There is a problem present in Filipino pop culture (and elsewhere) that we need to talk about. It encompasses our distaste for dark skin, our efforts to be taller and thinner, and our obsession with looking youthful and rich. And yet, it affects even those who appear to conform to traditional beauty standards. The problem is that we have such a hard time allowing each other to feel beautiful and claim it out loud.
In 2017, Mark “Macoy” Averilla shot into stardom when he uploaded a clip from the popular film The Devil Wears Prada dubbed in Filipino with a slew of jokes, many of which made use of local gay slang (“Bekimon” or “Bekinese”). He would later upload a video in the same style, this time taking clips from the cult classic Mean Girls. One of the scenes he dubbed over shows the protagonist, Cady, confronted with the titular mean girls in their school cafeteria. Regina compliments Cady for being pretty, to which Cady says “Thank you.” Instantly, Regina snaps back, “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?”
Averilla’s simple yet spot-on translation: “So maganda ka? Ganda ka?” takes what would normally be considered kind words and douses them in sarcasm, turning the tables on the receiver. In contrast with the declarative “(Ang) ganda mo!”, the question casts doubt on whether the person being referred to is actually pretty, suggesting that they may be alone in thinking so. Further, it brings to light the strange standard that exists in the way we assess each other’s actions: The more attractive you are, the more easily you can get away with audacious behavior.
This can be observed in criticisms of women’s character (“Grabe maka-demanda si ate! Bakit, maganda ba siya?”) and even extends to how we criticize men (“Nambabae siya? Sa itsura niyang ‘yan?”). Beauty standards have long favored and reflected those privileged by economic class, but in this case, it appears that meeting these beauty standards bestows upon you another kind of privilege: the privilege to behave badly. If we condemn another person’s actions and say that they aren’t attractive enough to be acting that way, does it not follow that if they were attractive, their actions would be acceptable? This is the disturbing overlap between our judgment of physical appearance and our (apparently flexible) moral codes.
As much as we shouldn’t be motivated to look attractive so that we can act and speak negatively without consequences, neither should beauty be treated as an elusive kind of currency. Acknowledging your beauty is not a criminal act. There is an expectation of women to invest an enormous amount of time, money, and effort to uphold beauty standards. Despite the weight of this burden, there is also an expectation of humility. Women are expected not to accept compliments with too much enthusiasm. Although some steps in the right direction have been made with the emergence of the body positivity and self-love movements, there is still a tendency for women claiming their own beauty to be met with eye rolls and cries of “arrogant”, “full of herself”, and “feelingera”.
This can also serve as a wake-up call for us to examine how we pay each other compliments. Do we have a specific expectation for how the receiver of the compliment should respond? If so, does this expectation depend on whether or not they’re conventionally attractive? Perhaps the most sincere compliment is the one that we give freely, no strings attached, that we mean sincerely regardless of how the receiver responds to it.
At the same time, we shouldn’t limit our kind words for each other to comments on physical appearance. There are so many dimensions to the term “Maganda” and so many layers of beauty, so there’s no need to restrict ourselves. We can celebrate our faces, our skin, our hair, and our bodies, as well as our talents, our values, our skills, and everything we can accomplish together.