It was excruciating to watch Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay na Di-Buo, not because it was badly acted or created (far from it), or because of the unconventional format and sole performer (which brought another dimension to the adaptation), and not even for the explicit sexual scenes (of which there were many), but due to the relentless and escalating violence brought upon on the main character, the dalagita, and from which there was no escape. Far from being a conservative prude, very few plays had made me squirm in my seat. But by the end of Ang Dalagita’y, after several scenes of abuse which finally and abhorrently culminated in the singular day of her brother’s death and her being raped twice, a heavy emotional exhaustion had set in. I had no twinge of sentimentality, no more pity for the character when she set out to drown herself. All fondness and empathy had been hammered away, (or perhaps I had identified too much?) that when I stared at the final, underwater scene, I did so with a deadening sense of apathy.
At this point, I wish to share that I viewed the play from a very particular standpoint– that of a female born from a middle class, conservative Catholic family and living in a patriarchal society. And that while I do not wholly identify with the label “lesbian”, I have consistently had romantic relationships with women in the past and none with men. As such, I am both fully aware of the moral order of Catholicism, of its hypocrisies towards sexuality, and of the myriad ways my life has digressed from the ideal Catholic life. This configuration allowed certain themes in the play to resonate with and/or parallel certain events in my life, of which I wish to tease out here. As a result, the initial points diverge from the questions and guidelines set out for this piece, but I feel this is necessary in order to fully flesh out how the play affected me.
The departure of the father was the first act of violence. It was an act of agency on the father’s part, before the dalagita was born into the world, but which foreshadowed the masculine and patriarchal violence she would have to endure throughout her life. This act is inflicted on the mother, the first female character introduced to the audience, whose initial joyful countenance quickly hardened upon being left behind. In this play, events are inflicted upon the females, who are all victims of circumstance and male agency, and are riddled with Catholic guilt. Religion is continuously mocked, but the characters never completely extricate themselves from its moral impositions, from its dualities of virgin and whore, virtue and sin, and purity and decay. It is a structure that the mother embraces wholeheartedly. Perhaps, having been spurned by both her father and children’s father, she turns to the Father instead, adopting and imposing His will on both her children’s lives. Thus, both father and Father cast shadows within which the dalagita is expected to live her life.
In the play, the dalagita is constantly reminded of the loss of a father figure (the lines “If only your father was here..” recurs throughout). But the effect of that abandonment was more insidious. For in truth, it was the loss of a female nurturing bond, in the form of the mother, that was perhaps her first great tragedy. Later on, with the news of her brother’s hopeless medical condition and in a desperate plea for meaningful connection, the dalagita implored her praying mother to look at her; for once, to recognize the person who was sitting across. But refusing to see, the mother pulled her shawl closer and returned with fervour to her prayers. In this scene, I am reminded of a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs.
“My mother had often told me how she had suffered from grandmama’s coldness towards her, and that she hoped she could be a friend to her daughters; but how could she have talked to me as one woman to another? In her eyes I was a soul in mortal peril; I had to be saved from damnation: I was an object, not a woman. The firmness of her convictions forbade her to make the slightest concession. If she questioned me, it was not in order to come to an understanding with me on common ground: she was simply making an investigation. I always had the feeling, whenever she asked me a question, that she was spying on me through a keyhole. The very fact that she had renounced all her claims on me shut me up like a clam.”
- from Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
While it was de Beauvoir who eventually turned cold against her mother, her coldness stemmed from a similar emotional indictment– that of the mother’s failure to recognize her daughter’s own agency and being. As long as the daughter was only considered under the lens of a patriarchal religion– her every action to be judged in the eyes of the Father– the impossibility of establishing a meaningful, genuine connection remained. Such relationship strains are also far too common between conservative parents and children whose gender and sexual identities do not coincide with the accepted heterosexual and monogamous norm. In my own personal life, such tensions are manifested everytime my mother insists that I find a husband or have a baby, despite the fact that she knows of my preference. And while these are not outright, violent rejections (not comparable to the death wish the mother hurled upon the dalagita), they remain as a refusal to recognize the choices I have made. They continue to contribute to the feeling that I am not being understood, or I am not being seen as I am. And while my mother often extols the virtue of her unconditional love for her children (which I hold on to and appreciate), in the same breath she insists upon the stringency of her own moral compass.
Which is not to say that men do not labor under the burden of non-recognition or a lack of meaningful parental connections. But perhaps what sets the dilemma of women apart is in how those issues are intrinsically tied with moral perceptions on sexuality and the body. Women are seen as sexual beings, whether or not they are actively performing their sexual personas. Furthermore, we are judged on how rightly or wrongly we conduct these personas, based on standards that work against us. This is an issue that women of all sexualities have to deal with. And this also brings us to the figure of the uncle, a character who brings about a cycle of sexual helplessness, defiance, and depravity in the dalagita’s life.
A few years ago, I had returned to school to study painting and found myself exploring portrayals of sexuality and the body. It was an impulse I initially resisted, feeling somewhat ashamed of having to talk about the works with my teachers and younger classmates. But it was one I found compelling and hard to fight. I was also well aware of how the bodies of women have been subjected to the masculine gaze in the tradition of painting, and this brought me to a bit of a dilemma. Thus, in working, I sought to represent an image of an intimate, but ultimately, empowered female sexuality.
Another problem soon presented itself as I continued my studies. I found myself having to hide my own works at home, away from the eyes of my parents. This meant locking the door while I was painting. This also implied that in the future, if I were to continue the themes that I was working on, I could not invite them to a show.
The last painting I created was a large diptych. The stretchers exceeded my own height. The images were candy-colored and bright. In the first one, I had painted a penis inside a blender, set against a bright blue background. In the second image, a coagulated, flesh-colored liquid in a glass with a red and white straw. The paintings still exist, rolled up in a room in our house that no one has used for years. I do not have pictures of it, I doubt if anyone would want it, and I am thinking of eventually destroying it. It is far too big, far too sexual, and far too deviant for my family’s moral code. The peace in our home hangs upon a precious balance after all. I am free to do the things I do, but always away from the family sphere. At the moment, there is little hope of integration.
In the succeeding years, I have since shifted course towards reading, researching, and writing about art. My explorations on the topic of sex have also been relegated to writing, albeit to ones that focus more on personal relations than on explicit sexuality. Hiding writings are easier. They are far less unwieldy than paintings, and there are infinite pockets of space in the internet in which I can slip them into.
When I was thirteen and commuting home from school, I was sexually harassed. A guy sitting beside me inside the jeepney started touching me. Initially, I thought his arm was just accidentally grazing my body. But it quickly dawned on me that I was being taken advantage of when I pushed his hand away and it quite simply, to my amazement, resumed touching me again. I immediately asked the jeepney driver to stop and bolted out of the vehicle, feeling stunned. A year later, also commuting home from school and also inside a jeepney, I found myself sitting beside a guy who had a backpack on his lap and one hand under this bag. It turned out he was unzipping his fly and taking out his penis, which I had the unfortunate experience of seeing. I would have been able to step out of the jeepney immediately, have I not first mistakenly and confusedly pondered on why the guy beside me had a “leathery” looking belt. This confusion eventually turned into dread when I saw that his leathery belt had a bulbous head. Once again, I immediately bolted out of the vehicle.
While I had walked out of both situations physically unscathed, I also came out of it with a palpable sense of rage. This coincided with the realization that while I was ignorant of the many facets of human sexuality, to such an extent that I was yet incapable of performing a sexual persona, I can still be seen in a sexual light. It was not a matter of me wanting the sexual attention or advances, but simply a matter of circumstance and by virtue of being female. Such occurrences are quite common, and I can mention several stories from women that I personally know who had dealt with worse situations. But I bring my personal stories to fore because it was through the lens of such experiences that I understood the uncle’s attraction towards the dalagita. It is how I understood that her innocent feelings of attraction towards the uncle were not of the same substance as his sexual attraction towards her. It was an understanding that came from the gut. One can be sexualized long before one had an inkling or understanding of one’s own sexuality, and thus, long before one can have the necessary emotional and psychological maturity to have control of its expressions. In the case of the dalagita, she was robbed of the pubescent process of grappling with her own sexuality as a more dominant, masculine desire overshadowed her own agency. Later on, she came to an instrumentalist appreciation of the sexual act. Sex became a weapon that she learned to utilize against the school boys to socially absolve her own brother. The brother, upon learning of her numerous trysts, violently demanded her to stop– an ironic imposition of another masculine will against a growing sense, albeit distorted, of self-agency and control.
Which is not to say that one cannot regain control of one’s own sexuality in a healthy manner. And here perhaps lies my largest problem with the story. The dalagita never regains control and her sexual persona remains broken. Upon moving to the city and confronting a newfound freedom, I had hoped for a change in narrative, a pause perhaps from the downward spiral that the play seems to be moving towards. Instead, the dalagita engages in numerous meaningless sexual encounters, spurning the men who offer her companionship and support beyond the sexual act. And while this initially appeared as an act of independence (the woman not needing a man in his life), it would later prove to be a manifestation of the dalagita’s incapability in establishing normal, healthy, sustained, and loving sexual relationships. Even her bestfriend in the city, a seemingly carefree and strong woman character, is later revealed to have had sexual relations with her own father, and is thus, another broken figure. Here sex is portrayed in a myriad of forms– as masculine imposition, as rape, as instrument, as deviance, as defiance. But it is never portrayed as sex for sheer female pleasure; never the sexual act as play, never as enjoyment. The woman is either victim or depraved.
Woman-to-woman sexual relationships evoke a conflicted sense of curiosity amongst men. On one hand, lesbian sexual acts deny the men an active role and thus elicit rage. But on the other extreme, a voyeuristic culture towards lesbian sex has developed; one that is anchored largely on the promise that the women are performing for the pleasure of men or that a man can join the women and partake of the act. It is on the first end that I had initially understood and framed my own choices– as a denial of the desires of men. In inhabiting my own persona as a woman in a relationship with other women, I had done so with an odd sense of pride. It was for me a rejection of, quite crudely, the penis. A reversal of that single traumatic moment in the jeep during my youth. I resolved to remain free of the burden of courting the attention of men, of having to stroke their ego or pride. But what of women who are attracted to men? Are they, by nature, capitulating to the patriarchy? Do they have no choice but to subject themselves to the wiles of men? In retrospect, my freedom from wanting to be wanted by men was an accident, a quirk of nature. On a surface level, it did not spare me from cat calls across the street, nor did it help me escape from the heteronormative and patriarchal expectations upon my person. It was then that I thought that perhaps I needed to frame my own sense of sexual agency, not in a negation of masculine attraction, but in more positive terms. One that was based on consent, compassion, and understanding. One that celebrated a specific type of sexuality, while also recognizing and accepting a myriad of other types. It is in this renewed sense of agency that I felt it best to move on with my life.
When the dalagita moved back to the province, resumed relations with the uncle, and grappled with the imminent death of the brother, her fate seemed all but sealed. Mirroring the first time the dalagita was introduced onstage (floating inside the water of her mother’s womb), she is then portrayed in the end as trapped and floating in a blue, underwater cube. It is a brief and tragic denouement to a thankless and violent life. It is also one that left me frustrated and depressed. Perhaps it is wrong for me to insist upon deliverance. Perhaps one should learn to accept that some works are difficult to stomach, are without hope or redemption, and that this is not necessarily wrong. To an extent, perhaps confronting stories such as Ang Dalagita’y can touch similarly broken lives and lead to cathartic breakthroughs. I am not so sure. But if I were to change the ending, I would have her walk away. Not exit to the side of the stage, or have the lights dim upon her, but to have her break the fourth wall, go down the stage and and, quite simply, without fuss, to walk away. This wish ending is rooted in both the dalagita’s experiences and my own, and is symbolic of the desire to be free of the oppressive structures in which we find ourselves born into. One can argue that a character cannot exist outside its story, and all the more so for the dalagita, who is the sole physical character of the play. The play, in fact, consists of the events of her own life, from birth to death, narrated through her own voice and performed through her singular body. Thus, a rejection of the play would require a rejection of herself as the dalagita. And this is what is implied in breaking through the fourth wall. For only in ceasing to be the character can she finally transcend the vicious narrative. In stepping out of the play, a promise of a life defined by herself, breaks open.
The promise remains upon the horizon, if not for the dalagita, then perhaps for the other women similarly constrained and oppressed in this world.