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Illustration: Guy Shield

In February 2019, a small party of officials from the Philippine Trade and Investment Centre, the Philippine Consulate General in Australia, and the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) gathered in Bondi Junction train station. They were there to launch the DOT’s latest Australian advertising campaign, a 12-week blitz that saw rolling stock in the Sydney Trains fleet bedecked with banners proclaiming ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’. Relying heavily on images of El Nido, a popular diving and beachside holiday destination on the picturesque island of Palawan, the banners painted the Philippines as a place of dappled-light daydreams and serene seaside adventures. In another word: paradise.

Yet this image of paradise was at odds with the reality on the ground. In the same month that the campaign entered the Sydney Trains network, the Filipino news outlet Rappler reported that 1,807 civilians in Metro Manila had been killed by police since President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration in July 2016. Over the same period, Rappler added, the epicentre of Duterte’s so-called War on Drugs had shifted away from Metro Manila to neighbouring Central Luzon, where police were now killing at least one person a day.

That two starkly different versions of the Philippines should coexist—the island paradise and the warzone mired in drug-related crime and poverty—is in many ways unsurprising. The Philippines has long been a nation of contrasts and contradictions: Humid, slow-moving days give way to monsoon seasons that sweep away entire villages, the congested streets of Filipino cities unfurl into provincial roads that wind through fields and mountains and out to sea. As in many nations ravaged by imperialism (first the Spanish in 1521, then the Americans in 1898), the gulf between rich and poor stretches wide. Over a quarter of Filipinos live beneath the poverty line, while the country’s ten richest people—many of whom are beneficiaries of intergenerational wealth—are each worth more than US $2.55 billion apiece.

Against this backdrop, it’s fitting that the image conjured abroad of the Filipino people is also rendered in chiaroscuro. Non-Filipinos may know by name the strongmen who have governed the country at different times—Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph Estrada, Rodrigo Duterte—but the faces they see are overwhelmingly those of Filipina women. For years, Filipinas have been one of the country’s most prominent international exports.

Like so many things about the Philippines, the most recognisable faces of diaspora Filipinas fall into two main, oppositional streams. On one hand are the ten Filipina pageant queens who have taken home the title at the ‘Big Four’ pageants—Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International and Miss Earth—since 2000. Resplendent in a gown and sash, Miss Philippines personifies the Pearl of the Orient Seas; once crowned she spends a year of her life as a glittering envoy for her country in places far and wide. After her reign she returns home to be feted, and lives out the rest of her life on the silver screen, or splayed across billboards and the glossy pages of fashion magazines.

Non-Filipinos may know by name the strongmen who have governed the country—but the faces they see are overwhelmingly those of Filipina women.

On the other hand are the thousands of women who leave the Philippines’ 7,641 islands each year to find work abroad. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are currently 1.2 million Filipinas working abroad—more than double the population of Tasmania. Typically, the Filipina overseas finds work in ‘elementary occupations’ such as an au pair, domestic worker, cleaner, or live-in caregiver. She spends an indefinite period of her life abroad, returning only once she is too old or otherwise unable to work. By this point, she will have remitted thousands of dollars to her family back home.

While the paths taken by the two versions of the Filipina abroad bear little similarity to one another, they converge at a vanishing point. To many around the world, the Filipina abroad exists on a separate plane to her homeland. The Western media has so neatly framed the Philippines as a country of men—men in government giving orders to men with guns to shoot men with drugs—that the Filipina herself is an ambiguous entity. Her existence is acknowledged yet seen as separate to, or in spite of, the chaos in her country, and she plays no role in shaping its future. For this reason, if she appears at all in discussions of the country’s condition and trajectory, she is almost always a footnote, a character robbed of agency. Filipino men give orders, kill, or are killed; Filipinas mourn. This relegation of the Filipina to an ancillary character whose actions and story have little impact is glaring, given that understanding Filipinas is a critical first step toward understanding the country as a whole.

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Beauty pageants have long been a fixture on the Filipino cultural landscape. The Philippines became the first Asian country to host the Miss Universe pageant in 1974, before hosting it again in 1994; in 2017, ABS-CBN reported, nearly 45 per cent of all Filipinos with a television tuned in to watch that year’s event. By the time Steve Harvey pronounced Miss Philippines Pia Wurtzbach—and not, as he had initially declared, Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez —the rightful Miss Universe 2015, the country had already established itself as an international pageant superpower. In 1964, Gemma Teresa Guerrero Cruz-Araneta became the first Filipina and the first Asian to win the Miss International title, and in 1969 Gloria Diaz was the first Filipina to be crowned Miss Universe. The pathway to success that both women paved stretched leisurely across the decades that followed, leading straight into the modern era.

Since 2000, there have been a total of two Miss Universes, one Miss World, three Miss Internationals and four Miss Earths from the Philippines. Filipinas have placed within the top ten in every Miss Universe competition since 2010, and in every Miss World, Miss International, and Miss Earth competition but two during this period. Together, these figures make the Philippines the single most successful entrant to every Big Four pageant in the past decade. Pageant queens from the Philippines are long-haired and willowy, and are almost universally mestiza (‘light-skinned’, in the Spanish colonial parlance still in use today). In a country that is home to people in varying shades of kayumanggi (‘brown’, in Tagalog) and in which half of all women reportedly use skin-whitening creams, Miss Philippines is aspirational, rather than representative.

If the Filipina appears at all in discussions of the country’s condition and trajectory, she is almost always a footnote, a character robbed of agency.

In addition to largely conforming to the same physical ideals, Filipina pageant queens are often borne along similar trajectories to their coronation on the international stage. Many graduate from prestigious Filipino schools, are fluent in at least two languages, and are educated to university level. A significant portion also attend pageant training academies, or ‘beauty boot camps’, located throughout the Philippines. Cherry-picked from provincial competitions, academy participants spend up to six days a week learning how to walk, how to smile, and how to answer questions in the manner favoured by Big Four judging panels. At the end of their training, the best amongst the graduating class are released onto the international pageant circuit.

Arguably, these beauty boot camps don’t just teach pageant hopefuls how to make themselves presentable for the world stage: they also teach them how to make the Philippines as a whole presentable. At the Manila pageant training academy Kagandahang Flores (‘Flores Beauty’), where graduates include Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach and Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, the slogan says it all: ‘For crown. For country.’ To a country whose reputation is marred by a rape apologist President and recent antiterror legislation criminalising most forms of activism, beauty pageants are a vital opportunity for image laundering. It’s not only more fun in the Philippines—it’s also more beautiful.

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In the modern age, we are often primed to believe that beauty cannot emerge from a period or place of terror. One need only look at the way that settler colonies like Australia deny the brutal reality of colonisation to know that beauty and terror are frequently considered mutually exclusive. In the West, this notion is compounded by commercial ideas of feminism, which essentialise women’s liberation to discrete activities such as the ability to skateboard, wear a bikini, or drive a car. In turn, these apparent signs of liberation are taken to indicate the broader moral condition of a country as a whole—if a country affords women certain freedoms that align with those in the West, it is progressive and there is therefore no need to examine its condition more closely.

It follows, then, that to beauty pageant viewers who know little of the ongoing turmoil in the Philippines, the country appears as a success story of progressive ideals in the global south. Surely, viewers ask, a nation that can produce women who epitomise global standards of educated, poised femininity cannot be one that is in strife? That Miss Philippines is almost always university educated and fluent in English obscures the fact that over 1.2 million Filipinos over the age of 15 are illiterate, just like the purported liberation signified by her sashaying down a catwalk in swimwear belies the fact that 55 per cent of Filipina women aged 15–49 reported intimate partner violence between 2017 and 2018. It is difficult to reconcile the sophisticated, upwardly mobile image that Miss Philippines presents with reports of the estimated 27,000 killed in Duterte’s drug war.

To a country whose reputation is marred by a rape apologist President and legislation criminalising most activism, beauty pageants are a vital opportunity for image laundering.

Yet twin realities are essential to many parts of life in the Philippines. Beauty queens are both a form of escapism for a country in which many are mired in poverty and violence, and a way of obscuring said poverty and violence from the world. The Philippines’ pageant success defangs the Duterte regime on the global stage, and assuages concerns that human rights are systematically eroded in the country every day. Concealing the country’s complexities is the form of Miss Philippines herself, a slender woman waving serenely from beneath a glittering crown.

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If beauty is one of the Philippines’ primary exports, then service is undoubtedly the other. Unlike beauty and grace, placing a dollar value on this export is fairly straightforward. Filipinx overseas foreign workers (OFWs) play an integral role in the country’s economy, and routinely account for roughly 10 per cent of the nation’s annual GDP. In April to September 2019 alone, the total remittances to the Philippines from OFWs were estimated at 211.9 billion Philippine pesos, or approximately A$6.1 million. Given that 56 per cent of current Filipinx OFWs are women who tend to remit a higher portion of their income than their higher-earning male counterparts, it’s clear that these workers are vitally important to the country.

In spite of this, the Filipina OFW remains subject to a host of inequalities that range from economic to social. If Filipina pageant queens are celebrated as embodiments of the most—the most beautiful, the most educated, the most glamorous—circumstances repeatedly prove that Filipina OFWs are considered among the least. Around the world, the abuse sustained by Filipina domestic workers is well documented, with the most high profile cases often emerging from the Gulf states. In 2020, following findings by the Philippine government that domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende was sexually abused and killed by her employers in Kuwait, the government implemented a total ban on the emigration of Filipinx OFWs to the country. Roughly a month later, the ban was lifted on the basis that proceedings against Jeanelyn’s employers were underway in a Kuwaiti criminal court.

Tragically, Jeanelyn’s death is far from an isolated incident. In the preceding year, two other Filipina OFWs, Constancia Lago Dayag and Joanna Demafelis, were found dead in Kuwait, allegedly also at the hands of their employers. In March 2018, the Manila Standard reported that 80 per cent of Filipinx migrant domestic workers around the world, most of whom are women, suffer abuse. That same year, nearly 1000 Filipinx OFWs throughout the United Arab Emirates were repatriated after alleged labour abuse and exploitation. In this context, the Philippine government’s diplomatic reconciliation with Kuwait and continued failure to take systemic measures to protect OFWs is nothing short of flagrant disregard. As Laorence Castillo, a case worker at Filipino NGO Migrante International, explained to the Guardian: ‘Everyone is happy to let these women go abroad and keep the economy going, but aren’t happy to fight for them when things go wrong.’

Even in households where there is no physical violence, exploitation remains commonplace. In an ongoing Federal Court case, it is alleged that a Sydney couple paid their 26-year-old Filipina nanny A$2.33 an hour and forced her to work up to 106 hours a week. Allegedly, the nanny was expected to work from 6am to 11pm on weekdays, and 7am to 11pm on weekends, during which time her duties included cooking, cleaning, gardening, and laundry, in addition to providing primary care for the couple’s two children. In essence, she was expected to be not just the nanny, but the de facto caretaker of the entire home.

It’s undoubtedly in the interests of wealthy nations that rely on Filipina domestic labour to turn a blind eye to what is happening in the country.

Around the world, this conception of the Filipina OFW as a caregiver figure prevails. Most Filipinas who leave their home to work abroad are between the ages of 25 and 34, and many have children and a family of their own. Writing for the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv describes the melancholy of Filipinas who must abandon their families in order to provide for them, evoking the image of ‘a chain of mothers parenting other mothers’ children around the globe’. The normative effect of this chain is to suggest that caregiving, nurturing, and servitude are all intrinsic qualities of the Filipina woman, wherever she may be.

In this way, the Filipina OFW inadvertently helps sanitise the image of the Philippines overseas. While the economic importance of OFWs predates the current administration, reliance on their remittances has grown significantly since Duterte took office: following his 2016 inauguration remittances jumped from US $26.9 billion to a record high of US $33.5 billion in 2019. That same year, the nation’s GDP grew by 5.9 per cent. The apparent prosperity that these figures convey obscures the fast-deteriorating condition on the ground, and renders the OFW as a beacon of productivity and hope for a country clawing its way out of poverty.

Flattened into an emblematic figure in this way, the Filipina OFW is not dissimilar to her sisters on the pageant stage. But while Miss Philippines becomes a symbol of liberation that denies that oppression exists in the country at all, the Filipina OFW becomes a means of justifying that oppression. Countries that rely on Filipina OFWs to ensure that their upper class remains upwardly mobile know that this arrangement is contingent on the ongoing degradation of human rights in the Philippines. Domestic labour is cheap and expendable because the Philippine government devalues the work of OFWs; thousands of Filipinx people leave the country to find employment elsewhere because the local economy is in disarray. For these reasons, it’s undoubtedly in the interests of wealthy nations that rely on domestic labour from the Philippines to simply turn a blind eye to what is happening in the country.

Thus, the story of the Filipina OFW and that of Miss Philippines both end the same way: with the women left standing completely on their own.

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Both archetypes of the Filipina abroad reduce her to two of the most archaic tenets of conventional femininity: beauty and servitude. The association of these two characteristics with the Filipina means that, like many women of colour, women from the Philippines are often framed as objects of desire. Rapper Childish Gambino frequently shouts out Filipinas, while Australian literary magazine Verity La recently published (and subsequently removed) a non-fiction essay that, while purporting to criticise power relations between Western tourists in the Philippines and local women, read as an onanistic and eroticised account of exploitative sexual relations with younger Filipina women.

Because the two most prominent images of the Filipina abroad are rooted in retrograde notions of femininity, it follows that this is what many men expect to find upon arrival in the country.

Roundly criticised by Filipinx writers, Verity La initially defended the piece and appended a trigger warning cautioning readers that they may be offended by the depiction ‘of a white male Australian engaging in a relationship with a Filipina woman’. By wrongly suggesting that readers were taking issue merely with the depiction of an interracial relationship and not, specifically, an interracial relationship foregrounded against a notorious power imbalance, the trigger warning and Verity La fundamentally missed the point. The fetishisation of the Filipina as a beautiful, supplicant figure is not only insulting to Filipinx readers: it’s also dangerous.

To pretend that reducing Filipinas to objects of desire onto which (predominantly white, predominantly older) men can project their fantasies does no harm is patently false, and ignores the fact that these fantasies are often accompanied by violence. In Australia, Filipinas are almost six times more likely than other women to be murdered. Australian sex tourists regularly make visits to the Philippines, engaging the services of sex workers who are often young, often poor, and almost always looking for a way out. Some of these tourists marry the women whose services they engage; Margaret Simons for The Monthly explains that ‘they want a different kind of woman—someone who puts the home and the family first.’

These men come to the Philippines confident that they’ll find this ‘different kind of woman’ because this is the image that the beauty queen and caregiver archetypes combine to present. Because the two most prominent images of the Filipina abroad are rooted in retrograde notions of femininity, it follows that this is what many men expect to find upon arrival in the country. And while they will certainly encounter beauty queens and caregivers in the Philippines, they will also encounter other types of Filipina women who defy expectations and categorisations.

For those who care to look, the stories of these women—and of other Filipinx folk often excluded from the country’s international narrative—can also be found in places far beyond the archipelago. They can be found in the rhythmic beauty of Lou Garcia-Dolnik’s Judith Wright Poetry Prize runner-up poem ‘No language for white man’, the lilting lyricism of Eunice Andrada’s words on a recent University of Queensland Press podcast episode, the startled-laugh stunningness of Angelita Biscotti’s ‘all my black friends are desk jockeys (a letter to my filipino white supremacist girlfriend)’ or the incisiveness of Likhain’s evocative, unsparing excoriation of the aforementioned Verity La essay. Richly textured and gorgeously realised, each of these lay bare different facets of the Filipinx experience: multiple realities and multiple stories that cannot be united beneath a single crown or title.

Who is Miss Philippines, really? There is no singular one. Miss Philippines is a fiction predicated on stereotype, and a stereotype built on scarcity. Filipina stories are so scarce on the global stage that when they do emerge, they must be stripped of nuance and ascribed to one of two categories. Only when the stories of other Filipinas, and those of trans women and non-binary folk, are accepted as worthy of being told will we destroy the myth of Miss Philippines, and bridge the gulf between the two archetypes. Until then, they will continue to exist, the beauty queen and the caregiver, separated by a vast chasm but ultimately more similar than they appear.

Read more from KYD’s Philippines Showcase