Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tempest? More Like a Drizzle

Got my November issue of Filipinas magazine and saw that the 'Bebot' video had made a cover headline. Of course, FilMag is coming to the party a little late, as this 'controversy' has been swirling around the Internet for a few months now, and seems to have pretty much died down. I hadn't paid much attention to the brouhaha myself--I first saw the open letter that 13 academics had signed on to accusing the Black Eyed Peas' 'Bebot' video of being degrading to Pinays and thought it sounded a bit silly and tired--until I read the FilMag article, but I find the whole situation rather amusing from my unique 'insider-outsider' position.

Why 'insider-outsider'? I'm Pinay (born in the US) and I happen to know or know of a few of the people who signed the letter. I'm college-educated (UC Berkeley cum laude 1995), consider myself a feminist and radical activist, and have been tangentially involved in Filipino-American politics for the last ten years or so. I've 'been there done that' when it comes to protesting 'stereotypical' representations of people of color, women, etc. I also love to dance salsa, reggaeton, even hip-hop and go to clubs every so often. Lastly, I work at an organization that works mostly with high school-age youth, so I know from firsthand experience what young people are listening to, dancing to, and wearing these days.

I actually didnt' see the 'Bebot' video until today, when I was compelled to finally see what all the fuss was about. And I have to admit, I kept waiting for the 'offensive', 'degrading' images of Pinays to appear. Maybe I've spent too much time outside academia and in the real world, or maybe I've been desensitized by the much more raunchy lyrics and images I hear and see in other hip-hop music and videos, but I didn't see what the big deal was. The video just looked like a bunch of Pinoys at a party. The girls weren't super-scantily dressed by regular rap-video standards--which I admit are pretty low, but I've seen 40-year-old women at salsa clubs wear less than what some of those young Pinays were wearing. I didn't see any crazy grinding and lapdancing happening in the video, which seems to be par for the course in other rap videos nowadays. There were even b-girls doing their thing, not wearing bikinis like they might in a Jay-Z video but wearing jeans and t-shirts. And I didn't see any close-up booty-shots of Pinays in butt-hugging Daisy Dukes.

All in all, it looked a little bit like a scene out of 'The Debut', with more of a hip-hop/urban edge. I don't think anyone would call that movie degrading to Pinays. Maybe a little mainstream and 'stereotypical' in its portrayal of 'good Filipino girls', yes, but degrading? I don't think so.

I still don't get what the fuss was all about, or why the Black Eyed Peas and their supporters even felt the need to respond to the 13 academics. Does 13 people publishing an open letter about a music video that maybe a few milion people have seen and probably like or didn't even think twice about merit being called a 'tempest' as the Filipinas Magazine called it? Was this really a 'storm of controversy'?

The letter actually reminded me a lot of feminists like Andrea Dworkin who think porn and Playboy and really, anything remotely sexual, are the most vile things on the planet. I disagree. While I agree with the academics that Pinays are portrayed in degrading and over-sexualized ways in the majority of mainstream American media, I also think that it's okay to show Pinays dancing in a club with their bellies bared and not be degrading them. Their rhetoric almost borders on being puritanical, and since I know these folks are educated Fil-Ams, I doubt that their concerns regarding this video are moralistic in a Catholic way.

It's funny, because when I went to Cuba, the women and girls there dress very provocatively (more provocatively than in the 'Bebot' video, for sure), but at the same time are empowered with accessible and free birth control and reproductive health options that keep them more in control of their bodies and their sexuality than many Third World women. Also, beauty wasn't limited to only skinny or light-skinned women, but women of all body types and skin colors. Sexuality and sensuality between men and women is very open and normal in Cuban society, where men winking or whistling at women is common and not simply a sign of 'degradation.' That experience taught me that just because a woman was being seen as a sexual being didn't mean she was being degraded. I wonder if we'll ever get to that enlightened place in this country, or at least in the Filipino-American community. I'm not holding my breath for that moment, though.

All this is to say is that I still don't get what all the fuss is about. I like the song, I like the video (although I liked the original 'Generation One' version better for its portrayal of Filipino manongs in Stockton), and that's about it. Does it play into the American male fantasy of the docile, oversexualized Pinay? Probably, but so do non-scantily clad young Pinays walking down the street together. I don't think this video contributes to that stereotype in a gross way. Does that stereotypical image exist? Of course. If people want to change the fact that images of scantily clad, booty-shaking women are part of music labels' commercial formula for hip-hop music videos, by all means go ahead and do so. But send your protest letter to the people with power--the music labels--not the artists, who in this case had wanted a different video, one with more political overtones, shown in the first place.

Maybe folks should spend more time trying to make images of Pinays that they feel are positive rather than just criticizing others for trying to do the same. Or making sure that all women have access to economic and sexual health choices that give them the option to be sexual or not, with whomever they want.

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