Life is a big soap opera for most Filipinos

Posted on July 2, 2013


Former president, now mayor of Metro Manila Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada started his term with a bang; announcing that crime and grime will be swept away from the city under his management. This bold declaration, amusingly, came with actual brooms and water hoses so as to metaphorically enact the said endeavor.

The 76-year-old former President and now top executive of the country’s capital, together with Vice Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, picked up brooms and water hoses in a symbolic drive to get rid of not only garbage but also criminals and corruption in the city.

(Source: Link)

As many would know, Metro Manila, while well-known for being the capital of the Philippines, is also infamous for its crime-infested environment, as well as having a chronic problem with waste disposal; hence, the “crime” and “grime” talk from the new mayor. To symbolize the so-called “cleaning” of the streets of Manila, Mayor Erap, together with Vice Mayor Francisco Domagoso, picked up brooms and water hoses to literally clean their immediate vicinity, and of course, as a sign that the Philippine capital will be “figuratively” cleansed, as well. A number of staff members of the Department of Public Services (DPS) also joined the “metaphorical cleansing” bandwagon, which must have been entertaining to watch.

Following this spectacle, Manila’s agents suddenly sprung into action as they apparently begun working towards the realization of a “clean” Manila, in every sense of the word.

Plaza Miranda police community precinct Chief Insp. Joselito Von Possel said the police have orders to clear the “eyesores,” telling vendors to pack up and confiscating untended chairs and tables on the sidewalks.

After Monday’s flag ceremony, three people linked to robbery cases were presented to Estrada.

Heh, how cute. Inspiring Filipinos with flashy, symbolic displays, giving them hope that change is on the way. That progress is finally within our reach. That Philippines is headed towards something better.

Oh, how I wish such goodness actually gets out of the “symbolism” box.

The funny thing about Philippine politics and the people the government supposedly serves is that declarations like “Manila will be cleansed of crime and grime” or “daang matuwid” (straight path) remain, well, declarations. Nothing actually gets done. All talk, no walk, just to put things succinctly. For some reason, Filipinos as a people just don’t get past that hurdle to fully translate words into action and, ultimately, real, tangible, and lasting progress. It hardly happens. One can only scratch his head and ask the million-dollar question; why?

Perhaps it might have something to do with what most Filipinos love; soap operas. Now we’re talking Filipino. Every major channel in Philippine television has those romantic stories starring their favorite celebrities, tackling very diverse topics such as finding love between rich and poor, forbidden love, puppy love, finding love between rich and poor, forbidden love, puppy love, finding love between rich and poor, forbidden love, and of course, puppy love.

Churning out the same thing over and over again, only under different titles (which are also related, in some way). And many of our Filipino friends just can’t get enough of that! Who wouldn’t want to witness that same, sweet, romanticized life take place before your eyes every single day, anyway? Who wouldn’t want to see the good standing triumphant in the end in the name of love? Who wouldn’t want to see that oh-so-awesome clash between the rich and the poor, and the love that blossom amidst the war?

Then something else happens. Oversimplified soap opera cliches and dei ex machina slowly, but steadily, get ingrained into the Filipino psyche as the ever-loving media continuously bombards him with the old, formulaic TV shows. And then we find ourselves staring at its magnum opus; a nation with telenovela-tinted glasses.

Soap opera cliches translate to a romanticized, glamorized view of Filipino life. The harsh realities of life here in the Philippines are diluted– filtered by those tinted glasses into nothing more than a spectacle; something to feel sorry for, something to be awed at. In other words, the hardships of our fellowmen were reduced into mere entertainment for others. The complexities surrounding the problems plaguing our society are compartmentalized into generic telenovela plot structures. Essentially, the reality of this world is forcefully simplified into something more understandable. Poor Filipinos, despite their condition, are somewhat blessed, because it’s expected that they’ll win in the end, just like how the poor guy in my favorite TV show gets the rich girl in the end. Also, look at how happy they are on TV. Look how they are still grinning, ear-to-ear, even after their homes are utterly ruined by that typhoon! Just like in TV, they are so strong-willed, so determined! I wanna see more of that!

Being poor is no obstacle to the unyielding Pinoy spirit! Just keep fighting for what you believe is right! Poor Filipinos are the underdogs; viewers love underdogs!

In effect, many Filipinos take on life with a romanticist cookie-cutter; cutting off the bad parts, leaving behind that cute image we all look forward to see in television.

(Note: You can check this article out for more about the noticeable glamorization of the poor in the Philippines.)

This, in turn, translate to Filipinos’ hopeless love for slogans and symbolism. We are a nation of symbols and slogans. We are so captivated by those pictorial representation of ideas, most of our culture is actually centered around those things. Philippine modern history is largely underpinned by that L-hand sign, that dove-shaped ribbon, and the color yellow. Filipinos would know what I’m talking about; we’re dealing with the Aquinos, of course!

Until this day, the apparent selfless heroism of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., as well as Corazon Aquino’s brand of democracy, are tirelessly being glorified by the Filipino people (the two of whom happen to be the current president’s parents), using those catchy symbols I’ve mentioned. But the average Juan’s undying love for symbolism doesn’t end here. Politicians here and there are very fond of inventing hand gestures during their political campaigns, as if to serve as some sort of condensation of their platforms into visual form (then again, the actual presence of a platform is often hotly debated during campaign season), and Filipinos love that. And symbols don’t necessarily have to be pictures; they can be a sentence, as well. Slogans, to be specific.

Erap Para sa Mahirap” (Erap for the poor). “Daang Matuwid” (Straight Path). “Gusto ko, happy ka” (I want you to be happy). These are some of those annoyingly memorable lines politicians like to use in promoting their interests to the general public. Predictably, many Filipinos willingly buy into this farce. Elections became a manner of who has the catchier jingle, who has the catchier buzz-phrase, and sometimes, who people remember (hence, political dynasties).

Filipinos tend to base the entirety of their judgment on such inaccurate, frequently unrelated condensation of ideas circling our society; Filipinos tend to look at what things look like, and not what they say or do. After all, it’s the easier thing to do, right? Everything gets simpler; just like those simplistic, straightforward plots in soap operas. In the same way we take society and its components and compartmentalize it into oversimplified romanticist packages, we tend to treat ideas as perfectly reducible into mere caricatures or catchy slogans or funny puns. Keep things simple, as they say.

Finally, Filipinos’ fixation on dei ex machina translate to a simplified, hero-based culture. You know what else Filipinos love? Heroes. Not necessarily those sword-wielding bad-asses slicing their enemies to shreds. Anyone who made it big would do. Achievers would do. Rising stars who get recognized internationally would definitely do. Just ask Manny Pacquiao.

We Filipinos have this curious fixation on anyone larger-than-life; heroic figures. Corazon Aquino is a hero for ushering this… democracy-ish system to our country! Ninoy Aquino is a hero for going back to the Philippines despite knowing that he’ll be gunned down. Manny Pacquiao is a hero because he’s the People’s Champ in the field of boxing. So and so forth.

We tend to cling on the legacy (substantial or not) of these icons and project unto them what we think is who we are as a nation. These people unwittingly serve as a vessel for the typical Filipino ideals; they become summaries of what a Filipino really is. It’s just the same old, oversimplification and compartmentalizing thing most of us Filipinos are so good at, only at a more… personal level.

It might be due to this that Filipinos tend to have this so-called “Filipino Pride.” Here we have a bunch of people who supposedly represent the essence of Filipino-ness for the whole world to see. And since they’re apparently good at what they do, it gives the essence of being Filipino great justice. In effect, it would seem that the Pacquiaos of the world are heroes; in the sense that they salvage the Filipino reputation, and, by extension, salvage Filipinos as a whole, since we treat them as the embodiment of the Pinoy vibe.

One might wonder, then, about what these modern Filipino heroes have in common. Well, they started small. They started as someone looked down upon. They started as underdogs. Pacquaio grew up in a poor family and trained his way to the celebrity he is today. Corazon Aquino, while not exactly poor, had to face Ferdinand Marcos, a stern dictator for the presidential seat, despite her being merely a housewife, deprived of substantial political experience. But she won, defying all odds, and now we enjoy the fruit of her work; 25 years’ worth of deteriorating quality of products and services, thanks to an insulated market structure, spearheaded by Philippine oligarchs. Democracy!

But never mind that; these folks won the day despite all the obstacles in their way, just like those poor main characters in TV!


The real world isn’t a soap opera; it is not a simple, sugar-coated fantasy that a whole family can watch. It is a serious, complex world where countless factors are considered to describe it accurately, where many elements are intertwined that determine the outcome of a number of actions, where pain and suffering and death pierce one’s very soul, and where solving problems require a clear, rational mind. Ridding the streets of Manila of pollution and crime transcends Erap’s fancy slogan; it requires careful planning, a seemingly endless flowchart of step-by-step procedures, risk and cost management, and proper organization of human resources, among other things. Bringing Philippine towards prosperity can’t be summed up by such a flimsy buzz-phrase as daang matuwid; we have to know about effective ways of attracting investors, managing government expenditures, paying the national debt, stimulating a lively market competition, budgeting tax revenues, and deciding which government programs are feasible. And we’re just on the tip of the iceberg.

But none of these math-y stuff matches that of the simple, romantic aura our favorite soap operas bring. Just do away with those complicated stuff and content ourselves with those overused plot devices, catchy slogans and jingles, and those cute caricatures. If you abstract life from the complexities of sociology, psychology, economics and rigorous mathematics, you’ll see that everything is just one, big, telenovela. Keep it simple!

We Filipinos are deliberately trapping ourselves in a huge, romanticist bubble. We wear our special tinted glasses and view life as nothing more than a reflection of those simplistic crap we watch on TV. We content ourselves with crude representation of ideas, and rarely the ideas themselves. We don’t get things done, only said and looked at.

No wonder we don’t get past the hurdle.