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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Open Letter re: the "Bebot" Video(s)

To Apl.de.Ap, Patricio Ginelsa/KidHeroes, and Xylophone Films:

We, the undersigned, would like to register our deep disappointment at the portrayal of Filipinas and other women in the new music videos for the Black Eyed Peas’ song, “Bebot.” We want to make it clear that we appreciate your efforts to bring Filipina/o Americans into the mainstream and applaud your support of the Little Manila of Stockton. However, as Filipina/o and Filipina/o American artists, academics, and community activists, we are utterly dismayed by the portrayal of hypersexualized Filipina “hoochie-mama” dancers, specifically in the Generation 2 version, the type of representation of women so unfortunately prevalent in today’s hip-hop and rap music videos. The depiction of the 1930s “dime dancers” was also cast in an unproblematized light, as these women seem to exist solely for the sexual pleasure of the manongs.

In general, we value Apl.de.Ap’s willingness to be so openly and richly Filipino, especially when there are other Filipina/o Americans in positions of visibility who do not do the same, and we appreciate the work that he has done with the folks at Xylophone Films; we like their previous video for “The Apl Song,” and we even like the fact that the Generation 1 version of “Bebot” attempts to provide a “history lesson” about some Filipino men in the 1930s. However, the Generation 2 version truly misses the mark on accurate Filipina/o representation, for the following reasons:

1) The video uses three very limited stereotypes of Filipina women: the virgin, the whore, and the shrill mother. We find a double standard in the depiction of the virgin and whore figures, both of which are highly sexualized. Amidst the crowd of midriff-baring, skinny, light-skinned, peroxided Pinays – some practically falling out of their halter tops – there is the little sister played by Jasmine Trias, from whom big brother Apl is constantly fending off Pinoy “playas.” The overprotectiveness is strange considering his idealization of the bebot or “hot chick.” The mother character was also particularly troublesome, but for very different reasons. She seems to play a dehumanized figure, the perpetual foreigner with her exaggerated accent, but on top of that, she is robbed of her femininity in her embarrassingly indelicate treatment of her son and his friends. She is not like a tough or strong mother, but almost like a coarse asexual mother, and it is telling that she is the only female character in the video with a full figure.

2) We feel that these problematic female representations might have to do with the use of the word “Bebot.” We are of course not advocating that Apl change the title of his song, yet we are confused about why a song that has to do with pride in his ethnic/national identity would be titled “Bebot,” a word that suggests male ownership of the sexualized woman – the “hot chick.” What does Filipino pride have to do with bebots? The song seems to be about immigrant experience yet the chorus says “ikaw ang aking bebot” (you are my hot chick). It is actually very disturbing that one’s ethnic/national identity is determined by one’s ownership of women. This system not only turns women into mere symbols but it also excludes women from feeling the same kind of ethnic/national identity. It does not bring down just Filipinas; it brings down all women.

3) Given the unfortunate connection made in this video between Filipino pride and the sexualized female body both lyrically and visually, we can’t help but conclude that the video was created strictly for a heterosexual man’s pleasure. This straight, masculinist perspective is the link that we find between the Generation 1 and Generation 2 videos. The fact that the Pinoy men are surrounded by “hot chicks” both then and now makes this link plain. Yet such a portrayal not only obscures the “real” message about the Little Manila Foundation; it also reduces Pinoy men’s hopes, dreams, and motivations to a single-minded pursuit of sex.

We do understand that Filipino America faces a persistent problem of invisibility in this country. Moreover, as the song is all in Tagalog (a fact that we love, by the way), you face an uphill battle in getting the song and music video(s) into mainstream circulation. However, remedying the invisibility of Filipina/os in the United States should not come at the cost of the dignity and self-respect of at least half the population of Filipino America. Before deciding to write this letter, we felt an incredible amount of ambivalence about speaking out on this issue because, on the one hand, we recognized that this song and video are a milestone for Filipina/os in mainstream media and American pop culture, but on the other hand, we were deeply disturbed by the images of women the video propagates.

In the end we decided that we could not remain silent while seeing image after image of Pinays portrayed as hypersexual beings or as shrill, dehumanized, asexual mother-figures who embarrass their children with their overblown accents and coarseness. The Filipino American community is made up of women with Filipino pride as well, yet there is little room in these videos for us to share this voice and this commitment; instead, the message we get is that we are expected to stand aside and allow ourselves to be exploited for our sexuality while the men go about making their nationalist statements.

While this may sound quite harsh, we believe it is necessary to point out that such depictions make it seem as if you are selling out Filipina women for the sake of gaining mainstream popularity within the United States. Given the already horrific representations of Filipinas all over the world as willing prostitutes, exotic dancers, or domestic servants who are available for sex with their employers, the representation of Pinays in these particular videos can only feed into such stereotypes. We also find it puzzling, given your apparent commitment to preserving the history and dignity of Filipina/os in the United States, because we assume that you also consider such stereotypes offensive to Filipino men as well as women.

Again, we want to reiterate our appreciation for the positive aspects of these videos – the history lesson of the 1936 version, the commitment to community, and the effort to foster a larger awareness of Filipino America in the mainstream – but we ask for your honest attempt to offer more full-spectrum representations of both Filipino men and Filipina women, now and in the future. We would not be writing this letter to you if we did not believe you could make it happen.

Respectfully,

Kiko Benitez
Assistant Professor, Comparative Literature
Univ. of Washington

Rick Bonus
Associate Professor, American Ethnic Studies
Univ. of Washington

Lucy Burns
Assistant Professor
Asian American Studies / World Arts and Cultures, UCLA

Fritzie De Mata
Independent scholar

Diana Halog
Undergraduate
UC Berkeley

Luisa A. Igloria
Associate Professor
Creative Writing / English, Old Dominion University

Veronica Montes
Writer

Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Assistant Professor, English
State University of New York--Fredonia

Gladys Nubla
Doctoral student
English, UC Berkeley

Barbara Jane Reyes
Poet and author

Joanne L. Rondilla
Doctoral candidate
Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley

Rolando B. Tolentino
Visiting Fellow, National University of Singapore
Associate Professor, University of the Philippines Film Institute

Benito Vergara
Asian American Studies / Anthropology, San Francisco State University