Even after repeated viewings, the scene that transpired at the end of the hearing on Wednesday still refuses to make sense: What, in truth, was Sen. Vicente Sotto III trying to do? He started off by saying to Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo: “On the lighter side …” Did he mean to put the secretary, at that moment one of three whose appointments had not yet been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments (CA), at ease? Asking about her children seemed like a good way to round out the picture the CA was piecing together. Sotto could then have said: “It must have been difficult to raise your children on your own.”
Did he mean to reassure her that he was going to vote for her confirmation? He did in fact offer her that reassurance, but the expression of support was lost in his altogether gratuitous remark about her status as a single mother. He could have stopped at “Two daughters. But you’re single?” The “but” was already borderline offensive, but he could have spun it to underline Taguiwalo’s resilience. Sotto could have said: “I admire your strength of character.”
Did he mean to humiliate her? For all the hate Sotto has reaped for his boorishness, it would be unreasonable to readily assume that he did it out of spite or evil intent. He is a kingmaker in the Senate now, with a swing bloc of six or seven votes, and he is solidly behind the Duterte presidency. He was one of those who made it possible for the Senate to realign itself with the administration, by ousting the Liberal Party members from the majority. It doesn’t make sense for him to give the President’s nominee a hard time. And yet he did.
On reflection, the following becomes clear. He was in fact trying to make a joke. But—proof that he has spent most of his life as a popular comedian in the Philippines—the joke was at the expense of his audience; that is to say, Taguiwalo. Worst of all—yet more proof of his roots in unscripted or off-the-cuff mainstream comedy—the joke was a mirror of his character, or lack of it.
Sotto is a comedian; he cannot help making jokes. It is only fair to point out that he is known for making quips in other situations, even while chairing committees or presiding over a Senate session.
But his jokes—like many of the jokes we hear on popular shows, such as his own long-running noontime variety program, Eat Bulaga—are only slightly disguised insults; how many times have we heard a host or an emcee make fun of a member of the audience, to the audience’s delight? The truth is, insult comedy is the staple of mainstream Philippine comedy; it happens so often we don’t even take notice of it, until a disruption like Ramon Bautista’s “hipon” joke in Davao City stirs trouble. That joke, too, was at the expense of the Davao audience—but Davao’s officials did not take kindly to it.
Absurd as it sounds, that is what happened on Wednesday: Sotto sought to strike a lighter note in the hearing, by making a joke at the Cabinet secretary’s expense. “Ah, in street language, when you have children and you’re single, ang tawag diyan [you call that] ‘na-ano lang’.”
“Ano,” like “kuwan,” is one of those convenient catch-all expressions in our language; it can, quite literally, mean anything. In the context of Sotto’s insult-joke, however, it means “she only got pregnant,” it suggests a lack of love or romance or regularity, it wrongly paints the pregnant woman as victim (something outside her control happened to her) and butt of jokes (she’s different, not normal).
Even more absurdly: Sotto must have thought, not only that it was funny, but that it was reassuring. The only possible explanation for this leap into irrationality is that the insult-joke genuinely reflected Sotto’s own thinking; “I find single mothers something to laugh at, and since I’m laughing at you, Secretary, you must know that I’m a normal guy.”
But instead Sotto showed us that while he may be a devoted husband and father, he is irredeemably sexist and a hopeless misogynist. He has the same contempt for women outside his understanding of normal as a popular comedian has for his adoring, all-too-eager audience: mere material.
But he is not the only alpha male in this administration who thinks women’s lack of agency is a laughing matter. On that score, he is truly aligned.
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