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Rodrigo Duterte and the dilemma of masculinity

Rodrigo Duterte is perhaps the most intriguing presidential candidate this year. Aside from being the only candidate from Mindanao, the Davao City Mayor is known for his unconventional tactics to curb crime, for his vulgarity in public, and for his promiscuity. During the Presidential Debates last 21 February 2016, it came as no surprise that the issue of his womanizing was brought up, to which he responded:

“Lahat naman ito sa kwarto iyan. Hindi mo naman ginagawa sa… So what’s the problem? You don’t flaunt it in public. I said I am separated from my wife. At iyong isang asawa ko nasa Amerika, iyong nurse. So, far and wide, in between those years, it’s biology. Actually, it is biology.” (All of it is in the bedroom. You’re not doing it… So what’s the problem? You don’t flaunt it in public. I said I am separated from my wife. And my other wife is in America, the nurse. So, far and wide, in between those years, it’s biology. Actually, it is biology.)

Duterte’s statement echoes what many in the Philippines believe – that it is normal for men to be philanderers because it is written in their biological make-up. The acceptance of the idea that sexual behavior is biological is manifested in the ways that Philippine society tolerates men who have mistresses or who date several women at the same time; while chastising women who engage in extramarital affairs, who change partners as often as they do their clothes, or who get pregnant out of wedlock. Many believe that men are naturally macho, and women, naturally feminine, because the sexes are born that way.

But sex and gender are not the same. Sex pertains to one’s biological constitution – to the chromosomes and reproductive organs that make one either male or female. The attitudes, roles, and expectations that society instills in each sex refer to gender. What Mayor Duterte talks of as biology – that he is a man and therefore enjoys the company of women – is actually gender. And gender is socially constructed. Babies are not born knowing how to act as men and women. Nor is this behavior inscribed in genes. Men are not naturally dominant, assertive, and philandering; women are not naturally emotional and meek. Rather, from the time they are born, babies are taught how to act in masculine or feminine ways according to the cultural standards set by a society for each of the sexes. While humans indeed have biological desires, these desires have already been shaped by culture, and the beliefs and norms inherent in one’s culture mold the person that one becomes.

An implication for thinking that gender is a matter of biology is that certain behaviors tend to be excused. “Lalake kasi. Ganyan talaga (It’s because he is a boy. It’s just the way it is)” is what people would say when they hear of how men go about their sexual involvements. Duterte’s womanizing practices indicate a level of masculinity praised in some circles of men and often accepted by women. Mistress movies and TV shows that feature dancing women in skimpy outfits are popular among both men and women, often regardless of social class.  An examination of your own household will show you how your family’s practices (eg. cleaning, care giving) and rules (eg. curfews, having boyfriends/girlfriends) reproduce gender roles and legitimate the ways that men and women are perceived.

Duterte’s womanizing tendencies thus represent societal notions of what males and females should be and the ways that society raises its children as men and women. But therein lies the dilemma of Duterte – his machismo has been frowned upon throughout this campaign period and raised as an issue during the presidential debates, but it is a brand of masculinity that is otherwise seen as a “normal” characteristic of men. In fact, the Philippines has had past presidents who have been known to harbor mistresses.

Perhaps the rancor towards Duterte’s traits stems from his being a public figure and a possible future president. People are concerned that his rowdy personality might be a bad example to the youth and could promote moral decadence in exchange for discipline. But what does setting a good example in the public space mean when in the spaces of the home, men are still taught to be men? And it is in these private spaces that the unequal trajectories of men and women begin.

But as we focus on Duterte’s macho image, it’s also difficult to ignore some of his actions and policies as a public figure. If one is to consider his private life separately, his leadership would paint a different story altogether. Aside from Davao City being one of the most liveable in Asia, its local government is also one of the most gender-responsive in the Philippines, having obtained both a Galing Pook Award and a National Commission on the Rights of Women (NCRFW) Award for Gender Responsive Local Governance.  Duterte is a supporter of the Women’s Development Code in Davao and of the Reproductive Health Bill. He has pushed for numerous ordinances to further the rights of women and the LGBT, and to promote equality between the genders.

While Duterte’s response to the issues raised against him during the presidential debates enables us to interrogate notions of sex and gender, the issues per se that pertain to his womanizing and chauvinism call us to question what is indeed worth considering. Are personal traits more important than public action? Would a public figure be able to disengage from his private masculine representations and lead the country?

One thing is for certain: It’s definitely not just biology.


Featured image taken from this site.


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