Bebot videos: feminist critiques

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Generation One - Male Dancers
Generation One

by erin pangilinan and krystle ignacio

In July, Allan Pineda Lindo, a.k.a. Ap (Black Eyed Peas) or Apl, made a significant contribution to the Pilipino community. Funded independently from their record label, Interscope Records, Apl, together with his music group--The Black Eyed Peas, embarked on making not one, but two videos for the song “Bebot” from 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.” The videos, directed by Pilipino American (PilAm) director, Patricio Ginelsa, (“the Apl song,” The Debut, Lumpia) are meant to introduce a positive representation of Pilipinos/PilAms into the mainstream media and instill PilAm pride. The videos aired on youtube and received comments that would indicate to Interscope Records that there is a present demand from an audience. MTV, VH1, and other music channels were willing to give the video airplay based on this similar need.

The first video, called “Generation One,” set in historical “Little Manila” located in Stockton, CA during the 1930s. The video intended to showcase Little Manila Foundation, which is in need of $2 million to build a museum and cultural center to restore the surviving buildings of this historic town. The second video, “Generation Two,” also attempts to celebrate Pilipino pride, but exists to appeal to the masses. In effect, it fits in with the majority of popular hip hop videos in the mainstream media today 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 (written by academics, independent scholars, and writers) regarding what some felt were shortcomings and criticisms of the videos was put into circulation for people to read over the internet and e-mail. The open letter signers included: Lucy Burns (Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies / World Arts and Cultures, UCLA), Fritzie De Mata (Independent scholar), Diana Halog (Undergraduate, UC Berkeley), Veronica Montes (Writer), Gladys Nubla (Doctoral student, English, UC Berkeley), Barbara Jane Reyes, (Poet and author), Joanne L. Rondilla (Doctoral candidate, Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley), Rolando B. Tolentino (Visiting Fellow, National University of Singapore (Associate Professor, University of the Philippines Film Institute), Benito Vergara (Asian American Studies / Anthropology, San Francisco State University). Later, other academics requested to add their signature to the open letter. The open letter is directed to Apl (Jeepney Records), director Patricio Ginelsa (KidHeroes), and Xylophone Films.

One of the major claims the letter focused on was a scene of the “Generation Two” video, which “utilized restricting stereotypes of Pilipina women” like “the whore” and “the shrill mother.” An excerpt from the open letter read, “The mother character was also particularly troublesome, but for very different reasons. 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.” Vietnamese American dancer in the videos, James “Slim” Dang thinks differently. “The open letter discusses the exaggerated Filipino 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.” According to Ginelsa, he did not direct the mother (a comedian) to use accent. The accent was improvised. Ginelsa said, “It’s not just my vision you see on the screen. It’s also the musicians as well as actors and actresses they’re not just robots. You gotta understand that a lot of people read in this too much. It’s a music video you know?”

Hypersexualized images of Pilipinas
An excerpt from the open letter are views expressing that they were “utterly dismayed by the portrayal of hypersexualized Filipina “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. According to the letter, “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.”UC Berkeley student and dancer in the videos, Elisa Estrera thought that Pilipina women had more agency in the video, “…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 Filipina women for the sake of gaining mainstream popularity within the United States. Given the already horrific representations of Filipinas 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 Filipina/os in the United States, because we assume that you also consider such stereotypes offensive to Filipino men as well as women.” To this, Dang responded by saying, “…you can’t expect a short music video to represent a whole culture—just a subset of it.” In response to other critics for the need to have accurate representations of Pilipinos on a global scale, Ginelsa said, “That’s throwing a lot of responsibility for a music video. You gotta understand that this is just one example...It’s five minutes.

Open letter signer, Joanne Rondilla, thought that the positive roles for women in the video were non-existent. “The women are just so absent. You can’t have women in the video, but not 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 fall behind.” She expressed the dominant narrative of Pilipino male labor in PilAm history showed itself in the “Generation One” video. Even though there were historical facts proving Pilipina women’s existence, that they too were present as asparagus farm workers in Stockton (which had an imbalanced gender ratio between few Pilipina women with the bachelor society of Pilipino men), women were not highlighted in the “Generation One” video. Males opened and ended the videos. Rondilla was more concerned about the “Generation Two” video. Rondilla said, “I thought that what was missing, especially from a lot of the women, were these touches that let me know that Pilipinas are substantial and that they play bigger roles than just kind of dancing next to Apl, dancing next to the Jeepney. I understand commercial concerns and the way sex sells. But they didn’t have these touches that would tell me ‘oh women are part of this story’ and women were a part of your vision too.” She also thought that more Pilipino men were able to relate to the video because of the wide range of types of Pilipino men in the videos and that there should be broader representation of Pilipina women in the videos.

Rondilla said, “I don’t think it’s such a huge demand for having different skin tones on Pilipinos or different body types…Generation Two video is you see a lot of like--it’s almost like your watching import models. 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. In trying to get into mainstream media, I don’t think it’s wrong to be who we are. I don’t think it’s wrong to ask that we represent ourselves in the multitude of skin colors or in the multitude of body types we come in. I think…a lot of men, especially in “Generation Two,” defend the video, largely because they see themselves in the video, they see people that they relate to because there’s so many different men in the video. So when you look at the woman, there’s only one specific, a very specific kind of woman in the video, so asking for full spectrum representation I don’t think that request is unreasonable. I think that’s something we have to agree on. I think it’s something we have to demand of ourselves.”

Most of the dancers and background talent in the videos were volunteers due to the budget constraints. They also brought and wore their own clothes.

Ginelsa was initially shocked and pained when first reading the open letter. “Anyone who knows me knows how much I care about the community. To come from it internally, 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.

Rondilla emphasized, “The impact of the letter, when we wrote it, we didn’t want to insult or hurt anybody. It was really about posing a set of questions posing a set of challenges, that companies like KidHeroes and Xylophone Films have. It’s also about Pilipino media in general and really about posing these questions and hopefully starting for debate. It wasn’t about breaking down anybody and for me the greatest disservice is not to pose questions to the community. We’re not doing ourselves a favor by kind of biting our tongues about certain things. That’s why we thought the letter was important.” Ginelsa cried, “People are misreading this open letter, initially people aren’t reading it. People immediately think it’s attacking me literally, when in reality they’re telling me what they have problems with. It’s their one reading of the video and they want to make sure that in any of my future projects that I’m aware of this issue. My response to that is I’m aware of the issue, I’ve always known of this issue. I’m not saying ‘oh we hate the video, we hate Patricio.’ I thinks that’s what/how people are misreading the letter. That’s reason why I have a problem with the letter. By putting it in the public first, you’re already now open for other people to misread the letter…The open letter killed any chance for this video to be on MTV. It denied other people to see it.” Rondilla said that the signers 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 to gain airplay. “If there’s anything I think people misconstrued [it’s that] people think that we kind of waged war on them.” Rondilla reemphasized that they did not intend to hurt the campaign. “But it wasn’t that, because if we really wanted to wage war on them, we would have called for a boycott, we would have spread it more widely which we didn’t…I didn’t think it was going to be newsworthy.”

Others feel that when the videos are meant to unify the PilAm community, this issue tears the PilAm community apart internally. But Rondilla did not expect this large of a response to the open letter. “I know for me, I didn’t think this would be the entity that it became. I thought people would read it, put in their two cents worth and leave it. I didn’t think of it as hindering any kind of campaign or anything like that. In an e-mail I sent to Patricio, I told him ‘Far more people are going to watch your video, far more people take interest in this. Not a lot of people are going to pay attention to this letter’ …I still don’t see how it may have hindered the campaign.”

Others point to other PilAm or hip hop artists as worse misogynists claiming it is easy to use Apl as a scapegoat for flawed representations of PilAms, because he is a prominent figure in the mainstream eye.

Rondilla expressed that she respects Apl, who is clear about his identity and unashamed to be Pilipino compared to other artists would “be in denial until they find it marketable.” She also explained the reason why she did not call out other PilAm artists who perform songs with sexually explicit lyrics like Cassie or Nicole from the Pussycat dolls. “They’re not running on the platform of ‘I am Pilipino’, running on platform of Pilipino pride. But then again it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye on them or it doesn’t mean that we should accuse them. Anyone should pay attention to the letter, anyone who is kind of involved in that kind of media should pay attention to the critique.” Ginelsa claimed that the reason why Apl became a scapegoat is because “it’s so rare of representations of us in the mainstream so anything that comes out that represents our culture, they’re very protective of it. As I am.” He said this influenced his drive to create the video. “The reason why I worked so hard, 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.”

More types of representation needed
The open letter signers were puzzled with the Bebot videos given their good track record with Xylophone Films, who edited “the Apl song” video, which showcased the WWII Filipino Veterans’ struggle for full benefits. Xylophone Films is a community organization that creates videos for other independent PilAm artists. What are needed in the mainstream media are more types of representation for PilAms let alone any type of representation of PilAms in the U.S. mainstream media in general.