Collage by Pristine de Leon and Alvin Zafra
Collage by Pristine L. de Leon and Alvin Zafra. Full image credits below.

Criticism and Tears: The Emotional is Political in the Marcos State

When a film taps on emotions to distort historical facts, criticism that uses a rational, adversarial voice, above the work and the audiences who enjoy it may fail to dislodge the emotive power of the work’s narrative. Pristine De Leon looks for a path forward as a critic in this tricky landscape in her review of Maid in Malacañang', a fictionalised retelling of the last days of the first Marcos presidency.

How does a state attempt to secure love? I’ve held this question for a while now, and through that time the word love felt odd and clunky, belonging neither to the vocabulary of the state nor the vocabulary of a critic. Yet, months into the new Philippine administration led by President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Jr., I’ve sensed a changing language. 

Marcos’ father is the late president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. In describing the latter, newsrooms had to decide whether to drop the word ‘dictator’ and replace it with ‘strongman,’ presumably a more neutral modifier. It is a weighty rewording, arguably a reduction. When Marcos, Sr. declared martial law in 1972, he led a regime that stifled rights and freedoms: Media was shut down; art was subjected to state patronage and censorship; journalists, political rivals, and activists were detained and tortured. It was this period of repression that provoked the “people power” revolution in 1986, which ended Marcos, Sr.’s two-decades-long presidency. 

When Marcos, Jr. won with 31 million votes in last May’s elections, it signalled both a beginning and an impasse. I remember wondering how language might morph further. Last August, over a month after Marcos, Jr. took oath as president, the film Maid in Malacañang was released. It tells a story of the Marcoses’ last three days at the Malacañang Palace during the 1986 revolution. Senator Imee Marcos¹, the president’s sister, was its executive producer and consultant. The weeks leading up to its release was a time when emotions were exceptionally high. Netizens called for boycott. In the media, worries of historical revisionism coming from filmmakers and martial law survivors were amplified alongside the Marcoses’ sentiments that invoked artistic license.

Perhaps it was also a time when feeling afforded another way of speaking. What was interesting to me about this moment was how the Marcoses’ collaborators spoke through emotion while disavowing its power. When Ella Cruz, an actress in Maid, received flak for her comment that trivialized history, she cried in an online talk show. Darryl Yap, the director of the film, addressed the topic of revisionism in the same talk show by asking, “Is there distortion from personal emotions? Is there any historical impact when Imee Marcos cries because she is hurt that their father was betrayed?”²

The charge of revisionism will always be met with a ready rebuttal, but what I want to argue for here is something smaller: not the overhaul of history, but the shift in our vocabularies. How can emotion shape the language of a state? When political life becomes a dense field of sticky emotions, how do we speak to it as critics?

Criticism is often conceived—at times misunderstood—as a labour of negation and exposure. At an impasse where history is believed to be changing or forgotten, the critical reflex  seems to be to assert the facts, to hold the fort of memory, to correct and demystify. These tendencies can be traced in articles responding to Yap’s film. In one of them, a researcher for Rappler diligently fact-checks the film for the reason that it is ‘consequential.’ What drives this vigorous labour is partly our faith that the exposure of power weakens power, but would this faith last in a time where too many things are exposed but not believed? What makes people believe?

Maybe it isn’t always a question of why a country forgets but why it invests its hope, at worst its love, in such a cruel, problematic object. In her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed launches questions that have struck hard and stayed with me. “Why is social transformation so difficult to achieve?” she asks, “Why are relations of power so intractable and enduring, even in the face of collective forms of resistance?”³ Ahmed turns her attention to emotion, not the kind we register as private, as personal as an actress’ tears, but emotion as a kind of cultural politics or world-making, one that enables cruel structures to be fixed and embraced as forms of being.  

Emotions play out according to a social script. Take love, for instance, an emotion wedged into the script of daily life. In a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines, we are made to learn and practice love within the structure of the family and its (hetero)normative devotions. The image of a holy father and a holy mother colour our perception of authority, and so when Marcos, Sr. led a dictatorship, he did so with a “benevolent godlike image,” as scholar Gerard Lico puts it.⁴ Marcos, Sr. and then first lady Imelda projected themselves as parental figures and even commissioned portraits that depict them as Malakas at Maganda (the Strong and the Beautiful), the first man and woman in our local origin myth. Love and abusive power became tightly entwined as Marcos, Sr. fostered “a cultlike devotion to himself and his family.”⁵ 

In Maid, the protagonist family is the object of injury. The character of Imee comes home in the wake of numerous threats and affronts: Marcos, Sr. was betrayed by political allies, the palace was bombed, and the bodyguard was found plotting to murder the family. Long takes and quick camera movements hurtle us toward the peak of worry for the patriarch. The dictator here is shown to have the most vulnerable body: the disease-stricken body in pain and under threat to which all emotions of pity are directed. “Dad, we need to leave. I’m afraid of what they might do to you,” cries Marcos Sr.’s youngest daughter Irene portrayed by Cruz. “Dad, please, I don’t want you to die in this place.”⁶ Nothing much unfolds outside this place, however; we never know exactly who “they” are. Yap portrayed the family as an isolated circle, a vulnerable bubble of a world that warrants protection from a largely unseen, decontextualized outside.  

Watching the film, I wondered why it took the route of melodrama, with the Marcoses crying more than half the time. I’m not interested here in whether this succeeds or fails artistically, but why this was attempted. To fixate on the family as the object of injury, to fetishize their pain and to render others absent relates to what Ahmed calls the transformation of pain into privilege. “The problem of wound fetishism is the equivalence it assumes between forms of injury,” Ahmed writes. “The production of equivalence allows injury to become an entitlement.”⁷ This invocation of the family’s pain also works to relocate the violence. It seems to say, if pain is here in the palace, then threat and harm arise elsewhere: from an enemy camp, a political rival, an activist, a critic. 

The three maids are interesting as conduits for context. They are the ones who watch the news and hear gossip about the uprising. Context is delivered from this ever-arbitrary viewpoint of history and hearsay. More importantly, the maids are framed as the embodiment of loyalty. In a scene where all the house help come together before being released from service, everyone cries; one speaks up, “We are the ones who can testify that [the Marcoses] are not bad people.”⁸ The others appeal, “Let us help them!”⁹ Love is expressed within this structure of steadfast loyalty and service—the epilogue shows the three real-life maids sticking by the Marcos family until the end. This form of affection banks on and shores up a hierarchy, valorising not just power but the love a servant has for a leader. 

It’s difficult to respond to such a questionable project. Giving more attention, more capital to what is already well-funded and overhyped might be counter-intuitive, but I’m also invested in how to write without delivering another takedown or another call-out, without positioning the critic as a rational, adversarial voice who is way above the work and the audiences who enjoy it. I still remember viewers at the movie house clapping their hands as soon as the credits rolled. How do we make sense of the way emotion moves bodies almost viscerally, or orient beliefs and imaginations in the way that facts might not? 

After watching it, I talked to friends who’ve worked in advertising. One of them, Apple Nocom, describes the weight of emotion most lucidly: “Nowadays it’s rare to find any campaign or strategy that does not involve emotion, even if it’s subtle. . . As customers and consumers we like to think that all or most of our purchase decisions are logical, but deep down when you buy something (ideas included) there’s always one emotion or another driving it.” It isn’t a broad leap to regard Yap’s film—with its one-sidedness and the directness of its message—as an advertisement. The entertainment industry, which relies on mass-mediated technologies controlled by the moneyed few, shares a long history after all with Philippine politics.

The dynamics between love, pain, pity, and loyalty are not specific to Yap’s film; they are part of a larger affective context driven by a similar script. Online, the Marcos family reappears as a glowing object of love. Critic Katrina Stuart Santiago, who has spent time on the Marcos Tiktok algorithm, describes how fan content positions the Marcoses as an aspirational family—as though culled out of reality TV and celebrity culture. Journalists Regine Cabato and Shibani Mahtani report on the president’s son, Sandro Marcos, being groomed as a rising online star, the subject of many fan cams and fan fictions. Perhaps this shores up the same structure of commodified love, where a cult-like devotion is enacted not by the servant (or the maid), but the follower. 

Cabato and Mahtani explain, however, that the content, allegedly, aren’t all made by fans; some are produced by those who work for the Marcoses. A state-backed disinformation army is not new in the Philippines—the hate campaigns that have aided former President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration seems to pave way for an equally massive love campaign. A campaign strategist interviewed by Cabato and Mahtani describes a troll network like a call centre led by a moderator, with staff managing multiple accounts. The line between organic content and troll operations is absolutely blurry, especially when posts sound personal and so emotionally charged. While real users may always pitch their voices and declare their resistance in the rawest, most personal ways, online, everyone is also responding to a shared, mediated, and skewed landscape of emotion. 

This is a tricky landscape for criticism. 

Often, it’s easy to lose heart and wonder, what is one searing research-based critique against the speed of likes or the scale of disinformation? Should critics use the same emotional strategies or aspire for the same scale? I want to answer no—not because I don’t think it’s a necessary task, but because I want to abstain from any kind of language that prescribes, one that makes us believe that there is only a single obligation and a single way forward. This political landscape, with its changing language, tricks us into believing that emotions are self-evident; it tempts us to feel and act in the same ways. It is this same landscape that boxes criticism as hate. 

Within this, how do we widen the affective registers of criticism? How can criticism make emotions difficult, and track the troubled history of love and its materialist context? I’m thinking of how criticism can nourish a language that does not discredit emotion in the name of facts and aesthetic judgment, but one that orients us to understand how emotion works, why people invest in this landscape and come to call this love their own.

¹The state’s involvement in arts and culture was a primary agenda during Marcos, Sr.’s regime. Senator Imee Marcos, like her mother Imelda Marcos who was a prominent patron of the arts, has been involved in the film and entertainment industry as a producer, foremost as the director-general of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines in the 1980s. Darryl Yap, the director of Maid in Malacañang, collaborated with Senator Marcos on “satire” videos during the recent campaign season. It was presumably then that the idea for Maid was conceived. 

²Yap’s statement was said in a mix of Filipino and English: “Is there distortion from personal emotions? Is there any historical impact kapag umiyak si Imee Marcos dahil nasaktan siyang trinaydor ang kanilang ama?”

³Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004) pp. 11-12.

Gerard Lico, Edifice Complex: Power, Myth and Marcos State Architecture (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2003), p. 46.

Ibid, p.38.

Cruz’s line was said in Filipino: “Dad, tara na, alis na tayo dito. Natatakot na ‘ko sa puwede nilang gawin sa’yo. . . Dad, please, ayokong mamatay ka dito.”

Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 32.

The line was said in Filipino: “Tayo ang makapagpapatunay na hindi masamang tao ang amo natin.

The line was said in Filipino: “Tulungan natin sila!

Maid in Malacañang is a 2022 film by Darryl Yap. Its initial release was on 3 August 2022. 
Image collage credits: Jacqueline Hernandez, Rappler,VP Leni Media Bureau,Alvin Zafra, The Boy Abunda Talk Channel, Maid in Malacanang Official Trailer posted by VinCentiments, Pio Abad, UXWing

About the author(s)

Pristine L. de Leon is an art critic, researcher, and educator based in Manila. She lectures on art, writing, and collaboration at the Fine Arts Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. Since receiving the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma prize for art criticism in 2016, she has written reviews and features on visual art and theatre for The Philippine Star. Her research on public art in the Philippines was published in the journal Southeast of Now and was supported by the Emerging Writers Fellowship program. Currently working towards a master’s degree in Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, she researches and writes around space, site, tactility, and participatory practices.

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