Sunday Essay: Memes and mirrors

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

I’VE been thinking about Maria Lourdes Nancy Binay’s face.

You’ve probably seen the images from Tuesday’s Senate hearing on how public health and other officials have handled the threat of the new coronavirus from Wuhan. There’s Senate President Tito Sotto, introducing an unattributed and now-debunked video about a conspiracy theory on the virus’ origins. Beside him sits Senator Binay.

I have not seen a full record of Senator Binay’s reactions while the video played, but the meme that went viral shows her frowning, then smirking, then shooting what may be described as “dagger looks” at Sotto’s back.

We can only guess what the senator from Makati was really thinking. Was that disbelief or exasperation at the irresponsible antics of a senior Senate colleague? Maybe both? It went viral before anyone could confirm what the senator was actually thinking. “Nancy Binay is our mood,” some people claimed on social media. “Same, ghorl. Same.”

How tricky appearances can be for women in power.

It’s not enough to be smart or have good political intents, instincts and connections. You also have to be photographable.

Remember when Binay first ran for the Senate in the May 2013 elections? Her lack of political experience was a legitimate issue, as was her refusal to participate in pre-election debates. Yet the most common observation about her—the quality that a lot of people online fixated on—was her skin tone.

Binay’s team has chosen to poke fun at all the memes about her appearance rather than get huffy about them. It’s the smart thing to do.

In the 2014 State of the Nation Address (Sona), she was mocked for wearing an unusual cream-and-green ballgown, which some people online compared to a hot air balloon or a bunch of spring onions. The senator’s office said she found those memes amusing. Four years later, she preempted journalists from making comments about her sky-blue gown during that year’s Sona by pointing out that she “matched the carpet” on the congressional floor.

Memes are an entertaining shorthand for the longer, more complicated stories we actually need to consume, so we can understand our politics and our political personalities (ourselves and others) better.

Yet as funny as they are, memes can be deceptive. We easily overlook how brutal they can be or how incomplete. We see a meme that features a public official’s withering gaze and her dramatically arched eyebrows, and instantly assume we know enough about who she is or what she stands for.

Senator Binay asked the necessary questions about our government’s handling of this new coronavirus—as she did in a previous congressional inquiry over how some of our national government officials tolerate, if not actually support, personalities who spread disinformation.

Last week, she pointed to the failure of communications between the health department and civil aviation authorities, which allowed tourists from Wuhan to enter the Philippines two weeks after the existence of the new virus had been confirmed.

And yet, most of the attention in that hearing’s wake, at least when Binay’s name came up, has focused on how she looked. How many of us could relate to the faces she made.

Look at how female public figures are discussed. Journalists and society columnists fawn over their gowns, hair, and make-up in state events—and forget to ask about their positions on banning political dynasties or investing more seriously on public education and public health infrastructure.

Look at how female public figures are ridiculed. A critical blogger gets compared to an animated troll in the Shrek movies—by online trolls who apparently don’t care about what they contribute to the national conversation. We’d rather speculate about the cosmetic surgery some female officials appear to have invested in, instead of examining their ideas for urban development and fiscal discipline.

Memes can be fun. Let’s face it, though. Most memes are used to mock women in power by focusing on the way they look rather than what’s on their minds. In a way, memes are mirrors: They reveal how easily, even when surrounded by a wealth of information, we let appearances distract us.


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