Image courtesy of Nicole Curato

Philippines beyond clichés series 1 #1: Celebrity culture

If you’ve ever spent a lunchtime hanging around a local cafe or salon on the Philippines during the midday lull, you’ll have seen some of the kind of daytime live audience TV shows that gather huge fan bases in that country. But is this just stupid celebrity culture?

In this first episode in New Mandala’s second podcast series Philippines beyond clichés, Associate Professor Anna Christina Pertierra at Western Sydney University speaks to Nicole Curato from the University of Canberra about television entertainment and celebrity culture, revealing how this important field of study can tell us more about the perpetuation and performance of inequality, injustice and power dynamics in broader society. You’ll find the transcript for their conversation below.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing five more episodes in this series, so stay tuned for more fascinating insights into the Philippines beyond the clichés.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Nicole Curato [NC]: Hi, Anna. Welcome to Canberra!

Anna Cristina Pertierra [ACP]: [00:03] Hi, thank you very much for having me.

NC: Right, I’m super excited with this podcast because we’re discussing a topic that’s not always considered a serious topic of scholarly research but I think your entire body of work actually proves that we have to take a close and serious look at celebrity cultures in the Philippines. And earlier, we were talking about how some academics, not all, have been disparaging of this research topic because it seems frivolous. So, the cliché we are trying to address today is, ‘Filipino celebrity culture is stupid.’ What are your general thoughts about this cliché?

ACP: Yeah, I mean I must say that I have not had formal written criticism of my choosing to study celebrity culture and entertainment media in the Philippines. But it’s more that socially when I meet other academics or even just educated people whether in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world, there’s often a kind of a dismissal of entertainment culture and celebrity culture as being something that is banal, that is silly, sometimes that is inappropriate. In a world where there are not many things that we can be easily judgmental of anymore, where it’s no longer usually appropriate to be an open snob, I think many people still feel quite comfortable making fairly snobbish proclamations about lowbrow culture in entertainment media.

NC: Right, and of course your take on this is as a media anthropologist, someone who’s done ethnographic work on noontime shows in the Philippines, particularly Eat Bulaga, right? So, for the uninitiated, can you give us a sense of what first of all Eat Bulaga is and why this matters as a topic of study.

ACP: Sure, well Eat Bulaga is one example of a genre, a particularly Filipino genre of media which is the noontime variety show or the noontime game show. So, this has been going on, Eat Bulaga has been broadcast for more than 30 years now in the Philippines and it’s always been a top-rating show, not necessarily the leader in its timeslot but always a dominant player in this timeslot. Other competitors have come and gone of alternative kinds of game shows and variety shows. But the basic genre involves having an ensemble cast of pop stars, actors, and comedians. Comedians are a really important part of the cast of hosts, and a live studio audience. Members of the audience will usually compete for prizes and be very active parts of the program recording, and celebrities will come and hype up their latest show. There’s a lot of singing, a lot of dancing. So, in many ways, this kind of genre harks back to the Vaudeville genre of theatre entertainment which in itself as you may know had a very strong following in the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th century. So, this kind of live interactive entertainment is a hallmark of the Philippines. And Eat Bulaga is the best example of this particular kind of entertainment.

So, I’ve always been very interested in it as a show because I grew up visiting the Philippines regularly and being struck by how constantly the program was on in the background of people’s homes. It’s on at lunchtime so people are often in the house, eating, doing housework, children are hanging around, and of course many people may not have paid work every day so they’re often kind of around with the show on. It might be on in salons, in stores, as part of the streetscape as well if a TV is playing at a streetside restaurant.

NC: Or buses or office spaces.

ACP: So, it’s a real cultural institution. People who don’t watch the show, even people who make a point of not watching the show would be very familiar with whatever the latest scandals were or whoever the latest talent was that was at the centre of the ensemble cast.

NC: And I’m right to think that this is not, or this is unique to the Philippines because I’m thinking of other counterparts in other countries. Like SNL is not the same or other game shows are not the same in different countries. This is a particular genre so I think what can we learn from the Philippines just by looking at this particular noontime show?

ACP: Well, one of the things that I’ve been interested in learning from it is the role that the celebrities who are the hosts play in their interactions with the studio audience. It’s a very interactive kind of genre and so it’s almost like a live concert but every single day it’s taping in this studio audience, the frenzy and the energy that is the hallmark of these shows is really reliant upon a very interactive relationship between the hosts and the audience. In many ways, the audience members are the real talent of the show and it’s the celebrity hosts who are the kind of facilitators of the energy that really comes from the audience. I think that is a particularly Filipino form of televisual entertainment.

NC: Yeah, I like that aspect of how the audience themselves are part of the performance and I think some other media scholars like Jonathan Ong, for example, talks about how audiences perform their suffering in these sorts of programs to secure prizes. And I really like that kind of interpretation of this genre because a lot of criticisms against the noontime show culture is that people are manipulated to take part of it, they are manipulated by big business, big media, to kind of be talents but in a way they’re just making themselves look like fools. But the alternative interpretation here is that people who actually take part in the show are very much part of the show and are active agents in constructing their stories. So, what are your thoughts since you observed this live yourself?

ACP: Well, that’s right so in our ethnographic work, I worked with a number of research assistants to sit in the noon show audiences repeatedly and we did also conduct interviews with production staff and with some of the celebrity hosts. But most of our work was sitting in the audience and sitting in the location filming sites as well, just talking to people who were observing everything that was happening and talking to members of the studio audience in different parts of the audience on different days. And we really found that people were active agents as you say, I think that’s a really useful way of describing them. They came to the show looking to generate a good time for themselves and for the camera. Because people have grown up often watching this show, they know even if they’ve never been in the studio audience exactly what is expected of them. And I think most people, almost all the people who would end up in the studio audience are very willing participants in the kind of emotional labour that goes on to create this filmed moment of entertainment. They have several hours of sitting around before the filming actually happens. They’re often a little hungry because they can’t take food into the studio, they’re often in large groups, they’ve come with friends or with colleagues, and of course the ultimate dream would be to win one of the jackpot prizes for one of the really big competitions. But there are a lot of ways in which they have fun beyond just winning the big prize. They might win a smaller prize or they might just get to take part in one of the games, they might be picked out by one of the comedians for some kind of, to poke fun at them for some reason, they might just get to see themselves on camera, have their family at home catch them on camera. So, there are a lot of different levels of engagement and enjoyment that people partake in this experience. And I would say they work very hard to get into that studio audience because most people have to line up on the street for a long time or book their tickets through a particular kind of group of excursionists way ahead of time. So, people don’t end up in the studio audience by accident. Everybody who’s there has made a big effort to be there.

NC: Right, and yeah like what you said, there’s a lot of labour that goes into getting to the studio. I mean the mere act of queuing is not an easy task. I mean any ethnographer would know that queuing is actually, it entails a lot of labour, it entails a lot of emotional investment in time and resources as well. But I think one of the criticisms here would be, alright so we understand the types of labour that goes into this but is this also a way of excusing the kinds of culture that these noontime shows perpetuate? Some would say that they are so popular because they perform traditional Filipino values, sometimes at its worst. And here I’m talking about the sexism, and I’m talking about the old-fashioned views of these male talkshow hosts about the proper behaviour of women, right? So how do you navigate that in your own work?

ACP: Well, I think these are important critiques to make and I think it’s absolutely valid for people to make commentary on the sorts of values and the sorts of behaviours that sometimes take place in these shows. Where I feel really strongly that I need to draw a line is to insist that sometimes precisely because of those debates, these sorts of TV shows are really important for us as researchers to study. So, in a more kind of traditionally political science field, of course in political elections whether in the Philippines or elsewhere, there is a lot of violence, there are great, vast inequalities, there’s a lot of oppression, there’s a lot of sexism, and racism, and elitism, and yet no political scientist would say that we should not study political culture or we should not study political elections or vote-winning campaigns, vote-buying campaigns because we are judgmental of the ways that some of those things happen. So, I think there is a lot of space to be critical of the kinds of behaviour that happen on television shows, but I do think that precisely because they perpetuate and represent and perform in many ways the kinds of inequalities and injustices that mark many aspects of Philippine society, that they’re really important for us to study.

NC: One of my favourite aspects of your work is when you make that transition or the link between fan cultures and political cultures. And you have a chapter in the Duterte Reader that actually talks about how we can understand Duterte using the lens of celebrity politics in the Philippines. And actually I remembered your work when there was this huge Duterte controversy about him in Korea kissing an overseas Filipino worker and the justification that some people say is that, ‘Well, we see this every day in noontime shows. You have audiences taunting the performer onstage to kiss the pretty woman onstage,’ and if you don’t perform that, you are a killjoy which is the worst insult anyone can receive as a performer. So, in a way, there’s this tension about what is and what should be and I think to understand what Duterte did in that precise instance is to understand the fan cultures that we see on everyday performances on television.

ACP: Yeah, I think that’s a really nice interpretation of that moment in Korea. So, thank you. But I agree that I think any politician, any charismatic politician in the Philippines has to deal with some degree to the media audience filter through which members of the public will consume them. And I think that there are different ways in which people can handle it and some politicians embrace it more than others. But certainly, Duterte, like many other politicians in the Philippines, even if they don’t happen themselves to have had a previous career as a celebrity, which perhaps we can talk about in a moment, they I think even more than in other countries, are really aware that their relationship with the crowd and with the public is built along many of the same lines that fans would build a relationship with the person they are following. And I think there are a few reasons for that. There’s a lot of individually-led politics in the Philippines. People tend to vote for star candidates, for their preferred candidate, rather than a party or an ideology. And there’s a lot of regional dynamics, as you’re well aware, that mean the people see some candidates as their candidates and other candidates as candidates who belong to other regions so there’s a lot of rivalries that really parallel the ways that fans tend to think about and be loyal to particular celebrities that they’re keen on. But this is not just really a parallel. There’s actually very strong overlaps between celebrities and politicians in the Philippines. In a much more literal way than any other place in the world that I’ve encountered. So, the fact that so many celebrities become career politicians is something that is, the degree to which that happens is unique to the Philippines.

NC: Is that right?

ACP: Yes, as far as I’m aware, maybe there’s some places that I haven’t discovered yet but I have been on the lookout and in the 2016 elections for example I think there were something like 44 candidates running for public office in those elections who were media, showbiz celebrities. And that’s not even counting the kind of established politicians who had previous careers in showbiz or in media. Especially if we want to think about having a kind of celebrity identity in a broad way to include news anchors, sports stars, and indeed the children of film stars, we can think about how many current successful politicians themselves have a background in celebrity culture.

NC: I used to be hyper-critical about this but now that I think about it, the only category of professionals that can actually compete with political dynasties are people who secure their power from celebrity politics, right? People who were able to enter the national race let’s say for the Senate are basketball players, boxing superstars, and indeed, Tito Sotto who is one of the mainstays of Eat Bulaga, right?

ACP: That’s right. So, one of the reasons I really liked Eat Bulaga as the case study for me to choose for my research is that you literally have one of the main hosts being a senator, a multiple term senator with a very high profile. And so–

NC: The senate president now, in fact.

ACP: Right, that’s right. So, it’s a very literal manifestation of an argument that people might sometimes think as more indirect or more abstract. There’s a literal conversion of viewers into voters and mobilising a mass of voters in a way that is an alternative to the kind of dynastic regional based tradition. It’s very hard to unless you have this capacity to mobilise a mass, a mediated mass following through television or through other forms of entertainment.

NC: It seems like there’s an inversion now of voters to viewers when we think about the spectacle of the Duterte regime, right?

ACP: That’s right. And I must say that Duterte is by no means the first politician in the Philippines to engage in such spectacle. Of course, we have one obvious precursor would be that President Estrada himself was a film star. But also when we think about the Marcoses and the degree to which they relied upon performance and glamour and spectacle to build their early charismatic years with a lot of popular following. I think there’s been a long history in the Philippines of politicians, whether they were actually film stars or not, behaving like film stars or trying to manifest some of the allure or the charisma, whether it’s a kind of rough strongman or is a suave or is a beautiful, glamorous kind of Imelda style. So, I think that in fact the kind of media culture of the Philippines has been strong for a long time in terms of its influencing political culture.

NC: I want to shift gears a bit and talk about your comparative work. Because I think what’s striking about your work as well is you’re comparing Philippines with Cuba and Mexico, and there is this sentiment that this is probably one manifestation of the Philippines, that we can make more reasonable comparisons about the Philippines in relation to other Latin American countries, the idea being that the Philippines is in but not of Asia. What do you think about that?

ACP: Well, I certainly am sympathetic of people who, actually I would say that I am certainly somebody who wishes we could do more comparative work between the Philippines and Latin American countries. I think specifically with Mexico, there are many historical reasons why there are really valid comparisons to make across the two countries. Even today they share many interesting features. But the Philippines itself formed part of new Spain for centuries, in a way was governed by Mexico and I suspect there is a huge amount of historical research to honour, that’s yet to be done, that some people are doing but there’s so much more to do in terms of understanding the many ways in which Philippine culture and Mexican cultures were kind of interconnected through the Galleon Trade and through political relationships and through many other forms as well. But of course in more recent periods, what the Philippines also shares with much of Latin America is their particular relationship to the United States. Here is where we really see why studying television across places like Mexico and Philippines might be useful because both places had their early histories of television play out in very similar ways. You have elite families who already have newspapers or radio stations acquiring the first licenses to broadcast television. Many of these families had been educated in the States or had close connection to US businesses and these are very commercially based TV systems so unlike the ABC or the BBC, they’re not public broadcast led, most television happens in this commercial environment and so we see very similar kinds of business structures with these family-led empires dominating and creating entertainment cultures that seem to pervade every part of everyday life, especially for a particularly important demographic of working class urban poor, sometimes thought of as the popular classes who are not only the biggest sectors of television viewers in both Mexico and the Philippines, but are also of course the people who can win or lose an election.

NC: Right. What about diasporic communities? Do you think it has shaped a lot of viewing cultures in both Mexico, the Philippines, and I guess Cuba as well?

ACP: Yeah, so Cuba is a bit of a different story because obviously with the socialist revolution, television took a very different turn there and commercial television really ended around 1960 but certainly the role of the diaspora in Philippine television is really interesting because they’re an ever-present second market for television producers in the Philippines. So, when shows are being made in the Philippines, within an hour, they can be broadcast through the channels in the diaspora and these noontime shows that we were talking about earlier are constantly broadcast on TV channels across the Philippine diaspora and many immigrants, when they return to the Philippines, will in fact make a pilgrimage to the studio audiences of these shows.

NC: Is that right? It’s one of their hotspots when they go back home?

ACP: That’s right and in fact any studio audience for any of these shows will have a section dedicated to ‘balikbayans’, to returnees, and they have posters saying what country they’re from and saying hello to their friends and family all around the world. So, it’s become a kind of media pilgrimage for many returnees. And so interestingly also in Latin America, the kind of export of television is a huge business. So, there are some interesting connections to be made there.

NC: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting, when I look at Facebook live, there’s always a comment about, ‘Hi, I’m watching from Dubai’ or ‘I’m watching from–I don’t know–Canberra.’ And I think it’s making their presence felt in these visual cultures.

ACP: That’s right and you know I think that it’s not a coincidence as well that Filipinos abroad who still have the right to vote in elections have also become an important political force and so that’s another way in which the kind of political culture and the media culture are really deeply intertwined.

NC: Well, we have a few minutes left and I think I’d like to use this time to open up more clichés or stereotypes that you wish to break about celebrity culture in the Philippines. What else did we miss?

ACP: I think one thing that I find very interesting about celebrity culture in the Philippines that perhaps pushes back against the cliché that it’s all completely sexist, that it’s all completely old-fashioned, is the interesting space that gay and trans figures occupy in celebrity culture, in entertainment media. So, a lot of the most successful comedians and hosts–not always but often–will be gay and or trans. And so, I think there’s a very interesting kind of capacity sometimes for some kind of transgression that happens especially through the comedic elements of these sorts of entertainment shows. Certainly I think that you can see leading celebrities like Vice Ganda who hosts one of the other noontime shows and who’s made a lot of films and is a comedian, telling jokes and making statements that are really much more transgressive than I would see on Australian television for example. And we’re talking about the most mainstream parts of popular media being spaces in which jokes around, that are not necessarily homophobic around gay people and trans people are taking some really interesting turns. There’s other examples as well of ways in which we can’t assume that everything that entertainment television is doing in the Philippines is only upholding the status quo. And I think one other cliché that I would like to bust around Philippine media is an assumption that it must somehow be behind the times or a legacy or something that hasn’t evolved in the way that other places have. I think for a long time, television scholars themselves were guilty of assuming that the world centres of television were places like the United States or the United Kingdom but increasingly it’s become clear that globally there are many places where innovation is happening in television and in other forms of media, and the Philippines is definitely one of those places.

NC: Oh, wow, that’s actually an interesting insight because we are now seeing a more global assertion of presence when it comes to visual cultures in the Philippines. Not just because of the diaspora but because of the cultural contribution, that’s definitely something to look forward too. Right, so in summary, Anna, Filipino celebrity culture is stupid. True or false?

ACP: False.

NC: Thank you for joining us!

ACP: Thank you very much!

More from the Philippines: Beyond the clichés

Philippines beyond clichés series 1 #2: Dynasties

Do political dynasties hold back The Philippines' economic development? Nicole Curato investigates this question with Assoc Prof Ronald Mendoza.

Philippines beyond clichés series 1 #3: Tough on crime

Nicole Curato talks to Clarke Jones about what the 'tough on crime' mentality looks like from inside the Philippine prison system.

Philippines beyond clichés series 1 #3: Tough on crime

Nicole Curato talks to Clarke Jones about what the 'tough on crime' mentality looks like from inside the Philippine prison system.