Vice Ganda: Gender, Class, And Race Through The Lens Of A Homosexual Protagonist

Vice Ganda is arguably the top movie star in contemporary Filipino cinema – for the past several years, he has been hailed as the Phenomenal Box Office Star by the Guillermo Mendoza Memorial Awards. One after another, he beats his own record in setting the bar for the highest-grossing Filipino film, from Praybeyt Benjamin, to Sisterakas, to Girl Boy Bakla Tomboy, to Beauty and the Bestie.

The Filipino audience seems to love his brand of quick-witted comedy that he also uses in his TV shows, songs, and concerts. This so-called comedy bar humor has already crossed over to the mainstream. And, for the time being, it’s here to stay.

The ironic thing is, Vice Ganda’s characters embody deviances that are usually maligned by society – he’s a flambouyant, cross-dressing, flirtatious, sexualized, loud-mouthed homosexual man who mostly assumes feminine gender roles. Yet movie goers support the kind of character they usually discriminate in real life.

In this post, we’ll try to problematize three of Vice Ganda’s films – Praybeyt Benjamin (PB), This Guy’s In Love With You Mare (Guy’s), and Girl Boy Bakla Tomboy (GBBT) – in the hopes of revealing its underlying messages on race, class, and gender.

Snow White And The Barrage Of Insults

In GBBT, Mark’s (Vice Ganda) mother Lea (Maricel Soriano) adopts four children – one of which is dark-skinned, curly-haired Snow White (Kiray Celis). Snow White is the butt of jokes in the movie – called baluga, “pinanganak sa ashtray,” smoke belching. It doesn’t help as well that she’s portrayed as dumb-witted – she doesn’t know what human trafficking and annulment are. Most of the lewd remarks against her are started by Vice Ganda’s character Mark, the gay sibling among quadruplets.

Midway through, Mark becomes almost cruel to Snow White that the movie felt a need to issue a disclaimer. Mark remarks, “Ito tatandaan mo ah. Pag niloloko kita, loko lang yon, biro lang yon, binibiro lang kita. At kahit lagi kitang binibiro, wag mong kakalimutang maganda ka at mahal na mahal kita.” Although it seems that the damage has been done – and Mark’s insults continue throughout the movie.

Interesting is the fact that it’s Mark the bakla that does most of the heavy-lifting in the insults. Lea defends Snow White, so does lesbian sibling Panying (also Vice). None of the other siblings (Girlie and Peter, both also Vice) partake in the jokes. As highlighted in Paris Is Burning, shading and reading are a big part of gay culture. Small flaws in a person are usually exaggerated and used for comedic effect. However, how it is used in GBBT, where insults are directed mostly to only one person due to the color of her skin is indicative of the ideology of the Filipino public – there is no question that we value the mestiza and what it represents and reduce the morena and the baluga to something to laugh at. And the bakla takes the flak.

Since this is a comedy, everything is a little bit more palatable. However, to solve this issue, I think what could have been done is to even out how the jokes were distributed – it shouldn’t just be the bakla that does it, and it should not only be Snow White taking it. It also would have helped if Kiray didn’t wear blackface. She is already morena to begin with, but she had black make-up on, which really makes her stand out as sort of cartoonish throughout the movie.

Pink Economy

Gays are usually treated indignantly until they prove their significance, such as being able to provide financial support for their family. This empowers them and gives them the self-worth they hope for. This sense of overcompensation drives gay men to excel in their studies or pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. Having some value earns them respect.

In Guy’s, Lester (Vice Ganda) owns a parlor and is the boss of four other gays. And he bosses them around like hell. In one stunt, he asks them to pretend to be kidnappers so that he can woo Gemma (Toni Gonzaga), who is the new girlfriend of past lover Mike (Luis Manzano), for revenge. He punches and kicks them a la Darna in Darna And The Planet Women. In another scene, he converts his parlor to a barber shop when Gemma and her father visits. The four gay sidekicks dress as straight males and try their best to cover up their vivaciousness. Later on, he asks them to play the role of cheerleaders to woo Gemma in accepting his apology.

There seems to be no issues with this on surface level, but digging deeper, there is a power play in here, legitimized by Lester’s economic power over them as their employer. It gives Lester a sense of entitlement to mock, harass, and even abuse his friends. And his friends are powerless to resist. Their advice is not being heard, and their genuine concern to help is mostly downplayed. It shows that homosexuality is not an exclusive category in itself and that it is also subject to the same layers of identity as everyone else –particularly race, class, appearance, and intellect.

It also has larger implications on gender performativity – with Lester being in control of how they need to act at particular times. The barber scene highlights this anomaly, where all four are very uncomfortable to act straight, and there’s some slippage in the straight characters that they try their hardest to contain.

It could have been better if the four sidekicks were given some sort of agency in the movie. In truth, they offer a lot of sound advice to stubborn Lester. If there was at least one scene that shows Lester genuinely listening to their advice or being thankful for their help, it could have worked much, much better.

The Gay And The Institutions

In PB, Benjie (Vice Ganda) is the latest in a long line of Benjamins who have been part of wars and fought for the country. His grandfather (Eddie Garcia) is a decorated general, frustrated by Benjie’s sexuality and his son’s (Jimmy Santos) interest in science over becoming part of the military.

When war breaks loose and Benjie is forced to join the ranks, he is discriminated against for being gay. Along with a ragtag group of other misfits, he manages to save the day (using his father’s inventions) and earn the respect of his platoon leader (Derek Ramsey) and grandfather.

It’s difficult to watch how Benjie struggled within a very masculine institution. Even if he has proven through hard work that he is a formidable and able fighter, he is fired just because of his sexuality. It takes a big move for him to prove his worth. And it’s not just in the military he’s given a hard time in. His neighbours also mock him when his rift with his grandfather got televised. His only consolation is that he has a loving and accepting core family.

But this poses a question: Why do gays constantly need to prove their worth to earn acceptance?

It again boils down to “usefulness.” As long as someone is useful, he earns a degree of respect. Similar to how Maxi in Ang Pagdadalaga Maximo Oliveros gives value to his family by assuming the maternal role. Similar to how Jonard inHeavenly Touch snaps his mother out of her catatonic state by starting to earn for his family.

What could have made the movie more progressive is also showing the plight of the other misfits, particularly that of Nikki Valdez’s character, a lesbian raised by a gay couple. But in this movie, unfortunately, it’s only Benjie that take the most heat.

***

Vice Ganda is a fascinating character on and off camera. It’s commendable how in just a handful of movies he has shown that gay characters have a place in the box office. Some of his characterizations are still problematic, but there’s always room for improvement. I would love to see how his body of work turns out and develops. It would be good for him to collaborate with other directors and venture once in a while in more dramatic movies to give more dimension to his portrayals.

Image credit: ABS-CBN

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