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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Context Of Jessica Vs. Vice

"Mare! Kamusta na...Grabe, ang laki ng tinaba mo, ha?" (How are you, friend?...My, you've gotten really fat, haven't you?)

This is a "standard" greeting we use when we see old-time friends (or should it be "frenemies"?). This is also the cultural context that I think we are all failing to consider in the current debacle between GMA-7 news anchor Jessica Soho and ABS-CBN comedian Vice Ganda.

(Courtesy of

As this is now all over the news (and tellingly, ABS-CBN is keeping mum), I came across an interesting (albeit older) article in Science Blogs about what jokes reveal. What the article comes up with is that (1) not all jokes are universally funny and (2) there is an in-group that a joke caters to, and those without the "particular assumptions, experiences and contexts" will fail to find the humor. (The underlying assumption is also that the joke teller is a member or identifies with the in-group.)

In discussing Vice's remarks about Jessica, it might be useful to separate them into two distinctive parts: those that pertain to Jessica's weight, and those that refer to rape.

(Courtesy of

The opening I used (ang laki ng tinaba mo) is an indication of what we deem to be acceptable as a greeting, comment, or "free-for-all" to pick on. We need not look further than the recent elections, where senator-elect Nancy Binay was, for a large part, ridiculed for the color of her skin. That Jessica is being ridiculed for her weight is a matter that is accepted culturally; the same way that an effeminate male child is shamed "acceptably" lest he becomes a full-fledged homosexual; the same way soap operas have dark colored protagonists who were supremely unhappy but managed to be triumphant and be coincidentally fair-skinned at the same time; the same way shorter people are still used as comedy fodder in variety and comedy shows.

And those that are picked on for their less-than-perfect physical attributes are supposed to take it all in as good natured fun, lest they be labeled as pikon.

In a country where how we appear matters so much more than what we truly are, these jokes about physical attributes are par for the course. It is extremely hypocritical to be chastising Vice for sounding out on his stage what we hear everyday, that certain physical configurations are to be embarrassed about, reinforced by parents, schools, classmates, friends, office mates, and vastly helped by companies that have ads that promise you can be thinner, whiter, taller.

The matter of rape is not a laughing matter. I understand why the GMA-7 reporters came to the defense of their boss, and saying that it is something you do not wish on anyone. You may ask, in what context would such a joke be permissible? Is it even possible for it to be permitted on any level, knowing the rape statistics of this country?

A few days ago, new Manila mayor Joseph Estrada was quoted as saying, "It's enough that we've had two women presidents." Was anyone indignant or angered by this statement, the same way people are now criticizing Vice unceasingly? Why is a joke causing so much anger, but when a former President says that women have a ceiling in this country, that they should be relegated to a certain place only, the silence is deafening?

Rape is about power, not sex. And in these 7,107 islands, it is women and children who largely form the powerless.

When we tell women that their only assets are their breasts and curves, what message does that send to young girls? When we compile magazine lists of "100 sexiest women" all in near-nude states, can calling it "women empowerment" conceal the fact that it is the very opposite? When our male politicians proudly parade their second, third, fourth wives, and the children they spawned from different women - and have them run for public office at the same time - why do we accept it and say "macho kasi"? When our legislators insist that all women follow a single form of family planning, one approved by an organization that hasn't been shy about its' misogynist credentials, are we not telling women they have no power over their own bodies?

Viewed against this backdrop, against a culture that systematically tells women they have no control, it becomes clearer why Vice Ganda can tell jokes that trivialize rape.

It comes from an entire culture that can afford to trivialize women, without batting an eyelash, accepting it as a given.

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