Resistant Spectatorship

Eva Noblezada as Kim, a 17-year old Vietnamese orphan, sings a wedding song for Chris, an American G.I. played by Alistair Brammer in the 2014 recording of the West end production Miss Saigon.

Blues and Black Feminism: Interrupting the narrative of nation

If the rhymed narrative force of a song produces a culture, the blues interrupts this production by singing a different tune or different tunes. Covering subjects outside the mainstream, the blues point to more than one kind of voice involved in the act of telling, which attributes the act of telling proper to no one in particular. Angela Davis suggests a multiplicity and fluidity prohibited by the homogenizing structuring of narration and community in mainstream music.[1] Through her transcription and analysis of the ideology, sexuality and domesticity in the Blues of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, relegated to so-called race records,[2] a liberating pulse is heard against the noise of the segregated American nation-state in the first half of the twentieth century.

Angela Davis demonstrates the central role that blues played in the creation of a new African-American society, and how the blues were used by women to help them define their place in this new social order. Davis describes the birth of the blues as the legacy of emancipation which replaced the antebellum spirituals as the collective expression of African-American culture. Tremendous change in society necessitated the creation of a genre that accommodated and celebrated idioms which were simple and flexible enough to encompass all of the complexities and turbulence of a nation still reeling from the devastation of war. It was also a nation in which social and sexual realities were in transition and “the status of their personal relationships was revolutionized”.[3] For the first time black men and women were able to make autonomous choices about whom they associated with and had sex with: “Sexuality thus was one of the most tangible domains in which emancipation was acted upon and through which its meanings were expressed.”[4] These personal and sexual relationships, the dominant theme of the blues, have their own “historical meanings and social and political resonances.” Davis contends that to discover meanings and elaborate on the resonances of the songs, one must excavate and reconstruct blues consciousness and blues society. The chronicle and exploration of personal and sexual relations were part of a recently freed people’s efforts to establish community. This is equally true of the less prominent themes in the blues. While concentrating on the blues’ primary subject, Davis gives some of these other themes secondary consideration, such as travel, spirituality, and economic hardship.[5] Later in the book, Davis writes that topical songs such as Bessie Smith’s magnificent “Backwater Blues” recast individual tragedies into “social, collective adversities … [giving them] the ability to constitute themselves as a community in struggle.”[6]

            I am deeply interested in the imaginative leap taken by Davis in staking the ability of the Blues to interrupt dominant narratives that challenge notions of fixity in terms of the position of African-American artists and the subsequent structuring of the creative industry of 20s and 30s. In my research of American-educated Filipino modernists, I look out for innovations on forms of Western-style painting and deviations in subject matter to enable an exploration of new or previously underexplored conditions. Using theoretical approaches from the study of colonial and visual modernities, interpretative leaps can be taken in establishing the links between the expansion of the aesthetic language and the formation of nationalists sentiment. In my exploration of US Cold War diplomacy and its impact on the promotion of modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia, I find several parallels between the conflicts and predicaments confronted by the musicians that Davis studies and the cultural-critical formation of US-educated Filipino artists and the notions of gender, race, ethnicity that underpin the discursive creation of these cultural subjects.

Bodies and Collectivties

Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s essay “Jennifer’s Butt,” talks about the way both Selena’s and Jeniffer Lopez’s rear ends were viewed under circumstances that feared the racialized body before popular culture decided that a massive gluteus was cinematically desirable.[7] The uncanny doubling of Selena and Jennifer Lopez was tethered to what was perceived as a shared somatic feature by Latinx women who are frequently divided by the complexity of language, nation, and hyphenated ethnicity. Negron-Muntaner’s deliberate and often intimately humorous choices that stem from her discourse on “Jennifer’s Butt” also serves as a counter-argument to “serious concepts such as class, language, religion and family—the stuff of sociology and political activism.”[8]

Beginning the narrative of her article inside a half-empty suburban theater in Philadelphia, the witnessing of a large derriere became a point of communitas[9] for Latinx audiences, a ritual space where the author was awakened to the cultural capital associated with her and Lopez’s and Selena’s bodies. She muses how the “culo,” Puerto Rican for butt, “surfaces as a site of pleasure, produced by intersections of power, but not entirely under its own control,”[10] which seems like an academically-worded toilet humor.

            A number of books have been written on American colonial occupation of the Philippines which employ discourse that gravitate around the body, specifically on the study of photographs of Dean C. Worcester, Daniel Folkmar, and a number of other American Anthropologists. One particular scholarly work is Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images and the American Archive by Nerissa Balce.[11] An upcoming book titled, Empire’s Mistress, written by Vernadette Vicuña Gonzales criticizes the portrayals of Elizabeth Cooper (1914 – 1960), who was a Filipino-American actor, vaudeville dancer, and singer and famously known for being the paramour of General Douglas MacArthur. According to previews by Duke University Press, “Gonzalez uses Cooper’s life as a means to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships,” which can be construed as Cooper being an embodiment of the American colony. Last year, Vicente Rafael, Professor of History at the University of Washington, presented a lecture titled “Duterte’s Phallus: On the Aesthetics of Authoritarian Vulgarity” which covered the sources of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s symbolic authority. Rodrigo Duterte’s frequent references to genitalia—his as well those of his critics—is examined by Rafael using Achille Mbembe’s notion of “aesthetic of vulgarity” that has the effect of establishing a relationship of “conviviality” between himself and his audience. Rafael argues that the effect of this is an “intimate tyranny,” much of it centered on the tales of his self-proclaimed over-sized phallus.

Some aspects of embodied performance runs through the three examples I gave, posing for a photograph in Balce, vaudeville in Vicuña-Gonzales, and the delivery of jokes in Rafael. Negron Muntaner argues similarly that the marginalized Latinx population in the US spoke partly through the body in the same way Selena spoke through it no matter how she repressed it and how Lopez took advantage of it. Co-opting the fear of conservative American audiences, not unlike the crowd in the suburban theater where Negron-Muntaner begins her narrative, Lopez propelled her music career capitalizing on her butt to intervene in dominant portrayals of Latinx sexuality.

Everyday instruction and imperial expansion

Amy Kaplan posits early in her article that the domestic space exists as a malleable third realm between the nation and the foreign.[12] Manifest Domesticity is concept that is closely linked to notions of domestication, rhetorics of family, and femininity and Kaplan uses it to examine literary discourses that “use images of women and domesticity to obscure or sentimentalize exploitative and competitive expansionist relations.”[13]

The role of women has mostly been left out in the study of imperial expansion and Kaplan argues that the conduct of their domestic lives both moved the borders of the nation when pitted against the idea of the foreign and also complemented the role of men in the domains of commerce and politics. “Domesticity,” Kaplan points out is not “a static condition but as the process of domestication,” and it involves an active generation of binary opposites to maintain its potency such as in the conquest of “the wild, the natural, and the alien.”[14]

Amy Kaplan’s study chronologically stops just before the American occupation of the Philippines (1899-1946), where Manifest Domesticity is translated in terms of colonial conquest. Vicente Rafael’s article in American Literature which came out three years earlier serves as a footnote to her study. For the purposes of my research, Kaplan provides the necessary backstory to chart the ulterior trajectory of the American “civilizing missions” which employed the less-investigated agency of women, most of whom were wives of colonial officers and school teachers while Rafael’s writings serve to contextualize the complex participation of gendered and racialized social actors in American Imperialism. In Rafael’s writings during the formative period of United States rule (1899-1910), the continuity of the “exploitative sentimentality” practiced by White American women who “invest colonialism with the sense of the domestic and the sentimental,” becomes apparent.[15] Rafael explores the nature of  those investments which are “integral to the construction of colonial modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.” He continues, “colonial domesticity in the tropics heralded the conjunction of ‘whiteness’ and ‘femininity’  as a sign of public entitlement as well as a source of private ambivalence.”[16]

Similarly American imperialism in the Philippines, like its European counterparts in Asia and Africa, furnished a public idiom for repre- senting as well as containing the private lives of its most privileged agents. Domesticity as a discourse of colonial modernity assumes that the structures of “public” and “private” are mobile and indefinitely reproducible, capable of translation across cultural and bodily spaces.[17]

A serial reading of Kaplan and Rafael belies the view that “American imperialism” was “an aberration.” The democratic trajectory of the American nation is proven to be historically suspect even before they reached the shores of the Philippines and that the intertwined notions of Manifest Destiny and Manifest Domesticity masked the violence as “benign” and more “progressive” than their European counterpart”[18]

Kaplan roots Rafael’s arguments in the formation of the Domestic during the many wars of US expansion. Particularly the campaign of Indian removal which was strangely first framed as a war against foreigners and the wars in the Spanish borderlands. The White Anglo-Saxon woman has been implicated from then on to the “imperial project of civilizing,” and the racial underpinnings of domestic and imperialist discourse. The separation of gendered spheres in the service of a well-oiled imperialist machinery is partly to blame for turning blacks into foreigners.[19] Kaplan continues that the “conditions of domesticity often become markers that distinguish civilization from savagery.”[20] and that the process of domestication, the feminine spaces thought to be isolated and neutral serves as a unit of the nation that tames elements that are wild or foreign. In this sense, “domesticity not only monitors the borders between the civilized and the savage but also regulates traces of the savage within itself.”[21] In this regard, I observe the visual culture and the rhetorics employed by the benefactors of colonialism as it influenced Filipino modernist thought.

            I am struck by the parallels between the strategies employed in the designation of the erstwhile foreign adversary as “domestic” in the case of Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia cited by Kaplan and my investigation of the granting of “U.S. National status” to Filipinos, which primarily served as a legal loophole to allow their smooth migration as laborers even as they are granted none of the rights of any person born on US territory.

In my research on the education during the American colonial rule, I found that manuals and guidebooks, not unlike the ones written by Catherine Beecher and Sara Josepha Hale were similarly employed to teach Filipino school children a mish-mash of Christian Protestant values, gender expectations, hygienic practices, and the basics of the English language, which served as the benchmark of Western politeness and civilized manners.[22] These materials have had a profound effect on the formation of generations of intellectual and nationalists leaders who would steer modernism in education, government, and culture.
            Scholars have taken a cautious stance in considering Filipino artists thoroughly educated in American public schools and art academies as a case of an emerging colonial modernity but the gains of Kaplan, Rafael, and a number of scholars who wrote on Domesticity indicate that the subject is ripe for reconsideration. Visual and instructional materials serve as a critical guidepost to examine the modernist ferment under American colonial rule and the immediate post-war period

Resistant Spectatorship

            Manthia Diawara’s critique of black characters in D.W. Griffin’s Birth of a Nation and Eddie Murphy’s cop movies serves as a template for further examination on the racist depictions in mass media of the African-American male. In considering mostly mainstream films, Diawara makes a case for the problematic ‘identification’ between the black (male) spectator and the image of the black (male) character. Diawara opens: “Whenever Blacks are represented in Hollywood, and sometimes when Hollywood omits Blacks from its films altogether, there are spectators who denounce the result and refuse to suspend their disbelief”.[23]
            I found the arguments compelling having been raised in an Evangelical Christian family (who identified closely with American culture via religious ties) that treated television and cinema as instruments of Satan. This didn’t mean we didn’t subscribe to cable television or that we were not allowed to watch films but that there was always a low regard for American television with the exception of National Geographic, Discovery, and History channels which I recall with nostalgia for the 90s, showed something else other than replays of Pawn Stars. Riffing on Diwara’s argument that recognized the inability for Black people to identify with their film and television show counterparts, I realize that many Filipinos were so conditioned to identify with the White American character as the default person to project relatable qualities of race, even of their own. Such was the extent of my Americanization that I never questioned why I find American sit-coms regardless of social class of main characters relatable but dramas like Days of Our Lives, not at all in the caliber of the shittiest Filipino telenovela. Diawara, in this case, served to explain this uncanny phenomenon as a case in the theory of resistant spectatorship, rooted in the historically exaggerated representations of African-Americans on screen as servants or mammies, thieves, robbers, murders or villains sometimes by blackfaced white actors.
            Celine Parrenas Shimizu goes deep into the negotiation behind this resistant viewership, employing various layers of representation in the hit Broadway and West end show, Miss Saigon (1989).[24] Premiering around the time I was born in the late 80s, I vividly recall Miss Saigon was a genuine middle class cultural moment for Filipinos around the world, who purchased Miss Saigon memorabilia en masse, though a majority had never seen it live until it was shown in Manila sometime in early 2000s. Why, you might ask, are Filipinos deeply interested in a musical show about a tragic love affair between a 17-year old orphan girl and an American G.I. during the Vietnam War? Parrenas-Shimizu offers the answer in her analysis of the layers of representation but she doesn’t directly mention the one most important for Filipinos, that the presence of Filipino and Filipino-American actors who looked like them on the Broadway stage was particularly pleasurable and a source of national pride. I doubt it has anything to do with being Asian or of the play being set in another Southeast Asian country though I cannot substantiate this position at present. Shimizu instead frames her arguments as coming from the perspective of an Asian-American Academic woman and while she notes for the readers that Asianness and Asian femininity in particular are not monolithic constructs but ironically going as far as switching between identifying having an altercation with a Filipina-American or an Asian-American woman, she doesn’t mention that she herself is Filipina, and a daughter of Filipino political refugees. I found her omission strategic but also suspect as it conceals some biases which might help readers understand her interest in the default favorite Broadway musical of my kababayans. The transnational production of Miss Saigon in London, New York, and Manila has been studied elsewhere as a case of post-Cold War circulation of American neo colonial cultural expressions.[25] Tzu-I Chung frames the argument in the transnational and uses James Fishkin’s assertion that “each location” in the Miss Saigon tour as being part of “a world system, in which the exchange of commodities, the flow of capital, and the iterations of cultures know no borders.”
            The “fiction of hypersexuality” that Parennas-Shimizu refers to is not so much that of the roles of Vietnamese female prostitutes in Miss Saigon (1989) but of the global Filipina actor who has made it in the world stage and this strangely links her article to aspects of Catherine Ceniza Choy’s studies in Empire of Care, especially if fused with the transnational lens of Tzu-I Chung.
            Parennas-Shimizu defines hypersexuality as “the inscription of a pathologically intense and excessive propensity for sexuality,”[26] that through edification in a memorable theatrical role, become seen as “natural characteristic, one directly linked to a particular raced and gendered ontology.” According to Parennas-Shimizu, this “Western fantasy of a perverse subject position” goes against the standard virtues of white male sexuality.[27] Asian women whether depicted as virginal or lascivious are also propped up as a foil to the white female norm that Lauren Berlant describes “as the innocent symbol of reproductive sexuality for white women in American national fantasy.”[28]
            While I have difficulty dealing with employing gender and sexuality studies at this moment, I find it a useful critical lens in reading sources for my study of a renowned group of US-educated Filipino artists whose campaign for modernism served as a catalyst for the country’s colonial emancipation. Victorio Edades, Enrique Ruiz, Fernando Zobel, and Constancio Bernardo were architects, painters, and professors. A tangential anecdote of their experience as expatriates living outside the social constraints of their own society are the misadventures in their exploration of all that America had to offer. Provoked by racism and allegations of effeminacy and infantilization, they displayed their manliness and urbanity through careful grooming and deportment, and demonstrated their courage and virility through brawls and sports, and the courting of white women. Their studies exposed them to scientific discourses on the body and novel categorizations of anatomy and race, ideas they used to challenge the obscurantism of Philippine art they saw in their country. However, their experiences also radically shaped their ideas of sex and the sexual nature of Filipino women. Similar to Shimizu-Parennas, I aim to explore their gendered representations in paintings, photographs, writings, and letters to investigate the moral contradictions inherent in their passionate modernisms, and their struggle to come to terms with the relative sexual freedom of American women, which they found both vile and mysteriously seductive.

[1]Angela Davis, “I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama,” Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Random House, 1999, 4-6.

[2] Ibid., 17. Race records were 78-rpm phonograph records marketed to African Americans between the 1920s and 1940s comprising various African-American musical genres, including blues, jazz, and gospel music, and also comedy.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Frances Negrón‐Muntaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” 2008. 10.1002/9780470753538.ch17.

[8] Ibid., 185.

[9] See Victor Tuner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1947/2002, pp. 273-4. Communitas “refers either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community. It also has special significance as a loanword in cultural anthropology and the social sciences,” particularly the work of Victor Turner,

[10] Negron-Muntaner, loc. cit.

[11] Nerissa Balce, Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive, ANN ARBOR: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Accessed February 17, 2021.

[12]Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”, The Futures of American Studies, Robyn Wiegman, Donald E. Pease, 2002, 584.

[13] Ibid., 602.

[14] Ibid., 582.

[15] Vicente Rafael,”Colonial Domesticity: White Women and United States Rule in the Philippines,” American Literature 67, no. 4 (1995): 639-66. Accessed February 17, 2021. doi:10.2307/2927890, 639.

[16] Ibid., 640.

[17] Loc. cit.

[18] Loc. cit.

[19] Ibid. 584.

[20] Kaplan, op. cit., 582.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See, Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines, DURHAM; LONDON: Duke University Press, 2006,  Accessed February 17, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1168b5f.

[23] Manthia Diawara, “Black Spectatorship,” Black American Cinema, New York : Routledge, 1993, 66.

[24] Celine Parreñas-Shimizu, “The Bind of Representation: Performing and Consuming Hypersexuality in Miss Saigon.” Theatre Journal 57, no. 2 (2005): 247-265. doi:10.1353/tj.2005.0079.

[25] Tzu-I Chung, “The Transnational Vision of Miss Saigon: Performing the Orient in a Globalized World,” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., 36, 2011, 61-86. 10.1353/mel.2011.0063.

[26] Celine Parreñas-Shimizu, op. cit., 248.

[27] Ibid., 248.

[28] Ibid., 249.