Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bebot Videos: Feminist Critiques

This is from hardboiled, a magazine from UC Berkeley. The article can be found here.

Bebot Videos: Feminist Critiques

by erin pangilinan and krystle ignacio

In July, Allen Pineda Lindo a.k.a. of Black Eyed Peas fame, helped make a huge contribution to the Pilipino community. Funded independently of their record label, Interscope Records, the music group embarked on making not one but two videos for the song "Bebot" rom their 2005 album "Monkey Business." The lyrics of "Bebot" are completely versed in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Bebot translates into "beautiful woman" or more loosely "hot chick." With Pilipino American (PilAm) director Patricio Ginelsa, who has directed music videos to tracks like "The Apl Song," "The Debut," and "Lumpia," the videos are meant to introduce a positive representation of Pilipinos/PilAms into the mainstream and instill PilAm pride.

Unlike with most tracks, there are actually two music videos for "Bebot." The videos showcase the generation gap for PilAms. The first video, called "Generation One," is set in historical "Little Manila" located in Stockton, California, during the 1930s. The story depicts the average day of Pilipino asparagus farmers who work hard during the day and party for a night on the town. Elaborate costumes and backgrounds give viewers a sense of what life was like as a Pilipino immigrant during that period. The video also intended to raise awareness of the Little Manila Foundation, which is in need of $1.5 million to build a museum for recently restored buildings of the historic town.

The second video, "Generation Two," also celebrates Pilipino pride, but primarily appeals to a more modern crowd. In effect, it fits in with the majority of popular hip-hop videos in the mainstream media with sure-hit selling points: glamour and sex. This is where the controversy begins and some people start getting upset.

In September 2006, a month after the release of the videos, an open letter criticizing the videos for perceived cultural shortcomings was put in circulation for people to read. Other academics requested to add their signature to the open letter. The open letter is directed to the artist, director Patricio Ginelsa, and Xylophone Films, the group who helped produced the videos.

The open letter claimed that the video utilized restricting stereotypes of Pilipina women like "the whore and the shrill mother." An excerpt from the open letter reads, "The mother character was also particularly troublesome...She seems to play a dehumanized figure, the perpetual foreigner with her exaggerated accent, but on top of that, she is robbed of her femininity in her embarrassingly indelicate treatment of her son and his friends. She is not like a tough or strong mother, but almost like a coarse asexual mother, and it is telling that she is the only female character in the video with a full figure."

James "Slim" Dang, a Vietnamese American dancer and a participant in the video, does not agree with the signatories’ comments, noting the difficulties to encapsulate ethnic identities: "The open letter discusses the exaggerated [Pilipino] accent of the mother. What if they replace it with a perfect English accent? I know some people are proud of their accents. By getting rid of your accent, you might be destroying part of your cultural identity."

"[You] can’t expect a short music video to represent a whole culture—just a subset of it," Dang added. Ginelsa did not direct the mother (a comedian) to use an accent. The entire scene was improvised.

The signatories of the letter expressed that they were "utterly dismayed by the portrayal of hyper-sexualized Pilipina ‘hoochie-mama’ dancers, specifically in the Generation 2 version, the type of representation of women so unfortunately prevalent in today's hip-hop and rap music videos. The depiction of the 1930s ‘dime dancers’ was also cast in an unproblematized light, as these women seem to exist solely for the sexual pleasure of the manongs." Elisa Estrera, UC Berkeley student and dancer in the Bebot videos, emphasizes that "…some people fail to see that this is just how people (more specifically the girls) were acting and depicting themselves. There wasn’t some higher authority telling us to think and be sexy for the video or else we wouldn’t be in it…There was no wardrobe person, all the girls came dressed on their own. The girls weren’t told to do anything perverse like strip or freak a guy...the director just told everyone to have fun and act as if they were really at a party."

The open letter also expressed problems with representing Pilipina women on a global scale. "While this may sound quite harsh, we believe it is necessary to point out that such depictions make it seem as if you are selling out [Pilipina] women for the sake of gaining mainstream popularity within the United States. Given the already horrific representations of [Pilipinas] all over the world as willing prostitutes, exotic dancers, or domestic servants who are available for sex with their employers, the representation of Pinays in these particular videos can only feed into such stereotypes. We also find it puzzling, given your apparent commitment to preserving the history and dignity of [Pilipina/os] in the United States, because we assume that you also consider such stereotypes offensive to [Pilipino] men as well as women."

In response to other critics pushing for accurate representations of Pilipinos on a global scale, Ginelsa replied, "That’s throwing a lot of responsibility [on] a music video. You gotta understand that this is just one example."

Joanne Rondilla, letter signatory and UC Berkeley graduate student in Ethnic Studies, thought that the video portrayed no positive roles for women. "The women are just so absent. You can’t [have] women in the video [and] not [have them] play substantial roles there. Women can’t be decorations. And that’s what we were trying to point out. As we go towards the road to trying to get more coverage or more exposure in making culture, it has to be men and women coming into this together. It can’t just be men and then women [who] fall behind." She also thought that more Pilipino men were able to relate to the video because of the broad range of Pilipino men in the videos and that correspondingly, there should be broader representation of Pilipina women. "I don’t think it’s such a huge demand for having different skin tones on Pilipinas, different body types…[With the video] it’s almost like you’re watching import models," Rondilla argued. "That’s one very specific type of beauty or one type of aesthetic. I don’t think what we were asking for was completely unreasonable. I don’t think it’s wrong to be who we are in the multitude of skin colors and body types we come in...It’s a very specific kind of woman in the video."

Ginelsa’s initial reaction to the open letter was one of shock and pain. "Because it is coming from the community anyone who knows me knows how much I care about the community. [The criticism within the PilAm community], it hurt because these are the same issues that I was wrestling with for a full year, it was the reason why we went back and forth." Ginelsa was replaced as director and originally wrote 5-6 different versions of the video.

Ginelsa laments, "People are misreading this open letter and they want to make sure that in my future projects I’m aware of the issue. I am aware of this issue. [I’ve] always been aware of this issue... By putting [the letter] in the public first you’re already now open for other people to misread the letter. That’s the problem…The open letter killed any chance for this video to be on MTV. It denied other people to see it."

Rondilla says that the signatories of the open letter did not know about the VH1 campaign to air the video during the time it was written and circulated. The intent was not meant to affect the movement for the video. "If there’s anything people misconstrued [it’s that] people think that we waged war on them (the creators of the "Bebot" video)," Rondilla noted. If signatories really would have intended to hurt the "Bebot" video campaign, Rondilla argues that the signatories would have expressed language reflecting that such a motion. "We would have called for a boycott (of the music video), we would have read the [letter] more widely." Now that the letter is public, Rondilla claims that the letter will only help publicize the "Bebot" video. "Far more people are going to watch [the] video and take interest in this," Rondilla states. "I still don’t see how [the letter] may have hindered the campaign."

Others feel that the "Bebot" video, originally meant to unify the PilAm community will only end up tearing the PilAm community apart internally.

It is easy to use as a scapegoat for flawed representations of PilAms, because he is a prominent figure in the mainstream eye. Rondilla claimed that the reason why she did not call out other PilAm artists like hip-hop artists Cassie or Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls was because "they’re not running on the platform of I am Pilipino, running on platform of Pilipino pride." Ginelsa claims that becomes an scapegoat because "it’s so rare [to have] representations of us, so anything in the mainstream, anything that comes out that represents our culture, they’re very protective of it. As I am." He says this influenced his drive to create the video. "I was obsessed in getting this project because I wanted to get the burden of representing this video as I saw fit. In my eyes, I’m glad the video came out. I’m proud of it. I’m not going to sit here and say’ oh I only like generation one [only]’ because both videos were done by me and it has my name on it."

The open letter signers were puzzled with the Bebot videos, given the quality of previous releases from Xylophone Films, a community organization that creates videos for other independent PilAm artists. What is needed in the mainstream media are more types of representation for PilAms. It is difficult to balance out the demands of the community with the demands of mainstream popularity. The "Bebot" videos facilitated discussion over what roles and stereotypes might be relevant to Pilipino Americans. and Ginelsa deserve credit for attempting to show the generation gap within Pilipino culture. At the same time, people must remain cognizant and (continue to) participate in future discourse concerning the state of the PilAm community and the importance of media portrayals.

With a greater number of PilAm artists hitting the mainstream airwaves, it is crucial for current and future generations to realize that images go a long way towards advancing - or stigmatizing- an entire group of people.


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