We need to talk about ‘Badjao Girl’ and ‘Friends’
Stefan Punongbayan (The Philippine Star) - June 4, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - We can begin by asking ourselves if, in doing so, we are raining on their parade.  Perhaps not.  There should not even be a need for one.  It would be completely idiotic to say that Rita “Badjao Girl” Gabiola, Jeyrick “Carrot Man” Sigmaton, and CJ “Gasoline Boy” Querol have arrived. They’ve always been here and we only failed to accord them the attention they and their less-modelesque brothers and sisters deserve, at least until recently.

This article comes with a disclaimer: Since the use of the label ‘indigenous’ remains contentious in the academe, I will use it only to highlight the disparity between the positions of Manileños and members of our esteemed ethnolinguistic groups.  After all, the rise of Gabiola and Sigmaton was made possible by the leering eyes of the Manileño gaze.

Exotic beauty

“In an alternate universe, the indigenous peoples would be the mainstream who would call us Manila Man or BGC Girl,” jokes Raymond Rodis, a schoolmate and consultant at the House of Representatives.

One can only dream of a parallel world where Filipinos are not obsessed with aquiline noses and where beauty soaps promise to darken the skin in seven days.  Then again, haven’t we fallen prey to outsider exploitation of these very physical traits back in 1904?  Never forget the St. Louis World’s Fair where Igorot people were portrayed as living artefacts and made to dance and sing in full view of those who deemed them exotic and untamed.

Today, we Manileños stare at the opposite end of the brown spectrum.  Gabiola, the Badjao beggar, and Sigmaton, the Igorot farm worker have been hailed by the most condescending netizens as the most beautiful representatives of their respective people.  Never mind that they do not necessarily epitomize what are perceived to be native Filipino traits.  Never mind that it is logically possible for poverty-stricken indigenous people (IP) to look camera-friendly by current beauty standards.  Everybody loves mascots.

Another token is Querol of Seaoil. We’ve been so used to sun-baked, hungry-looking, and yes, ugly twenty somethings pumping our gas that we couldn’t believe someone like Querol exists exclusively to fill us up full tank. It’s a Pornhub video-cum-true.  Yet, nobody seems to get aroused at the thought of minimum wage.  So much for blue-collar fantasies

But wait, there’s less!

In September 2015, two Lumad leaders and a school head were brutally slain in Surigao del Sur.  Executive director Emerico Samarte of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) was stabbed and community leaders Aurelio Sinzo and Dionel Campus were gunned down by a paramilitary group, Magahat.  And then there was silence roaming the dirt roads.

Enter Carrot Man roughly six months later.  Sigmaton was shot, not with bullets but with a cellphone, chalk it up to his effortlessly photogenic visage despite his Igorot ancestry.  Oh, did I mention it was highly unlikely for an indigenous dude to be that hot?

Of course, on May 15, at the Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, Quezon, we saw 13-year-old Gabiola carrying a baby and asking for alms. We have seen a lot of Badjao children in Manila, tapping their hand drums or polishing our shoes as we awkwardly squeezed inside running jeepneys, but not someone whom we thought was a dead-ringer for a young Tweetie De Leon.  Words fail to do justice to her dusky skin, high cheekbones, and slender nose. She’s so pretty, even Korina Sanchez was convinced she had to dedicate a few minutes of her Sunday magazine show to the Badjao Girl du jour.  The photo shoot, the scholarship, the freebies — she deserved all those good things and more for being a beautiful Badjao.  All hail the chosen one.

We’ve reached the point where diversity and inclusion have come to mean exoticism of class labels. When we fetishize Badjao Girl, Carrot Man, and Gasoline Boy while casually overlooking the issues which come with their respective identities, we leave behind the systemic oppression against IPs and minimum wage earners.  In the end, our countrymen deserve better than to be tokens and the stuff of memes.

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