The Price of ‘Machismo Populism’ in the Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters pass off his behavior as innocent. But it says something deeper about how he governs.

The kiss drew outrage and disgust, but not surprise. At a gathering of Filipino migrant workers in South Korea, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, unexpectedly kissed Bea Kim, a Filipino migrant worker, on the lips. Kim, who is married to a Korean national, later gave an interview to a state-run television network in which she said the kiss was meant only to entertain and titillate the crowd of mostly Duterte supporters and fans like her. “There was no malice in it. For me, for him, it didn’t mean anything,” Kim said in the interview. Harry Roque, the president’s spokesperson, said “obviously, there is no offended party here. The lady who was kissed has clearly expressed the view that she was honored with the kiss.”

Women’s-rights groups and activists slammed the incident as a “despicable display of sexism.” “Even if the act was consensual, it was the president, possessed of awesome, even intimidating, power, who initiated it. It was not a meeting of two consenting individuals on equal terms. Uneven power relations were clearly at play. And President Duterte took advantage of that severe power disparity,” Senator Risa Hontiveros said in a statement.

Displays of sexism are nothing new for the 73-year-old Duterte, who often flaunts his machismo. During the 2016 campaign, he was often photographed with young women sitting on his lap, and sometimes kissed them on the cheek or lips. Later, he drew repeated condemnation for his insults and misogynistic remarks: A rape joke about an Australian nun, and another joke about ordering soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina because “they are nothing without it,” an assurance to soldiers fighting ISIS affiliates in southern Philippines that they could rape up to three women and he would protect them.

Yet Duterte also tried to project the image of a sweet-talking Casanova, often talking about how much he loved women—a foul-mouthed bad boy with a soft side. Most of his followers, who proudly call themselves DDS (Die-hard Duterte Supporters), view him as a father figure. Many affectionately called him by the nickname Tatay Digong, or “Daddy Digong.”

But Duterte’s two-year-old presidency has revealed Daddy Digong’s vindictive side, one he tends to show when women have dared to call out his crude behavior or oppose the controversial policies like his brutal war on drugs, which has left thousands of suspected drug users and pushers dead.

When Senator Leila de Lima, one of Duterte’s most vocal critics, called for an investigation into the drug war, the president relentlessly vilified her in his speeches, promising to “destroy her, make her cry and let her rot in jail.” In early 2017, de Lima was charged with drug trafficking—an unbailable offense—and detained. She denied the charges but remains in detention, awaiting a trial that may never come, at least while Duterte remains in office.

Most recently, Lourdes Sereno, the Philippines’ first woman chief justice, faced impeachment for allegedly evading taxes and failing to declare her assets. Like De Lima, Sereno opposed Duterte’s drug war and his declaration of martial law in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, which was overrun by ISIS-affiliated terrorists in May 2017. Sereno claimed that the move against her had “the imprimatur of the president;” in response, Duterte declared her his enemy, and promised he would have her immediately impeached. Following a vote from her fellow justices, Sereno was removed from her post.

For many political analysts, Sereno’s removal was not just an act of vindication for Duterte: It represented the collapse of an independent judiciary,  and the further consolidation of power under Duterte, who has said he will not choose a woman to succeed Sereno.

Duterte’s blatant sexism and misogyny, and the way his supporters applaud it and other Filipinos seems to tolerate or ignore it, come into direct tension with the advancements of women in Philippine society. Two women have served as president of the Philippines, an achievement that many developed nations cannot claim. (Both came into power by overthrowing a sitting male president.) A recent McKinsey Global Institute report also showed that the Philippines leads the Asia-Pacific Region on gender equality in the workplace. The country has also consistently ranked among the top 10 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, which recognizes gender equality in labor force participation, education, health, and political empowerment.

And yet: Duterte managed to tap into a sexist strain that has long festered just beneath the surface.

While Duterte’s crude displays are unprecedented for national politicians, they are not a radical departure for the male archetype that many Filipino women have grown up with. In their country’s conservative, devout Catholic culture, elders are  often accorded an almost-unquestionable respect, which may explain why supporters have embraced Duterte as a father figure, as Daddy Digong. “I suspect it’s easy to blur the lines about consent when you shift the context to ‘elder relative and younger relative.’ It's not far-reaching to apply this to Duterte given the way his followers have embraced him as a father figure and laugh off his sleazy behavior the way they laugh off a creepy uncle,” said Marla Darwin, one of the founders of the feminist group Grrrl Gang Manila.

One line of defense used by presidential spokesperson Harry Roque to justify Duterte’s kiss: It was “a playful act” and showed “a light moment that is acceptable in Filipino culture.” Darwin has heard many stories from girlfriends about unwanted advances from men, passed off as seemingly innocuous moments. “My girlhood was littered with stories of older male relatives sticking their tongues into mouths and ears of young girls—or worse—and having to recap these uncomfortable stories in whispers when we're older. There is still this societal familial expectation to laugh it off, keep it under wraps, and to essentially let it go because ‘boys will be boys,’’” she said.

Male action stars popularized in Philippines’ cinema and telenovelas who save the day seemingly using nothing more than braggadocio, and noontime variety shows where scantily clad women dance and male hosts flirt with them, glorify machismo and normalize sexist behavior.

Duterte capitalizes on this.“Duterte’s brand of machismo is familiar to many Filipinos. It is a combination of a tough father who would fight until the end for his family and a drunk uncle who is usually charming but would make people uncomfortable in family reunions for his inane comments. The president's personality is both complex yet familiar, which perhaps explains why some people give him a free pass because they have given a lot of other men a free pass before,” explained the sociologist Nicole Curato.

“Misogyny is deeply entrenched in Philippine society and culture,” said Betty Romero, a teacher and activist. Romero is one of the organizers of #BabaeAko (or “I am a Woman”), an online campaign of women’s rights advocates and activists that started in late May after Sereno’s removal. “We want to send a very clear message that this attitude and this behavior is simply unacceptable,” Romero added.

Others warn about the long-term impacts of letting Duterte’s behavior slide. “It is a war of attrition—a lot of our fragile gains on women’s rights are being undone and we are fighting to hold the line,” said Sharmila Parmanand, a Filipina who is a gender studies PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. She lamented how the onslaught of insults and brash behavior from the highest official in the land have unleashed the same kind of repulsive behavior from other government officials.

Women’s rights activists, together with the University of the Philippines College Department of Women and Development studies, have set up a Facebook page called “Bantay Bastos” (roughly translated into “Vulgarity Watch”) where citizens could report public figures for promoting comments and actions that degrade and harm women. “We now have to go back to explain why rape jokes are offensive and or that public officials shouldn’t use their authority to solicit physical intimacy from women. People in power are  making excuses for these transgressions and we are spending more time firefighting against them,” Parmanand said.

There have been other pockets of resistance from women’s groups, usually sparked by Duterte’s actions against women. But feminist Ninotchka Rosca says what is needed is a sustained campaign that will have both the traction and the clamor to call out Duterte. “I surmise that with the pressure of relentless murders and a barrage of insanity from Duterte supporters, women’s issues could have been sidelined momentarily,” Rosca said.

This is especially worrying in the current Philippine context, amid the chaos of the drug war, geopolitical tensions caused by Duterte’s pivot to China, and skyrocketing inflation. “The greatest tragedy of Duterte’s incontinence, often with ... sexual dimensions, is how it exhausts the national energy. It drives the diplomatic and press teams constantly into overdrive and distracts the country from real and complex policy challenges. Distraction from urgent national concerns is the greatest price of machismo populism,” said the political analyst Richard Heydarian.