Once again, Malacañang’s spokespersons had it wrong, commenting on the Madam Secretary episode before they even saw it, putting it into question for whatever it was that they were told it contained: a fictional Philippine President who’s punched in the face by the fictional US Secretary of State, for having made a sexual advance at her.
That image, of a Philippine President, nose bleeding from the punch made the rounds, and of course the President’s propagandists and his spokespersons went on overdrive defending him. But that’s the thing with fiction: you can’t even prove it was President Duterte they were talking about.
In fact, to an extent, it wasn’t at all about him or this fictional President. It’s about how America deals and engages with the Philippines. And that’s always an important conversation to have.
Fictionalizing the President
The context of the narrative of America finally getting territorial power in Asia, a major achievement given China – the cooperation of which they are hopeful about getting as well. The Philippines, a long-term ally, remains as a critical part of gaining this power.
President Andrada of the Philippines has gained notoriety, for being a “psycho” – campaigning for President by dressing up and mimicking his opponents, appearing in kickboxing clothes to challenge to a fight. He is a businessman. He is populist. He is narcissist. He is erratic. He is self-absorbed.
Half the time it seemed like they were talking about Trump.
On TV, Andrada is anti-imperialist America. Speaking with the US Secretary of State, he invokes the history of America buying the Philippines from Spain, and he’s ready to already end the relationship.
But also he negotiates. Once military planes are dangled in his face by America, Andrada changes his tone, ready to stay in the relationship, never mind his anti-imperialist stance.
The shift in rhetoric is all that seems familiar.
Realities of politics
What was real to me was the fact that the US was afraid. Once the relationship between PH-US falls apart, and Andrada decides to rid the Philippines of all US military agreements, they start talking about the Philippines’ pivot to China, and it is obviously reason for anxiety. Without the Philippines, there will be no real way of gaining control over Asia.
This brings to light another layer to US-PH relations, where America could feel comfortable speaking in confidence with a General Purisima, a military official who speaks to the US President and the Secretary of State, about the discontent within government and the ranks of the military, and how it is possible to assassinate the President. The fictional Vice President Navarro is apparently pro-America, and wouldn’t pivot to China. The death of President Andrada would mean a return to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the US and the Philippines.
This part of it, while fiction, captures the reality of local politics. It is rare that we do not feel the imperialist hand in our affairs. It would be delusional of us to imagine that spouting anti-US rhetoric will be easy to listen to for a nation that is unapologetically pro-America, quite happy with the little brown brother status.
But we are also being reminded that shifting from one imperialist power to another is not at all a fight or struggle for independence. It is merely a shifting of loyalties and allies – in this case from the US to China, and that comes with its own baggage, too.
The men on the US team think the assassination is a solution. The Secretary of State thinks otherwise. Find other skeletons in his closet, there must be another way.
When those skeletons are found by the US and they dangle it in front of the PH President, the latter says that the Filipino people will never believe those skeletons. That the Filipino people will not believe allegations that he has sold out the Philippines, because he is so damn popular.
Yeah, that part sounds familiar.
What I found most interesting about this show’s take on the Philippines and its fictionalized unconventional president is that the crisis in US-PH relations actually comes to a head because President Andrada sexually assaults the US Secretary of State. Turning her back to him to get documents from her bag, he comes up behind her and grabs her ass.
She turns around and throws a punch. She breaks his nose.
It is difficult not to cheer.
And it is also difficult to watch, realizing that when men in power are the ones who are engaged in sexual abuse, even women in power will be forced to think twice about what to do: speak or fall silent? Even for a woman as powerful as this fictional US Secretary of State, silence will mean failing all the other women that this same man has abused. Speaking will mean repercussions that are beyond just the self, but which will also be about the bigger picture: fictional Elizabeth has to think about US-PH relations, real women would be thinking about their families and their safety, they would be thinking about staying alive, after already suffering in the hands of men so powerful, their indiscretions and abuse will be swept under the rug.
We are reminded that these men will not be criticized. That populism will dictate that they will be protected by “the people,” whoever those people are who believe press releases and propaganda. No victims will speak, few will survive.
Is it too close to reality? Sure. All the best fiction is.
Is it about the Philippines in the time of President Duterte? You be the judge.
Published in The Manila Times, 16 March 2017.