Bela Padilla cover
The Bikini Issue, March 2012
In view of the Bela Padilla FHM cover controversy, one thing is supremely obvious: ang galing ng marketing ng Summit Media. Surely something this big and this obvious was no mere accident. This had to be done on purpose. “For the record,” admits FHM Philippines on its Facebook page, “we were never able to print any copy that had the original cover. We pulled the cover image before it hit the printing press.” In short, tons of publicity at no extra cost, not a single print issue wasted. Not that the Philippines’ top-selling magazine title needed any more help, but props to the publisher for its excellent marketing sense. But let’s not dwell on that.
The outrage over the “racist” cover reeks of 1., a selective eye on issues, and 2., an enchantment with the politically correct. As if saying, “sure, you’re a vulgar magazine, but you can’t be THAT vulgar!” Where do we draw the line, and how?
What is evident here is not racism per se, but the awkward appropriation of racial struggle. Bela Padilla is clearly not white, and apparently her black harem of “shadows” are just good old Pinays painted black. Not that the blackface is any less violent–certainly I do not wish to defend a cover that lacks any political, social or artistic merit. But the real issue here is the way Filipinos appear to aspire, and are encouraged to aspire, not just to be white, but to be first world. FHM, in the first place, is a first-world franchise, and the task of the local arm is to mimic and aspire to be just as good as the original.
The Bela Padilla cover reeks of an aspiration to be first world (meaning white/American) and to have first-world American problems like blackface and racial segregation. The FHM cover visualizes our society’s dichotomy wherein the pretty ones can, through glutathione or Photoshop, aspire to be white, while the hopelessly dark can aspire to be cool, like Apl.de.Ap, and be black. The violence of this aspiration is that the dream is to move up the global hierarchy, rather than dismantle it.
In a neocolony like the Philippines, however, there is no clear white versus black clash, no apartheid, no Black Panther movement. And while it should be clear that our white masters still make their presence known via the US Embassy and the Balikatan exercises, today, in the age of Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice and US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., skin color is no longer a reliable visual cue for oppression.
Ideology cannot simply be read through the color of one’s skin. Save for Kris, the Aquinos are very brown. So are the Marcoses and the Arroyos. The white colonizers still flourish through the Ayalas, but the economic foothold is shared with the Sys, Tans, Cojuangcos–and the Gokongweis who, not coincidentally, run FHM Philippines. The local oppressors are not white, and the oppressed are not all black. In the same way, the oppressors are not all male and heterosexual.
Identity politics is a slippery slope. On the one hand, it is a testament to struggle that marginalized groups–women, queers, “colored” races–have begun to transcend their chains and are now, slowly but steadily, defining their own destinies. On the other hand, this does not make them infallible from committing the same oppression they have gone against. (The publisher of FHM Philippines, for example, is a woman.)
In fact, it is easy to get too caught up in identity politics and lose sight of larger divides, namely, class politics and the problem we call imperialism. In the case of FHM Philippines, it is easy to see the “racist” overtones. But such an assessment is merely skin-deep. The danger of this kind of politically correct outrage that the FHM cover stirred is that it borders on infringing on the right to aesthetic play or artistic license, the way artists play with color or actors are allowed to change their looks for a role.
More importantly, few raised outrage over the fact that the women on the cover were almost naked–six of them. Or that this has been going on for years now. That wannabe stars have to transition, via FHM, to being “sexy” in order to succeed. That ordinary girls grow up to aspire to be “GF of the Month” and be part of the “Babe Catalogue.”
It is unsettling that so many people raised a furor over the “racist” image, but so few registered concern over the fact that the Philippines’ number one selling magazine involves the regular, encouraged and systematized objectification of women under the banner of a periodical called, explicitly, “For Him.”
A cover like that, with its frank “racism,” is too obvious to be honest. The Bela Padilla cover is designed to provoke, to stir controversy, to create a buzz–and sell more copies. The “offensive” FHM cover, released online, was targeted to a certain population that had access to digital editions in particular and internet in general. And that population, the “intellectual” upper middle class and “liberal” civil society, swallowed the provocation, hook, line and sinker. The outraged articles, the angry petitions, the reactions from women’s groups were all fire to FHM’s arson. How else, after all, would a cheap lad mag trend on Twitter and be featured on Time, BBC and the Huffington Post?
Meanwhile, the new cover is out. The blackened girls have amalgamated into a single huge boulder. Bela Padilla remains just as white, if not even more mestiza-Latina looking than the previous cover. The shadow girls may be gone, but she is still surrounded by darkness. And the brightest thing in the FHM firmament is the moon, the source of all light, fiercely and unabashedly white. This is supposedly more acceptable.
After the controversy, FHM’s cover is politely subdued, Bela’s bikini simplified and unusually modest for a “Bikini Issue.” The cover girl will be tasteful for a while until the fiasco passes from public memory, and the magazine will continue to condition women to willingly (sometimes proudly) objectify themselves “For Him.” And men will continue to expect this as natural and desirable. Civil society is happy with a “retraction” and an apology, Summit Media quietly rakes in the dough, and all is well. That, for me, is the real outrage.
If anything good can be gleaned from the Bela Padilla controversy, it is that we see a magazine struggling to remain relevant and prominent in the changing times. Anti-racist sentiment is strong. Hopefully, someday, people would react as strongly to the objectification of women and men’s bodies–and that this would manifest concretely in the dwindling sales of magazines like FHM. #
Entry filed under: Advertising, Edgar Allan Paule, Graphic design. Tags: Bela Padilla, bikini, bikini issue, FHM, FHM Philippines, first world, gender, gender discrimination, magazine, men's magazine, objectification, publishing, racial discrimination, racism, sex, sexism, sexist, Summit Media, swimsuit cover, women, women objectification.