ’effeminate men-loving real men;‘ and men could assert their sexual dominance as males, while gaining a family (with women), social and economic distinction (with gays), and companionship (with both). Thus, the desires of all three ’partners‘ are fulfilled, for in engaging with homosexual sex acts, the macho seems to assure the woman that his fidelity to her is assured, while his own continuation with a heterosexual liaison, and the participation in family life also reassures the male of his own masculinity, a masculinity that is reinforced by his sexual relations with the gay. A hybrid version of the classical Greek pederast system, this ’tripartite‘ socio-sexual relationship ultimately privileges a stable familial development that allows sexual ’deviance‘ some recourse, without necessarily ostracizing its practitioner.
Reuben Ramas Cañete is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of Art Studies, University of the Philippines at Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines. An artist, writer, and curator, his current academic concerns revolve around manifestations of masculinity in the Philippine visual culture.