The pop culture renaissance of the Filipino matriarch

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There is a long-standing debate about Philippine society being patriarchal or matriarchal.

The bloody, bludgeoned body was tossed mercilessly into the excavation, along with the remains of other innocent workers — uncertain if they’re dead or alive. Buried beneath layers of rocks, sand and concrete, the corpses hardened into their destiny: the foundation of a messily dysfunctional, aristocratic family’s ambitious construction project on which the matriarch would later on take the stage, crooning Pilita Corrales’ “Kapantay ay Langit,'' while people whisper about their alleged hidden wealth.

This scene from the pilot episode of the Philippine drama television series “Dirty Linen” was an undeniable success, but moreover, it shed light on the enduring power of the Filipino matriarch. While Tessie Tomas’ Doña Cielo Fiero — a cane-wielding, thrillingly murderous, but also heavily religious head of the family — is a figment of the imagination, she represents a female figure that has long existed in Philippine society.

Over the past few years, matriarchs have been having a moment. “Kadenang Ginto’s” Daniela Mondragon, played by Dimples Romana, was immortalized as a meme in her red dress, black purse, and red suitcase.

But even as early as the year 2000, when “Pangako Sa ‘Yo’s” Madame Claudia (Jean Garcia) rose to fame, this was how wealthy wives have been usually portrayed — as villains. How does this portrayal of Filipino matriarchs as antagonists further stereotype and shape our understanding of women?

Matriarchy and women’s ‘informal influence’

There is a long-standing debate about Philippine society being patriarchal or matriarchal.

The 500-year tradition of “indigenous feminism” in pre-colonial times predated the emancipation of women in the West. At that time, women had a high status in society. However, scholars note that our history of Spanish colonialism introduced the patriarchal culture in the socioeconomic and political fabric of Philippine society.

As far back as the ‘80s, Filipina academic Delia D. Aguilar, author of landmark studies on the women's movement in the Philippines, has been interrogating the gender relations of power in the family. In her 1989 paper, she wrote: “It is perfectly safe to say that in no other part of the Orient [do women have] relatively so much freedom or…play so large a part in the control of the family or in social or even industrial affairs.”

“Enjoying an equal status with her husband, [the woman] nevertheless gives him the illusion that he is lord and master of his household. Although she accepts a form of double morality, the males being allowed freedom denied the female members of her family, her informal influence in society often affects the economic and political affairs of the country.”

One need not look far to understand the extent of women’s “informal influence.”

At the country’s highest seat of power, three strong female figures are warmly ensconced within the proximity.

The President’s mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, has been previously described as the “supreme politician in the family” and a kingmaker in the Lauren Greenfield documentary of the same name.

The Presidential sister Senator Imee Marcos, apart from being the self-appointed SAP (“Super Ate ng Pangulo”) has began producing Marcos-centric films. In these films, she has the most prominent role, where she was in fact the titular “Maid in Malacañang” with the elder Marcos uttering the line: “Ikaw [Imee] naman ang pinakamahusay na katulong sa Malacañang.” (You, Imee, are the best maid in Malacañang.)

Finally, the current First Lady, Liza Araneta-Marcos, who previously implied she did not want to be involved in politics, was repeatedly rumored to have a hand in presidential appointments. The rumors were so rampant that both the First Lady and her husband have made statements to address them, with President Marcos explaining in a January media panel interview that his wife only “helps in terms of organization.” “Not political decisions,” said President Marcos during the interview. “Legal. I will ask her. Whenever there’s a legal question, I’m not a lawyer, so I need an expert opinion. She’s right next to me most of the time, so I could turn to her,” he said. The First Lady, meanwhile, sent a video message to members of the Malacañang Press Corps, in which she said that she was “sick and tired of people using [her] name” in the appointments of Intelligence Service Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) officials.

The strong female character

If the 2022 Presidential elections proved that Filipinos still gravitate towards strong male figures, where do women position themselves in this society?”

A 2001 study by Leonora C. Angeles investigated the complexity of Filipino masculinity. “We often hear Filipino men speak of themselves as ‘macho, machunurin sa asawa,’ as member of the ‘Yukuza, yuko sa asawa,’ or as ‘Pedrong Taga, taga-luto, taga-laba,’” she wrote.

In today’s Instagram era, this has evolved into the cutesy titles like “The Bullied Husbands Club,” popularized by Argentinian businessman Nico Bolzico, husband of Filipina-French multi-hyphenate Solenn Heussaff.

“Jokes and common sayings do tell something about culturally-specific world views,” Angeles wrote. “In this case, they reveal much about Filipino men’s varied forms of display and different varieties of masculinities, as well as local anxieties about changing gender roles and identities.”

Louie Jon A. Sanchez, Associate Professor of Broadcast Communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman, observed that our colonial history influenced our collective consciousness to bestow gender upon the concept of “strength.”

“We’ve associated strength with males,” he said in an interview with CNN Philippines Life. “Eventually, for women to legitimize their position in society, she needed to confront the patriarchy. She needed to be a strong woman.”

“Sometimes, women connive to be legitimized in a highly patriarchal system,” Sanchez added. “Which explains, for instance, the case of the late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, etc. In the politics of patriarchy, you will not win if you’re soft spoken. Kaya mabenta si Inday Sara [Duterte-Carpio],” he said. “Leni [Robredo] was a dream candidate, but she was criticized for being ‘weak.’”

The media reflects society’s biases in the form of tropes. But are these tropes accurate?

“I think, more than a matter of accuracy, we have to ask what these representations assert about current reality,” Sanchez said. “Representation can never be completely accurate. But what is this phenomenon? What are these strong women standing for?”

He added: “Yun bang mga paninindigan at pagpapahalaga nila ay mabuti? Iba-iba ang strong women e. Tanong ang pino-pose talaga nila.”

Representation in media

In Hollywood, the category “strong female lead” has been used to depict empowered women in contrast to the damsel-in-distress. A 2021 study revealed: “there is a bias toward portraying women characters with more masculine-gendered language in order to depict them as heroes, resulting in an influence on the way society views traditionally feminine qualities.”

Strong female leads in Philippine cinema have been championed by Filipina filmmakers such as Antoinette Jadaone, who was recently hailed as one of eight Women of Influence Awardees for 2023 by Cosmopolitan Philippines. She was cited as having featured “strong, independent women in the lead,” a decision she said was inspired by her upbringing of being surrounded by independent women. (“Hindi nage-exist sa world ko yung weak women.”)

In Jadaone’s “Alone/Together” starring Liza Soberano, lead character Christine was depicted as an “overachieving art student” — a contrast to male lead Raf. The film reflects on dreaming big or choosing love.

“I tell women’s stories because we need more women stories told from the lens of a woman,” Jadaone said. “When we, especially kids and young women, see women in film and TV being empowered, with their own agency, being allowed to be who they want to be, it reflects on them and empowers them too. Representation in the media is a powerful tool.”

This is how Jadaone hopes Philippine cinema will depict women: “Bida ng buhay nila. Sila ang may hawak ng desisyon nila.” She added, “And also, women in other genres than romance.”

After all, the portrayal of women in stereotypical romance roles, as better halves or homemakers, drives Aguilar’s notion that women’s influence is informal. Onscreen and on the ground, many of them wield power as a wife — an extension of her husband, the lord and master of the household.

“I have always argued for an examination of the society in which gender is situated,” Aguilar said in a recent Facebook message, three decades after her paper was published. “For this reason, I do not entertain the illusion that merely putting women in power positions will result in a more equitable society.”

So in the end, is the renaissance of the matriarch a step forward for the women’s movement, if under their watch, other women are bludgeoned to death and buried into obscurity?