When Platitudes Become Form

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I’ve never been into “cute” guys. That is, aside from my obsession with Zac Efron (who can really, really dance! And you know what they say about guys who can dance..), I have never really been taken with guys who are good looking in the male Blake Lively high-fiving sense. I went out with one at some point, and shit hit the fan really quickly with that dude: a dude who seemed to think he was doing me a huge favor just by putting his beautiful face within the vicinity of mine, while I wondered why nothing noteworthy came out of his (admittedly very gorgeous) mouth. Except for that time he wanted to “play a game” where he would buy me “some normal clothes” and pay me to wear them. As much as I needed money at that time, what I really needed was to kick a fucker to the curb.

This is probably why I’m going to be alone. Forever. Or at least for a long while, ’til someone is okay with me badgering them for something beyond, you know, ogling his beautiful face while he spews out silly lines that are cute between non-human people-things. It’s a familiar cliche, but it doesn’t take much play for it to seep into reality, and that’s where the problem starts. Sure, we’re told through popular media to be weary of beautiful people, but that message loses its gravity when it comes cloaked in contradictions.

The harder lesson really is “How to kick a motherfucker to the curb”, best taken with “How to enjoy your own company. Forever.” Which I do, for real! While I’ve had good times in relationships where there has been love, mutual support, and respect, I am still much prouder of being able to actualize these qualities for myself, from myself. It just so happens that in the past couple of weeks, myself and I have been setting aside quality time for Ramon Bautista and RA Rivera’s TFTFZx.

So, if you, reader, will refer to the still at the beginning of this entry, you will find a lovely vista of a familiar trope: a car on the road, a classic car, no less, from the Motorama heyday of the automotive industry, blablabla, what am I talking about. Just look at that subtitle! That is, more or less, a direct translation, but what is lost is this culture of cutesy empty threats that typify Filipino heterosexual relationships and add that unnecessary, bordering on rapey, layer to what it means to “fall” for someone. Or something. In this case, joke’s on you, girl–if you don’t get out of the fucking car.

SERIOUSLY?!?!
SERIOUSLY?!?!

I had high hopes for this show. I watched and re-watched it, hoping that it could take the boy+girl equation further. Conceptually, it’s interesting: most of Bautista and Veron Cruz’s delivery is done as monologue voiced over scenes from a relationship that neither of them knew was doomed, and thus retains that luster of fantasy, even as it’s applied to a relic from the past. Whether we’re watching the ballad of a preschool teacher named Ines and the lovelorn Arvin, or a baker/entrepreneur of some sort named Zooey, with RB as Spanky, who goes looking for bread (back the fuck up, shouldn’t that be a red flag right there? I mean, who the hell goes into a cupcake cafe looking for bread?), it ends the same way. You feel for both of them, but none of these feelings are new. They’re just packaged better.

I’m not sure if these all belong together because the whole thing just feels like a vehicle to compose well-lit shots, better seen devoid of context on tumblr, under the empty gesture of a hashtag ready quote like “Love is not tanga” (Okay…then…?). Which I guess is the take-it-or-leave-it proposition here – because it feels as if all I’m watching are these really gorgeous stills of places in and out of Manila. It’s like…a bank commercial, or like being sold real estate. With a better soundtrack.

The thing is, I had zero intention of buying real estate or opening a bank account, and the thing with hashtags is they allow us to play dumb about things we might actually mean. And I’m not going to play dumb about how media treats relationships like a product meant to pass hands (blablabla woman precious flower) and be possessed.

And like most people who land on RA Rivera’s channel looking for some good Tales from the Friend Zone, I have come…to learn about love (as ridiculous as that sounds) from a creator whose work I respect. The cultural endorsement both Bautista and Rivera receive in the Philippines is no laughing matter. We ~love~ these guys! They’re hilarious and spot-on with delivery and timing, and here’s RB, getting and, more importantly, losing the girl! What an awesome favor to humanity to show a nice dude finish last, to give him a venue where he can earn our sympathy.

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So do we ignore the fact that narrative is outweighed by whatever jokes you can crack in hindsight? Because while jokes, a peppy internal monologue, and the right soundtrack can get you into a lady’s pants, they don’t get far in unraveling what actually happens in the space between two people.

I really wanted to like TFTFZx. Before this, I followed TFTFZ‘s advice column/vlog and adored it, so for a show that floats around pseudo insightful tripey McTripe like “Breaking up is like a contest”, while claiming that capital-L-Love is not about the tripe, it’s easy to lose faith. And you need that faith to get through all these episodes, because talking about a subject as hyper-represented in media (and everything, really) as love is, frankly, mostly a language of faith. It speaks of the point of waiting, attempts sincerity without tripping into corniness, and avoids the battered cliche in favor of risking something new.

It’s difficult to write about the work of people you respect when that pool of people is so small to begin with, but after seeing all the episodes, I was left with the weight of all the usuals: at best, some cutesy collection of silly one-liners permuted into what passes for a script, and at worst, a platform for casual misogyny (which is also another way of reading into this whole “friend zone” thing), where winning can best be represented by possessing other people, rather than exhausting the opportunity to explore the mess of humanity beneath their shiny, well-dressed surfaces. Hopefully TFTFZ runs long enough to actually shed light on that murky area, the so-called “long boring journey” between boy-meeting and boy-losing girl, and maybe the girl can actually get a say in that journey for a change.

Right.
Right.

When Platitudes Become Form was the title of a 2013 solo exhibition by Christopher Kulendran Thomas, riffing on Harald Szeemann’s 1969 landmark exhibition in Bern, Switzerland.

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Broad City, Skate Land

There’s a scene from “Gnarly in Pink”, Kristelle Laroche and Ben Mullinkosson’s short documentary about the Pink Helmet Posse, where a tiny blond girl in a pink tutu attempts to plant her deck, but loses her balance and falls. We hear her sobbing and crying out in pain as she rolls over and picks herself up. The camera follows her as she runs to an adult, standing at the other end of the pool, just watching. He didn’t come running when she fell and he doesn’t even say anything ’til she gets to him.

This little, seemingly innocuous detail makes a huge difference when it comes to teaching young girls to just get back up if they fall: there is no other way to learn not only how to help yourself or what your body is capable of enduring. You will just have to get back up.

I’m really breaking my own heart (and bank account) right now because when I get back to Manila, I’ll have to wait another year to train with the league, and it will be god knows how long before I can qualify to teach something that is completely absent in all of Southeast Asia (save for a short-lived league in Kuala Lumpur).

I’m still having trouble understanding why derby only exists in some parts of the world, but I guess it’s pretty obvious that in a place where femininity is represented in the mainstream by tight vaginas, pouffy gowns, and tiny arms, there would be no place for an image of a girl in a helmet and hot pants, going at 25 miles per hour, with the goal of getting ahead of the pack and knocking over anyone standing in the way. There is no place either for a sporting event that does not make room for men or associate skill or talent with performing “like a boy”.

So back to this thing about breaking my heart: it just has to be in the place where I grew up that we are inundated with pictures of women, but this other image is completely absent. Side note: I spent four years teaching in an institution that perpetuated this kind of image and ran along this thread of biological essentialism. Of course I have issues that came to this*.

I’ll admit I was one of those people who saw derby as a subculture rather than a sport, and it meant joining the league and buying additional insurance to understand the issues and difficulties that come with getting it recognized as a legitimate sporting event. I’m 28, and for my whole life, I have never taken anything athletic seriously. On the bright side, this made the decision to join ACRD an easy one. I didn’t think that I was “sportsing”, initially I approached it as ethnographic research that would keep me occupied while I hung out with my sister for the first time in two years.

I was an idiot to think my body wouldn’t be paying the price, and this is also one of derby’s biggest issues: even with thousands of women joining leagues, and simultaneously training, drafting, and competing with each other, all that energy and time spent still runs the risk of getting dismissed as a silly little girls’ hobby rather than something that irreversibly alters the way we move, the way we are built, and the way we relate to each other. A lot of this is because of derby’s resistance to abandoning feminine archetypes in favor of the typical, masculine imagery associated with anything athletic. It refuses to give up the pageantry, the booty-shaking, and the make-up, but there’s so much more to it that you only learn firsthand. You learn that living in your skin, actually showing your skin’s been lived in, means risking injury, and that doing so doesn’t make you “like a boy”, you’re just another kind of girl.

With every practice, I better understand why this is not only beautiful, but necessary – something that was communicated so well in “Gnarly in Pink”. It makes space where women compete based not on the usuals, rather it rewards speed and strength and sportsmanship. It also shows that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing a tutu**, whether in the rink or on the half pipe. By all means, show how there are other ways to rock a tutu.


*Other weird details include studying fashion in college, teaching fashion to college students, and accompanying my lawyer dad to the preliminary screenings for Binibining Pilipinas (tr. Miss Philippines) where he made sure everyone was of legal age and a Filipino citizen. There were other messed-up guidelines about having scars or stretch marks, but they didn’t need lawyers to sniff that kind of bullshit out.

**…or heels, or make-up, or any other indicators of so-called female frivolity that stand in the way of being taken seriously on terms you never had the chance to set.

Perpetual Tomboy

Earlier tonight, I learned to shuffle around on my skates. Shuffling is awkward. It makes you feel awkward because it means galloping from side to side on a 3-inch high platform shoe. With wheels. Today is also the first time I managed not to fall by accident, but I did land on my knee the wrong way when we did exercises that involved dropping to the floor. Nevertheless, it feels good to get something right.

Aside from my sister and the rare moments I actually get any grad school work done, derby is my only real reason for being in Texas. I lucked out because my sister’s job and apartment are close to the skating rink. When I tell people about what I’m doing out here, they usually ask if it’s anything like it is in “that movie” – that movie being Whip It. I can’t actually remember enough of Whip It to make any substantial comparisons because my first encounter with Derby was in that Luscious Jackson video, so that’s what stuck.

Our first meeting was spent discussing insurance, monthly dues, and protective gear – in that as a beginner, it would make more sense to invest in protective gear than in skates. With that, I left the rink with a second-hand pair of skates (which I would later find out cost $300 brand new), and plans to visit the skate shop in Lewisville, where I would be fitted with extra small wrist guards and medium knee pads.

“I did not realize I was a medium in the leg department,” I told Chris, the salesguy, after jumping off chairs and landing on my knees to see if I would break anything (I don’t know how this became a smart thing to do, but I was told to test everything before buying it).

“I don’t know about that, maybe it’s because our legs let us do such awesome things, like running and jumping on stuff”…And that’s how I was convinced to spend over a hundred dollars in protective gear alone, on a sport I would have to fly to the states to compete in. This guy, in pajama pants covered with flying pigs, had given me a reason to feel a little less ashamed of my calves, as well as to feel ridiculous for even thinking that extra small was some kind of triumph.

Because we play in hot pants and fishnets, it’s hard to avoid how derby gets fetishized and commonly associated with catfights and angry, man-hating women. From my experience with the league though, I’ve never seen something so civil and so professionally handled. There’s none of that crap about scratching your opponent’s eyes out or pulling their hair. It’s already difficult enough without any of that foul play.

It seems silly, and one of my more convenient explanations for doing this is “Boredom”, which is far from the truth. Derby was something I just spat out when asked what I planned to do while visiting my sister for two months; but what I eventually wanted out of it was to immerse in an alternative description of femininity, one I used to get out of listening to Courtney Love (before she became super ridiculous) and Kim Gordon. One that didn’t involve competing based on appearance or the hypocrisy inherent in the way we’re taught to use our sexuality.

I had (and still have) endless issues from feeling alienated and constantly having to assert that I was a girl (I can only imagine how shitty it would have been for me, had I grown up in the age of tumblr), that I’m female–as if having a vagina is not enough–because I was never comfortable with the code of conduct that came with it. Even now, I still feel a little awkward or a little shy around women who are more graceful or more demure, who take up less space and don’t wobble around like drunken hobos. And while I’ve long accepted that I am not and will never be like that, there will always be that longing to outgrow my inner tomboy.

What a waste of time though, and strapping on knee pads and skates is just an extension of saying fuuuuuck it. I mean, “Tomboy”, who the fuck cares? The term shouldn’t even hold any water when you’re doing something that matters only to you and the women on your team, which is pretty much all women. I wish I didn’t take so long to figure that out.