Entertaining Politics and Politicizing Entertainment
Liberal Party candidate for the President Mar Roxas (left of center with palm raised to sky) and candidate for Vice President Leni Robredo (in front of Roxas) with their family members and celebrity supporters.
Filipinos are fascinated with entertainment even before colonization. From traditional public recitations of our epics to the contemporary forms of storytelling in kalye seryes, we always find ways to entertain ourselves. Perhaps, our fascination with entertainment has been reinforced throughout our history of suffering. We treat entertainment as a way to ‘escape’ our daily troubles. In effect, we anoint entertainers as ‘heroes’ who save us from our melancholic lives.
Electoral campaigns deploy celebrity endorsers to capture the attention of the voting public. This strategy plays around with both our fascination with entertainment and our adoration of entertainers. Celebrities are perceived as effective tools to draw and mobilize crowds into campaign rallies. Not to mention, the recent decades have also shown a substantial number of celebrities elected in various national and local positions. This indicates the currency of celebrities in Philippine electoral politics.
‘Smoke Screen’ Celebrities
Entertainers are trained to perform. They are expected to make us believe in something that is not there. Differently put, their job is to make us see substance in something hollow. They are able to make us fall in love when there is no love. A heartthrob (if he is a good actor) can convincingly say ‘I love you’ to his leading lady in a kalye serye even without actual feelings. He needs to tell the love narrative so he can entertain the audience.
This is not to say that entertainers are liars. Good performers can convincingly perform because the scenario becomes true to them. They use their real experiences to create make-believe moments relatable to the audience.
The ability to substantiate something hollow is what many politicians count on celebrities for during elections. The ability of entertainers to say “Mapagmahal si Candidate X!” with conviction and charisma is what makes them marketable during elections. This same ability can act as the smoke screen veiling social issues from the voting public.
Most celebrities, when they endorse candidates, stress ‘good’ personal qualities of their personal bets. They use statements like “Mabait po siya”, “May puso sa mahihirap”, “Mapagmahal sa bayan”, and “May malasakit”. These statements seem to redirect the discussion from social issues to personal traits. The discourse becomes one of personal morality. It contributes to the creation of standards where candidates are assessed based on personal traits.
These statements or standards seem fair or benign in the surface. They become dangerous when they tend to highlight personal moral qualities and overlook other important qualities like competence, efficiency, experience, and track record in governance. The tendency is to provide absolute judgment based on one factor alone. The tendency also is to portray these personal moral standards as ideal standards since they came from the mouth of our ‘celebrity heroes’.
Reconfiguring the Use of Celebrities
Entertainers’ abilities to tell stories using their personal truths provide the possibility to transform their role during elections. Without taking the right of celebrities to endorse, I think their role should include tackling social issues affecting them and their admirers. Instead of just highlighting personal qualities of the candidates, they can help deepen the discussion by providing a way for the voting public to reflect on their stories and figure out what issues they deem relevant to them.
Candidate for the Senate Neri Colmenares with his celebrity niece, Angel Locsin.
In an interview by Rappler published online on August 10, 2015, Lea Salonga was asked with different issue-based questions about reproductive health, gay marriage, social network and the state of the arts. Without endorsing a particular candidate, Lea Salonga used her personal experiences as an artist to grapple with her support for reproductive health and marriage equality.
Salonga’s interview showcased self-reflection. By using her personal experiences with gays and lesbians, she was able to understand why she supports marriage equality. Instead of setting a standard of judging candidates, this self-reflection provided an example of how each of us can reflect on our experiences and figure out what issues are important to us. This will enrich our way of assessing candidates come May 2016.