I think its safe to say most people only care about politics and government some of the time, but not most of the time. But most everyone likes leafing through glossy magazines to look at bikini-clad beauties and buffed male models. Bulging biceps and ample busoms are reproduced, much larger than life-sized, in billboards on our main roads. If in the past, we idolized heroes, today we worship celebrities. Whether its movie stars, or singers, or fashion models, we aspire to be, what they are: gorgeous, famous, and we like to think, rich.
But who we consider attractive, and why, says a lot about us –and can tell us some things we might not otherwise know. Our changing standards of beauty, is our topic for tonight.
I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.
I. Face value
What’s fashionable, what’s beautiful, what’s attractive and thus, desirable, often tells us who really matters in a society.
Take a look at this picture.
It shows the beauties selected in the 1939 Philippines Exposition. From left to right, Estrella Fabon, Miss Luzon; Iluminada Tuason, Miss Philippines; Adela Planas, Miss Visayas; and Herminia Cajulis, Miss Mindanao.
I think you’ll agree with me that this is an interesting picture, because these ladies aren’t necessarily the types we’d consider beauty titlist material today.
Before the Philippine Exposition, the big social event of the prewar years was the Manila Carnival, and again, take a look at the Beauty Queens from those days.
Clarita Tan Kiang, Miss Philippines in the Manila Carnival of 1934;
Mercedes Montilla, Manila Carnival Queen of 1936.
And there’s Chit Zaldirriaga-
And Helen Bennet.
Take a look, too, at those considered society beauties in the 1930s:
Lourdes de las Alas;
And my grandfather’s favorite dancing partner, the movie actress Amparo Caragdag.
Now what these ladies more often than not, have in common is that besides looks, it was their pedigree that mattered, unless they were movie stars in an industry still in its infancy.
To an older generation, many of these names were famous because they represented combined wealth, political pedigrees, or both.
The ultimate exemplar of how beauty was tied to family, political influence, is of course, Imelda Romualdez Marcos: a beauty queen in her own right, but also, from a prominent political family. She was, in a sense, the last of the prewar model of beauty: the competition involved the already-prominent. Today, it’s the competition that makes a model or actress, famous.
Think of it this way:
Luna’s “La Bulaquena” remains a model of 19th century beauty. But why? This lady was from a prominent family, the same that would later produce Senator Soc Rodrigo; painted by an artist himself from the upper crust.
In contrast, this painting by Amorsolo represents another kind of Filipina beauty –but who knows her name?
And also –for an older generation, their tastes contained an element of desiring, or appreciating, the foreign. Rizal’s greatest love –or at least the love he married was who?
A mestiza named Josephine Braken.
But there’s a sinister side to our assumptions about beauty.
In the 1990s, I was surprised to hear from a friend studying at the Ateneo, that one of my dad’s essays was discussed in one of her classes. I asked her, which one? And she said it was an essay of his titled “Philippine Racism.” It had been published in the Philippine Graphic on November 2, 1966 –long before either my friend or I were born. That’s a pretty long useful life for an essay, don’t you think?
Now we’ll be putting the whole essay on line in our blog, but Explainee, could I ask you to read two extracts from it?
The first extract I’d like to share with all of you concerns a question we may often take for granted. What do you consider attractive? And is what you find attractive, a kind of self-hate?
Here’s the observation he made in 1966:
Do we look down on ourselves? Let us see.
From the standpoint of beauty, what do we consider a handsome man or a beautiful woman? Filipino features and Filipino coloring—a good, healthy brown—never attract admiration among us.
A light-skinned man or woman with Filipino features will be called, respectively “simpatico” or “simpatica.” A dark-skinned person with more or less good Caucasian feature may be called good-looking kaya lang maitim.
A fair-skinned person with mediocre or rather good Caucasian features will immediately be called maganda. It is still common to hear “mestizo” used as a synonym for good-looking. “Ay, mestizong-mestizo” is supposed to be a compliment.
Our movie-idols—excepting the comedians, of course, who are not expected to be good-looking—are really all mestizo types, light-skinned.
Leopoldo Salcedo was in his day a notable exception, since he was dark, but his features, particularly his high nose, had a strong Caucasian cast.
Why, it is almost necessary not to look like one’s own countrymen in order to be considered good-looking by them!
-Manuel L. Quezon, Jr.
Explainee –and I’d like to ask you, our audience, to reflect on the same thing- what do you think about that passage? Does it still hold true?
Personally, I think my father’s observations made in the 1960s still hold true to a certain extent –but also, our tastes have evolved.
Let me show you some studio publicity photos of actors from the era in which this essay was written.
Here’s Leopoldo Salcedo…
And here are many more:
Some of them are still with us.
But if star power is ultimately defined by drawing power, then the biggest star of them all, from the 30s to the early 60s, was Rogelio de la Rosa. Here he is…
Explainee, I don’t know if you’ve seen our previous episodes where we mentioned him. He was the first movie actor elected to the Senate. Explainee, he’s not Moreno by any means, is he?
Now what I’d like to ask you, Explainee –and again, I hope you, our audience will reflect on this as well- is whether today you’d find these actors representative of your collective tastes.
Here are some more publicity shots, from the same era. This time, they’re of the female stars.
There was the classic Caucasian beauty of Gloria Romero…
Or take a look at Susan Roces…
And Amalia Fuentes.
And so many, many more:
You may have noticed, though, that one star with a difference wasn’t in this group. She was a star whose Malay looks were at first an obstacle, than an advantage, in moviedom.
I’m talking about Nora Aunor.
But even if you assume that Nora Aunor eliminated the stigma against Malay looks, and that her success opened the door for the famous beauties of the 1970s:
Such as Hilda Coronel…
I think we have to ask ourselves: what may have no obstacle to stardom for Nora Aunor might still be an obstacle for everyone else.
Which brings us to the second extract from my father’s essay on Filipino racism, that I’d like to ask you to read, Explainee.
I already pointed out how it seems impossible to crash into the world of Filipino movies unless one fits in with the popular prejudices regarding good looks. Receptionists and other office personnel seem to be selected also with more than a mere glance in the direction of our social preconceptions.
More and more I think I notice the same process at work in the more expensive restaurants, night clubs, stores, etc., although the process is, naturally, less rigorous.
Still, it is disturbing to think that, possibly, someone who needed the job just as badly or even worse may not have gotten it because of his more definitely Filipino appearance.
Which brings me to the last observation I wish to make on the subject: I believe we generally expect the less average-looking Filipino to be more intelligent than the rest. This is a much more subtle mental connection and much more difficult to prove, but I think it is there. If it is there—and I believe it is—it is a sign that we consider ourselves to be less intelligent as a race than lighter skinned ones. This of course reaches the heights—or the depths—of absurdity.
-Manuel L. Quezon, Jr.
Explainee, do you still think this observation from 1966 remains valid, or not? And do you think that underlying assumption still exists, or not?
During the break, I leave you, ladies and gentlemen, to chew on this thought. When we return, a practical demonstration on our changing standards of beauty.
II. Eye Candy Evolution
Over the summer, you surely noticed all the billboards for the Mossimo Bikini Summit. This is just one example of how modeling is big business and in a sense, a major pastime for the public. Chances are you, your co-workers, or your kids, spend a lot of time on line, neither reading, nor working, but rather, looking.
And with a real drool-o-rama like their site –and here it is:
Filipinos everywhere can spend many happy hours looking at their favorite female-
Models, or both. You can even get print-outs of your favorite contestants from Netopia. But here’s the interesting thing. The variety in types among the models.
Now we’re not showing gratuitous bikini pictures to boost ratings, but rather to emphasize a point.
If, in the past, Mestizo was king-
And somehow, Moreno became marvelous-
Now, they say, Chinito is in-
Why is that?
With us tonight is a special guest, Audie Espino, the head honcho in Calcary’s. He’s here to tell you and me everything we wanted to know about modeling –but were afraid to ask.
Audie, I see you’ve brought pictures. What are these pictures supposed to tell us?
…When we return, we’ll be asking Audie Espino why it is, Filipino models aren’t more prominent in international fashion.
Beauty, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder. There are clichés aplenty to express this, whether it’s to each their own, or whatever floats your boat. But there’s a point where personal preference might become the breeding ground of prejudice, and the facilitator of discrimination.
Look good, feel good. That is the motto of our times. A bellhop, as he carried my bags, once pointed to an American in the company of a Filipina, and said, “you know, I don’t understand those Americans. They’re attracted to Filipinas I wouldn’t even consider attractive.”
What he said, I’d wager, holds true for most Filipinos. And with that observation comes the revelation of an underlying assumption: that our own collective standards are somehow superior, to the standards of the foreigner. But the irony is, of course, that our standards would consider the foreigner as the one who’s attractive, but the foreigner’s attraction to some of our fellow Filipinos is, to us, funny, if not downright strange.
But it just might be, that the foreigner is the one less bigoted, less prejudiced, more open-minded than the Filipinos who smile at the foreigner and his girlfriend, only to whisper and make fun of them the moment their backs are turned.