In recent years, the aswang—a supernatural creature of Philippine folklore that is often associated with female monstrosity and patriarchal misogyny—is being flamboyantly queered across a range of media. The aswang is a centuries-old transmedial, transgeneric figure whose monstrosity has been interpellated by gender-essentialist agendas while nonetheless epitomizing disruptive gender instabilities. In the handful of texts that comprise queer aswang transmedia—a 2011 Filipino novel (Ricky Lee’s Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata [Amapola in 65 Chapters]), mainstream film (Mga Bata ng Lagim [Children of Terror], dir. Mar S. Torres, 1964), and amateur digital video (Amabilis 2, 2011)—the aswang, an iconic female monster, is being destabilized and re-imagined. Gay men (or more accurately, bakla subjects) are occupying the place formerly reserved for monstrous women. This queering of aswang transmedia is a forceful, funny, yet undeniably risky reapproriation lodged in language (“swardspeak”) and a kind of pinoy [Filipino] camp style.
This essay attempts to theorize a distinctly Filipino camp sensibility in relation to queer time. It wrestles with queer aswang transmedia’s implications for both temporality (since anachronism underpins the cultural figures of both bakla and aswang) and visibility (queer scholars argue that the bakla, stigmatized as effeminate and lower class, is increasingly the object of forcible bourgeois erasure in the face of the urban gay scene’s aspirations toward an imagined gay globality.)
bakla manananggal (viscera sucker); pinoy camp temporality; anachronism and coeval- ness; queering Philippine folklore; baylan and asog (indigeneous Animist shamans) About the Author
Bliss Cua Lim is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic and Temporal Critique (Duke University Press, 2009; Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2011). Her research and teaching center on cinematic and queer temporality, Philippine
Queer AswAng TrAnsmediA:
FolKlore As CAmp
Bliss Cua Lim
department of Film and media studies and Ph.d. Program in Visual studies university of California, irvine
cinema, postcolonial feminist theory, and transnational horror and the fantastic. She is currently working on the archival crises of Philippine cinema.
Queer AswAng TrAnsmediA: FolKlore As CAmp1
Something new is happening in the Philippines’ vibrant transmediascape. In at least two genres that command both popular and indie appeal—the Tagalog novel in print and independent digital cinema—the aswang, a supernatural creature of Philippine folklore, is being flamboyantly queered. At the moment, only a handful of print and screen texts feature queer aswang, though more conventional depictions of aswang in Philippine popular culture have enjoyed a thriving resurgence since at least 2008. 22
That depictions of aswang emerge across media should come as no surprise:
newer media are linked to older media that they remediate and transform in what Marie-Laure Ryan describes as a “chain” of interpretive “substitutions.” Every medium not only contains but also interprets another: as McLuhan argues, the telegraph interprets print, print the written word, the written word speech, and speech, thought (qtd. in Ryan 28). Oral narratives recorded in print, then named
“folklore,” recirculate in altered form in celluloid cinema, digital video, graphic novels, and mobile phones. In this study I am not using “transmedia” to refer primarily to corporate media franchises developed around movies like The Matrix (1999) and its sequels, whose overarching story “unfolds across multiple media platforms” in order to “motivate more consumption” (Jenkins 622). Instead, I employ a transmedial approach along the lines conceptualized by Ryan as a mode of comparative media analysis that looks at a range of genres and media without losing sight of medium specificity. For Ryan, the cross-media relationships by which one medium interprets and contains another are always partial, so that the chain of interpretive substitutions that links one medium to another emphasizes what is specific to each medium rather than flattening out differences between media (Ryan 1-2, 28). In their recent anthology, Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson underscore the centrality of medium specificity to an era of ever more rapid media innovation and convergence, as well as the “generative” potential of registering the
“transmedia frictions”—the differences, conflicts or resistances—that emerge from
“productive juxtapositions between past and future, history and fiction, theory and practice, change and continuity, text and image, visuals and sounds, narrative and database.” (xiii-xiv). A transmedial approach to aswang explores further frictions usually occluded by the conventional understanding of “folklore” as timeless, traditional, and anti-technological. A remediative chain¾one that involves orality, print, celluloid cinema and digital video¾demonstrates that what is collected and constituted as “lore” is crucially dependent on technological media (Abrahams 380- 381, 389). Folklore does more than merely supply “traditional” content remediated by film and new media; folklore indexes the lived relationship between people and technological media.
The small but significant corpus of queer aswang transmedia includes Ricky Lee’s riveting 2011 novel, Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata [Amapola in 65 Chapters], whose bakla [provisionally: gay male] protagonist’s transformation into a winged nocturnal monster or manananggal recalls a similar metamorphosis undergone by two teenage boys in Mar S. Torres’ campy 1964 horror-comedy film, Mga Bata ng Lagim [Children of Terror]. Such texts point to an emergent structure of feeling that posits felt solidarities between the social expulsion levied against aswang and experiences of marginalization endured by queer subjects. To my mind, these two examples of the fledgling subgenre of queer aswang transmedia open up to broader considerations of other popular texts that do not feature aswang but nonetheless participate in a loosely shared project of “camping” Filipino folkore.33
This nascent horizon of sentiment is not confined to fictional genres; it has been succinctly expressed, for example, in a nonfiction amateur video posted on YouTube, Amabilis2. In the germinal stages of this paper, I talked about my research to a friend and former student, Napoleon Lustre, who shared this brief video shot on his mobile phone in March 2011. Amabilis2 is a conversation with his late mother, Amabilis Altarejos Almodal Lustre, while she was a patient at the Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, California. Onscreen, we see Amabilis, an eighty-six year old woman framed in long shot, wrapped in a light blanket, alert and relaxed in a wheelchair by her hospital bed. She’s chatting with her son, Napoleon, and the short video portrait is clearly one he captured on his phone during a hospital visit. The context and mise-en-scène immediately evoke the poignancy of an aging, ailing parent’s storytelling. The medium specificity of the mobile phone’s
“portable and intimate screen” and its characteristically “good enough” aesthetic—
privileging “real-time connection... over visual quality”—are evident (Bassett 147, 153). In Tagalog with snatches of English, Napoleon’s offscreen voice asks her to talk about a relative of theirs who stayed with them briefly during his childhood in Marikina, though nothing remarkable happened during her stay. Amabilis recalls,
“people believed she was an aswang.” [“Ang paniwala ng mga tao, aswang ‘yun.”]
In response, Napoleon wonders, “How do you get accused? Maybe she just had enemies.” [“Baka may kaaway lang.”] By way of explanation, Amabilis remarks enigmatically: “Oh, those aswang are a queer people too.” [Ay, yung mga aswang, they are a queer people too.]
Is it possible to know what Amabilis Lustre meant by “queer”? Did her enigmatic pronouncement deploy the term to mean strange, eccentric, or unconventional? Or was she drawing on more contemporary LGBTQ usage, in which the older, usually disparaging use of the word “queer” to mean “homosexual” gives way to either more neutral or more affirmative usage?44 I posed these questions to Napoleon, who remains uncertain as to what his mother could have meant. In two emails sent some years later, he observes:
As far as how my mother used the word “queer,” I always thought she used it in the classic sense of strange, deviant or eccentric. I don’t think my mom was all that aware of the LGBT appropriation of that word. I’m also thinking that she wasn’t aware that queer is American slang for homosexual. But I did note the ambiguous meaning of her statement,
if only to myself. (Lustre 2014a)
In a second email sent minutes after the one quoted above, Napoleon further resists foreclosing the possible meanings of his mother’s remarks:
I am becoming more and more unsure of my assumptions that Mama did not know the other connotations of queer. It’s just that I never heard her use it in the derogatory way to mean homosexual. Also, I often assumed I had to translate slang words for her, but I was sometimes surprised that she already knew them. So really, these are just from my own familiarity with the way my mom spoke, and her particular command of the language. I could just as easily be mistaken. (Lustre 2014b)
A Los Angeles Times obituary notes that Amabilis Almodal Lustre “died peacefully in her sleep” in May 2011, about two months after the video was taken. In the wake of her loss, we, like her son, are left with the temporalized, generational inflections and the wry humor of her richly ambiguous remark. We cannot know for certain whether she meant older notions of queer as “eccentric” or
“unconventional”; whether she was alluding to earlier decades’ pejorative usage of
“queer” to mean “homosexual”; or whether she was referring to more contemporary understandings of the term, particularly in LGBTQ and academic communities that have reappropriated “queer” as a neutral, affirming, or radical term.
I asked Napoleon why he had inquired about aswang in this short video and he explained: “I’ve asked about the aswang over the years because the aswang fascinated me as a child.” As a nine year old vacationing in Masbate City in the mid-seventies, Napoleon remembers that “aswang was common conversation,”
especially between children. In an email, he recalls, “The aswang were made to be so other, yet they must have been related to people. So the idea of aswang in my family titillated me” (Lustre 2011). Napoleon’s fondness for this short video, a brief snippet of a conversation with his mother before she passed away, is rooted both in his valuing of his mother’s storytelling, especially as she got older, and the resonance of her last comment on the queerness of aswang. Napoleon writes: “I imagined the people rumored to be aswang must have been a marginalized people, for whatever reason, so when my mom called them ‘queer’ it struck a chord.” (Lustre 2011)
It’s important to note that, as an example of queer aswang transmedia, Amabilis2 is a nonfictional video document, an inter-generational exchange of stories and memories that attests to the continued relevance of this figure in the everyday life of Filipinos in the Philippines and overseas. In Amabilis2, the lived, constantly
evolving dimension of aswang lore confirms that what Isabelo de los Reyes called
“el folklore Filipino” is not a nostalgic cataloguing of customs and beliefs from a dead past. De los Reyes regarded folklore as not “lore” in an “antiquated” or obsolete sense, but as “el saber popular,” a living reservoir of local and popular knowledge (Anderson 12-15).
Aswang are at once transmedial and transgeneric, defying rigid demarcations between fictional and nonfictional genres. A durative yet mutable fixture of Philippine culture across five centuries, aswang eschew the notion of folklore as antiquated tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, aswang accounts ranging from the sixteenth century to the present straddle and frustrate generic borders and emphatically demonstrate the porosity of genre definitions. Sources for what are now called aswang “lore” include the chronicles of Spanish colonial missionaries and administrators, oral storytelling, published folklore collections, newspaper reports, literature (poetry and fiction), radio and television programming, cartoons, celluloid film, and digital video (Lim 114, 127). The transmedial, transgeneric quality of aswang—a figure whose monstrosity has been interpellated by gender-essentialist agendas while nonetheless epitomizing disruptive gender instabilities—reminds us that gender and embodiment (even as these shatter) are always implicated in the aswang’s traversals of genre.66
The definition of “legend,” under which pioneering folklorist Damiana Eugenio classifies aswang narratives, also does not designate it as fiction (2002: xxvi-xxviii);
it is rather a story that is believed to be true, or a story in which attitude towards belief is at issue. The anthropologist Frank Lynch, whose research on aswang stems from fieldwork in Bicol in the late 1940s, notes that the aswang is, for many Filipinos, a “living…belief or near-belief” (198-199). As Linda Degh underscores, belief in the supernatural as articulated in legendry is never straightforward. Rather, complex and fluctuating attitudes toward belief lie at the heart of legends, which participate in much broader debates about believability within communities.77 Napoleon Lustre’s 2011 conversation with his mother, recorded on digital video, confirms that the durative figure of the aswang as a protean near-belief continues to circulate locally and diasporically in popular knowledge.
In wrestling with what it means to allege that, in Amabilis Lustre’s words, aswang are “a queer people, too,” I want to acknowledge at the outset that my comments here are necessarily preliminary and provisional. This paper is a thought-experiment about what exactly is new about queer aswang transmedia and the campy approach to folklore exemplified by the film Mga Bata ng Lagim and the novel Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata. The new, as Hans Robert Jauss once remarked, requires a “detour of understanding” that is sometimes only possible much later than the initial moment of emergence, so that the new is inevitably shadowed by a certain latency of understanding (35). As a diasporic Filipina familiar with aswang but far from fluent in swardspeak, the gay vernacular central to the radical humor and irony of Amapola, I cannot presume to have the last word on these queer doings. I proceed
in a spirit of fascinated critical exploration, convinced that something vital—risky, perhaps, but vital nonetheless—is afoot in queer aswang transmedia.
In the handful of texts that comprise queer aswang transmedia, an iconic monster of Philippine folklore—the conventionally female viscera-sucker or manananggal—is being subverted and reinvented. In Amapola and Mga Bata ng Lagim, bakla subjects are campily occupying the cultural place formerly reserved for monstrous women. The queering of aswang transmedia through the figure of the bakla manananggal is forceful, funny, and even joyous; it is also, without a doubt, a kind of risk-taking. Its reappropriations are lodged in image-sound relationships, language (swarsdspeak, an umbrella term for subcultural languages spoken primarily by Filipino gay men) and a pinoy [Filipino] camp deployment of anachronism explored at the end of this paper.
Bakla is no mere Filipino synonym for the English word gay. Instead, as Martin Manalansan and Bobby Benedicto, among others, have pointed out, bakla messily conflates concepts that are usually kept distinct in transnational LGBTQ (lesbian/
gay/ bisexual/ transgender/ queer) vocabularies, collapsing same-sex desire (homosexuality), gender expression (male femininity) and gender nonconformity with assigned sex (trans identifications). J. Neil Garcia notes, “While the terms bakla and homosexual are far from congruent, many Filipinos use them interchangeably because they entail the same social effect: stigmatization” (“Male Homosexuality”
13). Whereas same sex-desire is the denotative content of the term homosexual, markers of gender form the “conceptual core” of bakla as a social category, which involves “cross-dressing,” “effeminacy,” and connotations of lower class status.
However, as Manalansan notes, the primacy of class connotations in the term bakla did not always hold for Filipino American gay men in New York City in the 1990s, for whom bakla was centrally a racial-cultural category, often signifying pinoy queerness in opposition to the white-identified word gay (Global Divas 24).
Replacing the female manananggal with a bakla is a move rife with political and temporal risks. Broadly, this essay pursues two lines of questioning: first, visibility.
In terms of visibility politics, contesting the contemporary erasure of bakla subjects by reappropriating a formerly misogynist figure from folklore is a tactic that could well backfire, turning an older figure of horrific misogyny into a newer figure of comic homophobia or transphobia. In a context in which manananggal—a winged, particularly vicious type of aswang—are usually expected to be women, what does the conspicuous emergence of bakla manananggal signify? As Benedicto demonstrates, since at least the 2000s, the bakla, reified as a stereotypically poor, effeminate man, has become the object of exclusionary erasure by a neoliberal urban gay scene in Manila whose middle-and upper-class men aspire to the hegemonic imaginary of “gay globality,” adopting hypermasculine norms represented by gay urban capitals in the US (Under Bright Lights 75-85). Crucially, Benedicto clarifies that bakla communities are not actually declining; rather, kabaklaan (bakla-ness) “is
‘being dis-appeared’ through strategies of invisibilization and discipline authorized
by the local market, which participates in setting the contours of gay identity and its cultural visibility” (75). Such tactics of discursive erasure proceed even as, in everyday life on the ground, low-income bakla and tomboys are prominent in the thriving constituency of vernacularized forms of LGBTQ advocacy in the Philippines (Thoreson 539-540). In this context, I read the recent conspicuous emergence of bakla manananggal as a bold reimagining of queer aswang in a camp folkloric register that emphatically resists what Benedicto calls “the dream of burying kabaklaan” (Under Bright Lights 75). If, since at least the late nineteenth century, manananggal have been predominantly feminized in the Filipino popular imagination, then arguably queer aswang transmedia works are putting gender- transgressive bakla where a monstrous, abject woman used to be. As a new form of queer visibility in popular media then, the figure of the bakla manananggal or queer viscera sucker inherits, unsettles and resignifies misogynist histories, on the one hand, while contending with the forcible bourgeois erasure of the bakla on the other.
My second line of questioning involves temporality. A perhaps unexpected link between aswang and queer subjectivities emerges in the figure of the indigenous Animist shaman. In Spanish colonial sources, native female priests were called baylan (in Visayan) or catalonan (in Tagalog), while male priests dressed as women were known as asog in the Visayas and bayog in the Luzon area. Both baylan/
catalonan and asog/bayog were indigenous Animist shamans in the pre-colonial era who went on to oppose the Spanish colonizers.88 Baylan were subsequently demonized by the Spanish, first as witches (hechiceras and brujas) in the 1600s, then as aswang in the late nineteenth century. Described by historical sources as a class of native priests consisting of male transvestites and women, baylan and asog are the object of present-day redemptive reappropriation as proto-feminist and/or queer-positive figures (Brewer 84-86).99 In terms of temporality, drawing an equivalence between precolonial shamans and contemporary queer formations also runs temporal risks, since bakla are today dismissed as embodying anachronistic, pre-modern forms of sexual subjectivity eclipsed by overtly masculine styles of present-day gay globality. Anachronizing discourses, then, have long underpinned both the cultural figuration of the aswang and the bakla. As a new modality of queer cultural visibility, the bakla manananggal’s campy, fierce, and joyous recuperative potential is not without political and temporal risks.
If such risky undertakings succeed, then camp temporality suggests that an extraordinarily durative figure of monstrosity can embody the continuing challenges of queer survival. To be sure, queer survival encompasses an array of ongoing challenges that take many forms in the lives of people multiply marginalized along intersecting axes of sex, gender, embodiment, race, ethnicity, class, and generation. In this essay, I use “queer survival” in two senses. First, the term refers to stratagems of surviving and resisting the attempted erasure and/or devaluation of bakla subjectivities by upwardly mobile, “global gay” subjectivities;
and second, it evokes the effort to survive and contest the naturalized erasure of queer subjectivities in received notions of folklore, given that the ideological project of constituting a “folk” or “people” has been profoundly heteronormative where aswang are concerned (it is through a presumptively heterosexual lens, for example that aswang appear as anomalous, monstrous “gender inverts,” as I discuss below). In queer aswang transmedia, a campy sense of time—a chronologically inappropriate, obstinately willful, and highly pleasurable wielding of anachronism—
holds out the possibility of breaking open the “straight,” nationalist project of Philippine folklore to forge counter-heteronormative affinities between past and present experiences of social and sexual marginalization. In Amapola, for example, a bravura camping of Philippine folklore rewrites national origin myths to suggest that gender essentialism (and by extension, the misogyny that underwrote aswang narratives) is always already obsolescent. The queerly revisionist creation myth proffered by Amapola, “The Legend of the Bakla,” is a willfully anachronistic assertion that the bakla has always been coeval with the creation of the world.
AswAng: TrAnsmediAl TrAnslATions
Aswang predate the colonization of the archipelago and are chronicled in the earliest Spanish missionary accounts of the Visayas and Central Luzon, appearing in a 1582 description of Visayan funerary practices by Miguel de Loarca, who was among the earliest Spanish settlers in Panay (Loarca 135; Cullamar 17). “Aswang”
does not name a singular folkloric monster but is instead a broad term encompassing an assemblage of supernatural creatures with many names and guises in a variety of Philippine languages.1010 Aswang is a word used by the Visayans of Panay and Negros Oriental, the Waray of Samar and Eastern Leyte, and the Tagalogs of Luzon,1111 but other variants are used in other Philippine vernaculars.1212
In 1731 Tomas Ortiz, a Spanish Augustinian priest who exhorted other missionaries to stamp out native superstitions in the Philippines, described “the witch called asuang [spelling in original], which, flying, passes by the houses of those who are in childbirth… It places itself on the roof of a neighboring house, and from thence extends its tongue in the form of a thread that passes into the body of the child… With it he draws out the bowels of the child and kills it.”1313 Ortiz’s characterization of the aswang—as a winged monster whose long threadlike tongue enters the body of a pregnant woman to suck out the unborn child in her womb—is the aswang’s most durable and immediately recognizable guise. Perched on the thatch roofs of houses or concealed under bamboo floorboards, aswang eat human liver, fresh corpses, and the phlegm of the ill; in particular, they have a taste for infants and young children (Lynch 185).
Though other types of aswang can be both male and female, the viscera sucking manananggal—the central figure in queer aswang transmedia—is almost always a woman. Folklorist Maximo Ramos writes that she is “reported to look like an attractive woman by day, buxom, long-haired, and light complexioned”; come nightfall, however, she “discards [her] lower body from the waist down and flies”
in search of human prey (xviii-xix). The Tagalog term manananggal is usually translated as a “self-segmenting viscera-sucker” in English, and its many names in Filipino vernaculars include wuwug in Boholano, magcucutud in Pampangeno, and anananggal in Bicol. Accounts in Aklan, Siquijor, Cebu, Bicol, and Bohol describe a lesser-known variety of the flying viscera sucker, one that segments at the neck rather than at the waist, entrails dangling from her severed head.1414
Ramos’ 1969 study of aswang was sparked by the curiosity of his mentor at UCLA, the American folklorist Wayland D. Hand.1515 Ramos’ definition of the aswang complex as a “congeries of beliefs” cast various types of aswang as Philippine versions of European counterparts: vampires, witches, ghouls, and werewolves. It is crucial to remember, though, that such neat definitions are really “congeries of translation” routed through the more familiar monsters of European folklore, even though, as Ramos admits, aswang “do not fit exactly into the traditional European categories.” He further cautions the reader that once oral storytelling is frozen in print form, such versions suggest an imaginary coherence that living legendry does not possess (xv-xvii).
I emphasize the ethnolinguistic diversity that undergirds aswang in order to highlight the submerged question of translation in English-language scholarship on this figure. As Carolyn Brewer and Greg Bankoff point out, the Spanish colonization of the Philippines took place in an era when witchcraft trials and persecutions swept Europe, a theological climate that shaped the perspective of early Spanish missionaries in the Philippines. Believing in the existence of witches and servants of the devil, the Spanish translated the Animist beliefs they encountered in the archipelago within the framework of demonic practices familiar to Europeans (Bankoff 39; Brewer 84-90).
Spanish Catholicism construed shamans to be in league with the devil, even though the Christian binary God/Satan had no counterpart in the archipelago’s Animist tradition (Brewer 102). Our encounter with aswang⎯and “Philippine folklore” more generally⎯are thus mediated by colonial and postcolonial forms of knowledge- production that make it impossible to sustain the fantasy of an authentic pre-colonial indigenous past (Narayan 177-199; Eugenio 2002: xxii-xxiii).
Institutionalized folklore scholarship in the Philippines itself began as a colonial enterprise, carried out by American teachers stationed in the Philippines in the early decades of the 20th century.1616 As I have argued elsewhere, aswang are shot through with translation and transculturation, reaching us via the ethnologies of early Spanish missionaries, the folklore studies of American observers in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the scholarship of the first wave of Filipino anthropologists trained by American mentors. First articulated by Spanish
evangelist-imperialists and later “decrypted” by the functionalist paradigms of postwar American anthropology, the aswang was linked to anti-colonial peasant histories in nineteenth century Spanish Philippines. In the 1950s, its political valence shifted again: an American CIA operative’s “psy-war” campaign demonized Filipino Communist guerillas as aswang. The aswang, then, is a durable stockpile of colonial and postcolonial translations in which imperialist stratagems collide with peasant idioms of protest (Lim 96-148).
Aswang beliefs have been used to argue for the “homogeneity of the Philippines as a culture area” that delimits Filipino national culture as “a proper field of ethnological study” (Pertierra 319, 334-335). Yet the aswang contravenes the fantasy of a homogeneous national culture in several ways. Aswang predate the Philippine nation and the regional prevalence of aswang belief is not co-terminous with the country’s present geographical compass: aswang beliefs are primarily concentrated in the Christianized areas of the archipelago, and are markedly absent in communities that Spanish colonizers failed to “missionize”: the highlands of northern Luzon and the Islamic regions of Mindanao in the South.
Given that not all Filipinos tell stories about aswang, it may be more generative to approach the aswang through a regional Southeast Asian framework. The penanggalan of the Malay peninsula and the balan-balan of Sabah resemble the type of manananggal that sever at the neck. Penanggalan and manananggal share the same regionally Malay (rather than narrowly Philippine) etymology: the terms share the Malay cognate, tanggal, “to detach.”1717 Other analogues to various types of aswang occur elsewhere in Southeast Asia: the suanggi of eastern Indonesia is a beautiful young woman who is a blood-sucker by night; in North Maluku, the suanggi is a cannibal witch who consumes its victim’s liver. Living victims possessed by the witch’s spirit become self-segmenting viscera suckers: “they live a normal existence during the day, but at night their heads pull free (cabut) from their sleeping bodies and the disembodied head, with their entrails dangling from their necks, fly through the night… in search of victims.” Types of Philippine aswang that pose a danger to unborn infants also recall the Malay and Indonesian pontianak or kuntilanak, the “spirit of a woman who died during child birth and who represents a danger to pregnant women in particular” (Bubandt 9-10).
To the already considerable vernacular and regional heterogeneity of aswang texts are added the altered modes of circulation and continual remediation characteristic of accelerating media convergence in our own era. Aswang made their first cinematic appearance in a 1932 silent film of the same title. From the mid-1980s onward, they became the mainstay of a decades-old horror film cycle initiated by the horror-comedy franchise, Shake, Rattle, and Roll. Critics of mass media adaptations of folk narratives worry that transmedial uptake will inevitably homogenize the diversity of folk variants into uniform, hegemonic consumer forms. Apart from the decline of lived oral performance styles, dominant versions of folklore produced by corporate media structures (e.g., Disney in the , or
Regal Films or ABS-CBN’s Star Cinema in the Philippines), might wipe out the multiple “oral variants previously in circulation” (Koven 177-178). Such fears are understandable; yet it would be a critical misstep to assume that media-convergent modes of transmission inevitably homogenenize public discourse. Popular mainstream films are themselves not “fixed texts”; in an era when media proliferate in both analog and digital forms, mainstream popular films themselves tend to fracture into multiple versions and variants, from director’s cuts, bonus tracks, and restored versions on DVD and Blu-ray,to peer-to-peer file sharing, excerpted quotations on YouTube, and welcome and unwelcome forms of creative sampling, fan appropriation, and queering (Koven 185).
The nascent groundswell of queer appropriations and resignifications of aswang, in this light, might turn out to be a new and significant instance of transmedial translation: first, of Philippine legend to swardspeak; and second, of misogynist discourses around female monstrosity to redemptive critiques that reclaim the manananggal as a queer form of self-ascription. Such shiftings, veerings, and unmoorings open up to a new queer variant of Philippine folklore, transmedially staged.
Queer doings: BAKlA mAnAnAnggAl
In this study, I approach aswang transmedia from a queer perspective, where queer is understood not in substantive but in anti-identitarian, anti-normalizing terms.1818 As Sally O’Driscoll has noted, the many meanings of “queer” are not always compatible with each other. She sees a tension between two distinct meanings: first, a collapsing of sexual practice and sexual identity; and second, a conflation between the term’s street origins as an identitarian label (queer names a person who is engaging in non-heterosexual practices) and the term’s academic usage in the late 1990s (queer as a counter-normative cultural and political position not determined by sexual practices but by “a general concept of sexual transgression” (30-35).
Queer is itself a lexically shifting word; without “static grammatical functioning,”
it circulates promiscuously as adjective, noun, and verb. Grammatically mutable, queer is also significantly coreless, that is, intractable to definitions that essentialize embodied gender performance or sexual-subjective experience (Cleto 3). In saying that queer is not just a noun, I mean that it is not a fixed name that presumes a stable sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The transnational LGBTQ lexicon has informed, but has not monolithically dominated, queer advocacies in the Philippines. Here I’m strongly indebted to anthropologist Ryan Richard Thoreson’s eye-opening work on the “vernacularization” or “translation”
of transnational LGBTQ “agendas into a form of politics that is locally intelligible.”
In the Philippine context, on the grassroots level, there is never a straightforward reproduction of Western paradigms. Instead, the heterogeneous queer movements
that represent the interests of “bakla, bayot, bantut, tomboy, silahis, transpinoy, and transpinay subjectivities” draw on transnational LGBTQ categories in ways that are broadly legible but signify very differently in the praxis of transnational advocacies, middle-class organizers, and lower-income Filipino queers (531-549).
Rather than being primarily a noun or a name, queer is also something one can do or become, a verb that can sometimes name a process of critique, as in the queering of folklore through the sensibilities of pinoy camp. The notion of queer doing which I elaborate here is indebted to Manalansan, who remarks in a recent interview that
“the vital dimension of queer is not ‘what queer is’ but rather ‘what queer does.’” The
“dynamic aspect of queer,” notes Manalansan, “refuses homogenizing tendencies”
and asks: “what is being normalized?” and “what…would profit from a queering or queer analysis?” (Manalansan 2012: 106, 110) What, then, is queer doing to aswang, and what about the aswang would be productive to queer? In the simplest terms, queer aswang transmedia focalized around gay male manananggal put a bakla in the cultural place of monstrosity usually reserved for deviant women. However, the valences of that queering in terms of both representational politics and temporality are a more complicated matter to adjudicate.
The canonical anthropological view is that the viscera sucking manananggal—a beautiful woman who turns into a nocturnal monster that preys on pregnant women, infants, and young children—evinces a normalizing, disciplinary relationship to gender power. Raul Pertierra’s functionalist analysis of the manananggal argues that a patriarchal suspicion of women lies at the heart of the aswang complex. As a form of superstitious accusation that blames women for death in childbirth, the manananggal index the patriarchal ordering of public social life as the domain of men versus the domestic sphere as the realm of women. Within this gendering of public and private domains, aswang articulate fears regarding covert forms of violence women might accomplish in the home (330-335).
The policing of female deviance figures strongly in stories of male lovers or husbands who “cure” their aswang wives. In a 1922 Tagalog folktale, a husband ties up his aswang wife then suspends her head down in a well until she asks for his forgiveness and finally vomits up the animal familiars that are the source of her power (Fansler Tale 31). The cure is a disciplinary form of violence: the aswang is hung upside down and swung, beaten, or smoked until the magical bird inside her body is forcibly expelled,1919 as evocatively visualized in Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s paintings for her 1998 book The Aswang Inquiry (see v). The female aswang suspended upside down in the foreground appears beautiful but vanquished, her eyes shut as she relinquishes her power in the form of an enchanted bird. Hair trailing on the ground, her melancholy and wraithlike figure is surrounded by red tongues of flame.
Folklorists classify such tales under motif number “G299.5 Cure for witches (so she will cease to be a witch)” (Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature 145-147), but these tale types make no mention of the violence against women inscribed in these stories, which, from a queer/feminist perspective sympathetic to aswang, read like stories of spousal abuse in the name of reforming deviant lovers and effecting their return to heteronormativity. In what I read as an ironizing move,Cordero- Fernando replaces the figure of the aswang wife with that of a tortured husband, seated and struggling with his head thrown back in pain, when she illustrates such tales (see fig. 2).
Fig. 1. Gilda Cordero-Fernando illustrates violent cures for aswang wives in her 1998 book, The Aswang Inquiry. Courtesy of
Fig. 2. Although folkloric and anthropological accounts mention aswang women as the object of these violent cures, Gilda Cordero- Fernando includes an ironic illustration of a tortured husband subjected to this remedy in The Aswang Inquiry. Courtesy of Gilda Cordero-Fernando.
Brewer argues that gender and sexuality were central to the project of Spanish colonial religious conversion in the Philippines. A “Hispano-Catholic process of sexual transformation” established Catholic sexual morality, abolished native erotic practices and sexual mores, and introduced gender inequalities based on an ideology of essential biological difference. As historians have demonstrated, Animist shamans⎯women baylan chief among them⎯mounted the fiercest opposition to Catholic conversion and were subsequently demonized as witches and aswang (Brewer xviii-xix, 18-21, 63-64, 109). Against this historical backdrop, I read the violence against female aswang inscribed in aswang lore to be a memory-trace of this Spanish Catholic disciplinary apparatus in the colonial period, which included confession, self-flagellation, and corporal punishment for powerful native women who refused to obey the church.
The few films that feature a romantic plot between human men and manananggal women make no mention of this violent therapy (a recent 2009 example is Ang Darling Kong Aswang [My Darling Aswang]). In contrast, brutal cures for aswang are explicitly criticized in Ricky Lee’s 2011 novel, Amapola. In two vignettes given by different characters in the novel, two aswang—one, a grandmother; another, Homer’s wife—
end up killed by this so-called cure. The novel’s appraisal of the aswang cure as a false remedy premised on destruction is articulated by one character, who wryly exclaims,
“Hindi na nga aswang ang lola nila pero namatay naman sa bugbog!” [“Sure, their grandmother was cured of being an aswang. But she died from the beating!”] (Lee, Si Amapola 21). Explicitly rejecting a purported remedy that succeeds only by killing aswang, the novel instead advocates forms of community building and collective politics premised on an acceptance of the aswang’s radically different forms of being.
mgA BATA ng lAgim [Children oF Terror]
Do queer aswang have the potential to destabilize the conventional misogynist link between aswang and femininity, or do they merely reinscribe this link in scenes of transformation reminiscent of drag performance? The 1964 film Mga Bata ng Lagim [Children of Terror] depicted, with relish, the spectacle of flamboyant young men who turn into manananggal after unwittingly eating what turn out to be human remains in an aswang’s kitchen. Starring six teenage romantic couples supported by older comic actors, this film was a bid by a former major studio, Sampaguita, to captivate youth audiences with a film that combined multiple genres: comedy, horror, romance, and musical. Set immediately after the end of World War 2, five families set off in search of the famous Yamashita treasure left behind by Japanese forces, braving haunted woods and scary mansions in the process. In a film full of visual jokes and campy gags, what stood out to me as a child watching the movie on TV reruns were the characters’ unbidden metamorphoses into aswang.
The conventional association between manananggal and women is parodied in Mga Bata ng Lagim. Two unnamed boys, played by comedians German Moreno and Boy Alano, are marked queer from the beginning. The girls they are courting consider these boys a joke, not only because of their feminine speech and movement, but also because of their pretentious attempts to appear cosmopolitan by peppering their speech with English and Spanish words, resulting in comic malapropisms.
Moreno and Alano’s camp antics reach their height in a musical number bewailing their transmogrification into aswang, which I’ll refer to as the “bakla manananggal”
number in Mga Bata Ng Lagim (see fig. 3).
The musical number features the melody of a familiar Tagalog folk song, “Paru- parong Bukid” (Farm Butterfly), but Hermie Ilagan’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics and the scene’s incongruous mise-en-scène generate parodic effects. Popularized as a film soundtrack in 1938 by Sampaguita Studios, which also produced Mga Bata ng Lagim three decades later, “Paru-Parong Bukid” compares a flirtatious farm lass making a spectacle of herself to a butterfly conspicuously fluttering its wings.2020 Anchored in the perspective of a scopophilic male gaze (Mulvey 19), the folksong’s traditional lyrics relish the woman’s exhibitionist display of sexualized feminine beauty: the way she sways her hips (lalakad ng pakendeng-kendeng), the petticoat peeking out from under her long skirt (nagwas de ohetes ang palalabasin), and the ornamental comb (payneta) that she wears in her hair.2121 Mga Bata Ng Lagim queers this folk tribute to female spectacle through the use of sound. The familiar melody connotes, to Filipino audiences, a celebration of rural Filipina beauty and femininity, but the humor of the scene in part rests on unexpected aural and visual incongruities. Rather than evoking woman as image, the lyrics and staging instead emphasize monstrous male physiognomy as two teenage boys—winged torsos segmented at the waist—bewail
Fig. 3. Boy Alano (on left) and German Moreno (on right) in the “bakla
manananggal” musical number in Mga Bata Ng Lagim [Children of Terror], dir.
Mar. S. Torres, 1964.
their unbidden transformation into aswang. And in place of the sweet warbling style in which the familiar melody is usually sung, the young men’s jarring vocal delivery is closer to a harangue.
Whereas “Paru-Parong Bukid” opens with the image of a butterfly’s delicately fluttering wings, the rudimentary choreography of the “bakla manananggal” number emphasizes the ungainly flapping of the viscera-sucking aswang’s large, bat-like appendages. Shots of the segmented torsos of the manananggal are accomplished cheaply by superimposing footage of the actors’ upper bodies onto footage of the background, making them appear to float in the air. The Tagalog lyrics to the “Gay Manananggal” number and my English translation follow below:
Kay laking milagro ang nangyaring
ito! What miracle is this?
Tao siya kanina, ngayon ay aswang
na He was human but is now an
Talaga kang boba, di mo
napapansin You stupid girl, don’t you realize
Video Clip 1. The “bakla manananggal number” in Mga Bata Ng Lagim.
Ang iyong sarili ay aswang na rin? you’re an aswang now too?
Pangil nami’y tabak, tunay rin ang
pakpak. Our fangs are like cutlasses, our
wings are real.
Sino kayang tao ang aking
mapapapak? Who will I be snacking on?
Sa tuwing hatinggabi ay gagala
kami. Every midnight we will wander.
Guwapo sanang tao ang siyang
ma-jackpot ko! I hope I hit the jackpot with a handsome human!
Malas nga talaga! Tayo ay aswang
na, What bad luck! We are now
aswang, pati ating asal, tipong
manananggal. we behave like manananggal.
Yamang tayo’y wala na ring
magagawa, Since there’s nothing we can do
about it, ating pagbutihin ang pagkaaswang
natin! let’s make the most of our being
The song opens with Moreno and Alano exchanging barbed insults, calling each other “stupid girls” (boba). The long shot of their airborne antics are intercut with a medium close up of another roommate’s stunned reaction—though it’s unclear whether this straight-acting boy is more shocked by their transformation into aswang or their vocal expressions of same-sex yearnings. (see fig. 4) Moreno and Alano chorus, “Every midnight, we will wander,” making literal reference to the aswang’s nocturnal hunts as well as alluding to the practice of gay cruising at night.
When Moreno sings, “I hope I hit the jackpot with a handsome human”,2222 the lyrics make explicit the conflation of accidental manananggal transformation and the voluntary avowal of gay male desire. In the song’s last line, their initial complaint (“even our manner has become manananggal-like”) turns into celebratory queer resolve, (“Let’s make the most of our being aswang!”), suggesting that becoming aswang has helped these boys own their same-sex desire. The scene closes with a long shot, sans superimposition, in which the boys’ winged torsos have supposedly rejoined the lower halves of their bodies. The absence of superimposition means
that the boys no longer look like aswang but instead look like cross-dressing men who playfully wrestle each other onto a bed.
The bakla manananggal number displays several hallmarks of parody as
“imitation characterized by ironic inversion” (Hutcheon 6). The desirable femininity evoked in the traditional folksong (the farm maiden as butterfly) is replaced with monstrous femininity as depicted in folklore (the bat-like aswang). On both visual and audial tracks, numerous overlaid inversions—of maiden into monster, butterfly into bat, female into male, and pastoral into comic-horrific style—result in a suffusive irony that at least partly reconfigures the meanings of aswang for Filipino cultural insiders able to “get the joke.” The parodic aspects of the scene dovetail with camp humor, which typically converts something serious into something frivolous through extravagant theatricality, stylistic excess, and cross-gender impersonation (Sontag 288).2323 In this case, the campy bakla manananggal number ironically and parodically unseats both the earnest admiration for feminine beauty articulated in the folksong “Paru-parong bukid,” as well as the serious terror elicited by belief in the existence of female aswang.
To the degree that the two young men transformed into aswang look like bakla impersonators of female manananggal, the musical number recalls Judith Butler’s resonant question vis-à-vis drag: “Does the denaturalization of the norm succeed in subverting the norm?” (“Gender is Burning” 387) Put another way, is parodying the heteropatriarchal inscription of the aswang as a monstrous woman enough to displace it? The answer to that question is, of course, complicated.
First, there is the problem of ridicule. In inviting us to laugh at the predicament of transmogrified queer men, the bakla manananggal number may replicate phobic media representations of “LGBT people…in Filipino comedy,” in which, as Libay Cantor puts it, “viewers are encouraged to ‘laugh at the gay guy, or the ugly gay guy’”
on the movie screen (qtd. in Thoreson 535).
Second, there is the thorny issue of drag and the historical shifts in North American queer theory’s approach to this issue. Butler’s influential early theorization of
Fig. 4. A stunned roommate witnesses his friends’ transformation into aswang in
Mga Bata ng Lagim.
drag emphasized its potential destabilization of gender essentialisms. In Butler’s well-known formulation, drag exposes the “imitative structure” of idealizations of gender (Gender Trouble 31), though her own subsequent work has complicated this in response to the “new gender politics” posed by “a combination of movements concerned with transgender, transsexuality, intersex, and their complex relations to feminist and queer theory” (Undoing Gender 4). Viviane Namaste’s trenchant critique exposes the ways in which early queer theory’s celebratory focus on drag unwittingly confined the consideration of gender nonconformity to onstage spectacle, thus erasing the realities of transgendered subjectivity in everyday life:
That gay men can accommodate the presence of drag queens on stage does not mean that gender liberation has arrived... this containment of gender transgression [as drag]
can in turn, work against transgendered people in a variety of ways. Drag queens are reduced to entertainment, coifed personalities whose only purpose is to titillate the gay male viewer. Framed as pure spectacle, this negates a variety of reasons why people might choose to cross-dress in a club: an exploration of one’s gender identity, a gesture of political intervention, a creative solution to boredom, and/or a way to pay the rent.
A restriction of drag queens to the stage also suggests that drag is something you do: it is not someone you are . . . The relegation of drag queens to the stage is a supplementary move that excludes transgendered people even as it includes us. Appropriate objects to look at, we are not subjects alongside whom one marches. (11)
Namaste’s reading of onstage drag as a containment of gender transgression aptly describes how Mga Bata Ng Lagim contains male femininity by allowing its temporary eruption in a single drag performance, after which the narrative reinstates a heteronormative closure. The film centers heterosexual romances in its multiple plotlines of teenage boys and girls whose terrifying journey to haunted places only cements their love with a sweetheart of the opposite sex. Within the gendered and generic conventions of this comedy-horror-musical narrative film, homosexual desire can only come out of the closet—idiomatically, “magladlad ng kapa” [“unfurl the cape”] (Manalansan, Global Divas 27-28)—in one brief musical number staged in the register of camp supernaturalism, only to be re-contained by straight romantic closure at the end of the film.2525
What is most fascinating about the bakla manananggal number, then, is not that it lays bare Butler’s imitative structure of gender idealizations. Rather, the bakla manananggal number exposes the iterative structure of longstanding monstrifications of gender inversion. Over the centuries, the repeated feminization of the monstrous viscera sucker as an anomalous gender invert had congealed into a predictable cultural figure. Richard Leiban, whose influential “inversion” thesis about the aswang would be repeated by subsequent anthropologists, writes: “The aswang resembles some witches elsewhere whose behavior in certain respects
antithesizes or inverts normal behavior in the societies where they are found.”
Leiban offers the following examples: “the female aswang who exposed her genitals in a society which emphasizes female modesty; the girl who was perceived by her brother to be upside-down, and thereupon was thought to be a witch. This principle of inverted behavior is exemplified in a range of aswang characteristics”
(78). Aswang are thought to “constitute the very essence of anomaly,” and this comes through most strikingly in the female manananggal’s desire to eat pregnant women, infants, and fetuses, an emphatic reversal of a supposedly normal woman’s presumptive maternal inclinations (Pertierra 329-330). Gender inversion has also been attributed to aswang men. Lynch recounts that in Bicol, a male aswang who has just fed looks like a pregnant woman and will often “nurse his children at the breast”(187). Aswang of both genders, then, fail to embody “proper” femininity and masculinity.
The bakla manananggal number in Mga Bata ng Lagim displays both the homophobic humor and the camp tactics of a more overtly closeted age. Nonetheless, it does manage to introduce a new, unexpected twist to discourses of inversion and gender incoherence in which aswang have historically been steeped. Here, the gender reversal is a consequence of intentional male to female impersonation, not “reversals of moral behavior” that spring from innate aberrance (Lieban 78-79).
By the end of the number, the bakla manananggal’s decision to “make the most of being aswang” by trying to “hit the jackpot with a handsome human” partially denaturalizes the link between aswang and female deviance by lightheartedly foregrounding male same sex desire. It also foreshadows the emergence, over three decades later, of a literary character who would bridge bakla and manananggal not only via onstage drag performance but also through everyday transgendered experiences: Amapola, the eponymous protagonist of Lee’s novel, considered later in this essay.
The bakla manananggal sequence ambivalently straddles the distinction Manalansan draws between two terms of queer process. According to Manalansan:
Nababakla can be loosely translated as “baklaness” happening or descending on somebody as opposed to nagiging bakla, that is, “becoming bakla.” The first verb actually suggests that bakla can also be an essence that can be transferred to or can descend upon a person like a trance or a fever. Thus, in some aspects, bakla behavior is seen to be not a product of something inside a person, but rather as a product of an outside force or forces. (Global Divas 43)
The two similar but distinct verbs contrast exteriority with interiority: the idiomatic phrase nababakla (to be temporarily possessed by bakla-ness as an exterior force that “happens” or “descends” on someone) is different from nagiging bakla (“becoming bakla” as the “product of something inside a person”). I suggest that the bakla manananggal number stages both. In diegetic terms, the two boys
are nabakla: the femininity associated with manananggal take possession of the young men after they mistakenly eat aswang food; this is kabaklaan (bakla- ness) taking hold of them from the outside, resulting in a temporary foray of two otherwise straight characters into queer monstrosity. In narrative terms, becoming a manananggal is explicitly depicted as nabakla, queerness as an unbidden and uninvited force that takes hold of the straight subject from the outside. As the film progresses, nabakla and na-aswang turn out to be a passing phase, a temporary accident. This very temporariness of accidentally turning into bakla manananggal is a mode of containment that betrays the film’s fundamental sexual conservatism and the form that historical homophobia takes in a 1960s Filipino musical. By the end of the film, the two boys are reunited with their girlfriends in the film’s hetero happy ending.
At the same time, in both diegetic and extradiegetic terms, another reading of the scene is possible. The bakla manananggal number could be interpreted as staging a more organic notion of bakla-becoming or nagiging bakla in which supernatural transformation serves as a catalyst, a moment of crisis that pushes the characters to acknowledge and actualize the same-sex desires and pleasurable gender performances they were implicitly suppressing all along.2626 Such a reading would depend in part on the audience’s familiarity with the offscreen star persona of one of the actors in the bakla manananggal number, German Moreno, a well- known gay celebrity who enjoyed a decades-long entertainment career.
Asog/BABAylAn/AswAng: eTymologies And TemporAliTies
The scene’s retrospective appropriation of aswang as bakla finds its footing in the etymological reconstruction of the word’s origins in two Philippine languages, Bikolano and Aklanon, and in the historical association, and later, conflation, of aswang with precolonial shamans. As I noted earlier, female shamans were called babaylanes by the Visayans and catalonan by the Tagalogs; male shamans, referred to as effeminate or transvestite men in the historical sources, were named asog in the Visayas and bayog in Luzon (Brewer 128). Baylan, catalonan, asog and bayog were indigenous priests or shamans who were paid to “act as intermediaries and mediators between the gods and the people,” (Cullamar 17-18) heal the sick, and preside over rituals, which made their work both highly esteemed and profitable (Bankoff 39, 52). Native words for Animist shamans have fallen into such disuse that they scarcely appear in contemporary Philippine dictionaries (Brewer 85). Robert Blust reconstructs the etymological relationships between the words asog (male shaman), babaylan (female shaman), and aswang in the Austronesian language family. His entry reads as follows:
*asug ‘shaman in ritual transvestite attire’.
BKL asóg‘an effeminate priest who speaks and
attires himself like a woman, wears trinkets, and executes funny movements and provocative contortions during rituals offered to Aswang (witches)-Bikol mythology’, AKLásog‘lesbian;
any woman who acts outside of the female role;
tomboy’, TM in-asug‘ritual name for the babalian (shaman)’. (17)
Blust’s reconstruction makes apparent the etymological conflation between the perceived gender incoherence of cross-dressing male asóg in Bikolano (and in-asug in the Malaysian language Timugon Murut) and a larger notion of gender transgression that appears in the Aklanon denotation of the same word, ásog as lesbian or tomboy. The Bikolano term asóg refers to an “effeminate priest” presiding over rituals involving aswang. Lynch had previously speculated on the uncertain etymology of the Bikolano term asuwang. Initially hypothesizing that its etymological roots may lead back to aso (the Tagalog word for “dog”), Lynch ended by dismissing that possibility, noting that “the Bicol word for dog is not aso but ayam” (Lynch 185). Blust’s ethnolinguistic research suggests that Lynch may have been just short of the mark: the etymological root of asuwang is quite possibly not the Tagalog word aso but the Bikolano and Aklanon terms asóg or ásog, shamans associated with gender transgression.
Historical sources clarify, however, that babaylanes were not aswang. Father Jose Castano’s 1895 Noticia del Bicol recounts that babaylanes in sixteenth century Bicol often presided over a healing ritual, called a hidhid, that exorcised aswang from an afflicted person or locale (qtd. in Lynch 203-206). Though early Spanish chroniclers understood babaylanes to be indigenous priests, by the late nineteenth century, babaylanism had taken on an overtly political and anti-colonial cast. In the volatile transition between the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain and the beginning of American rule in the aughts, babaylanism became a religio-political peasant protest movement against Spanish and American colonizers and the local haciendero elites who colluded with them (Cullamar 71). Herminia Meñez compellingly argues that Spanish colonizers responded by demonizing these shamans as aswang, which explains why the manananggal is stereotypically feminized (Meñez 87, 90-94). While Meñez
demonstrates the success of the Spanish attempt to demonize babaylanes by calling them witches, there is also evidence that in at least one case⎯a twenty-two year old native woman accused of witchcraft in 1808⎯a babaylan successfully reappropriated Catholic iconography for her own ends (Bankoff 49-50, 55). This fraught history of ideological contestation is distilled in the brief etymological entry quoted above, in which collocations between aswang, babaylanes, and queer transgressions of gender normative performance (transvestism, male femininity, female masculinity, lesbianism) are flattened and preserved in linguistic usage.
In contrast to Catholicism’s male priesthood, the Animist religious traditions of the pre-colonial Philippine archipelago were matrifocal; however, the culture’s bilateral gender symmetry allowed men to participate in a predominantly female shamanism.
Brewer speculates that in precolonial and early colonial Philippines, male shamans took on women’s vestments because spiritual potency was seen to inhere to femininity (135-136). If Brewer is correct, then the cultural valuation of feminine spiritual potency in the archipelago would have fueled the answering misogyny of the Spanish Catholic colonialism that strove to stamp out Animist shamans. Since shamanism was allied with femininity, its denigration also took the form of a profound misogyny, as evident in the anti-female cast of the aswang complex. If the aswang complex is, among other things, a memory-trace of the denigration of precolonial animism and its spiritual leaders, then the pervasive misogyny of aswang lore could be rooted, not only in the patriarchal ideology of Spanish Catholic colonialism, but in the protracted campaign to eradicate Animist shamanism and its corresponding investment in female spiritual potency.
Though these etymological conflations between aswang and asog doubtless have a homophobic cast, the association between gender transgression and the anti-hegemonic political charge of babaylanism has allowed asog and babaylan to be resignified as queer-feminist symbols. One scholar, for example, posits a genealogical continuity between ancient asog and present-day bakla as evidence of suppressed pre-colonial forms of homosexuality (Quintos 156, 160). Such recuperative projects are at once promising and risky, since claims to a noble pre-modern Filipino queer tradition may unwittingly reproduce the temporal elitisms that structure the dichotomy between bakla as a “vestigial,” “anachronistic” throwback versus a contemporary cosmpolitan gay subjectivity (Manalansan 2006, 6, 37; Benedicto 2014, 82-83). The rhetoric of temporal disparagements of bakla anachronism vis-à-vis a global gay “now” is one of surmounted abjection: homosexual Filipinos “were once” bakla, but queer pinoys today are bakla “no longer” (Benedicto 2014, 81). I have learned a great deal from Manalansan and Benedicto’s incisive critique of anachronizing pinoy gay bourgeois rhetoric that fails to recognize the existence of multiple queer modernities, in which the bakla is both coeval with and nonequivalent to dominant transnational forms.
Do queer aswang have the potential to unsettle a homogeneous understanding of gay globality? Against the broader context of a forcible elite erasure and disparagement of bakla, what should we make of the recent, flamboyant visibility of bakla in aswang
transmedia? My hunch is that where once aswang (with its historical conflations with shamans of either sex, baylan or asog) figured resistance to Spanish colonialism, albeit in demonized terms, today bakla manananggal may signal a nascent recalcitrance to the norms of a homogenizing gay globality.
AmApolA in 65 ChApTers
I’d like to turn now to another bakla manananggal, the titular character of Ricky Lee’s 2011 novel, Amapola in 65 Chapters. In the novel, written for the most part in Tagalog⎯a language in which pronouns are non-gendered⎯Amapola’s assigned sex at birth is male. I have elected to use “she” to refer to Amapola, who identifies as a feminine bakla and inhabits feminized subject positions in relation to other characters, for example as a daughter or an aunt. Using a Western LGBTQ vocabulary, one could say that Amapola straddles the subjectivity of a professional drag queen and everyday forms of trans subjectivity. Amapola is regarded as a daughter by her adoptive mother, Nanay Angie, while her masculine personalities, Zaldy, Isaac, and Montero (Amapola has multiple personality disorder) are regarded by Nanay Angie as sons. Although translations between Philippine and English terms and sex/gender cultures are at work both in Lee’s novel and this essay, I want to emphasize that part of the shared project of Lee’s novel and my study is the eschewal of normalizing labels and the emphasis on the messiness of Filipino/a subjectivities in relation to global/Western queer nomenclatures.
Some 45 years after the filmic appearance of bakla manananggal in Mga Bata ng Lagim, Lee’s novel explicitly draws a parallel between the social discrimination aimed at aswang and bakla alike. It narrates the unexpected emergence in Manila’s Morato district of a civil rights movement for aswang whose most conspicuous embodiment is Amapola, a 26-year-old professional drag queen who turns into a heroic manananggal.
The novel opens on an evening in February 2010. The nation is gearing up for the presidential elections in early May but is still reeling from the aftermath of the floods brought on by typhoon Ondoy some months before. When we first meet her, Amapola is performing as Beyonce singing “If I Were a Boy,” resplendent in a huge wig, hoop earrings, false eyelashes, a push up bra, ultra-short shorts, and tall boots. In the middle of her number, she feels a strange, unbidden transformation coming over her. Hurrying out of the bar, Amapola undergoes a profound metamorphosis: her vision fractures, her eyes redden, her hair hardens; wings sprout, and her body splits at the waist as she takes flight. We thus meet our queer protagonist, Amapola, at the moment when her life changes completely: without warning, she becomes an aswang.
Amapola, we quickly learn, suffers from multiple personality disorder: her two other alternate personalities are Zaldy, a shy “closet queen who likes to speak in English,” and Isaac, a handsome but homophobic straight man, described as
“machong barumbado” [a rude macho man] (Lee, Si Amapola 9-10). Both masculine