Sex and the oleaginous spokesperson
Of course, he was kidding. Or is presidential spokesperson and legal adviser Salvador Panelo so delusional that he truly believes, deep in his heart, that he is “a match” for celebrity lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney?
Panelo was reacting to reporters’ queries on how he felt about Clooney’s taking on Rappler’s Maria Ressa as a client. Ressa is facing a slew of charges ranging from libel to securities fraud, all in connection with the critical reporting of the news website.
Belittling Clooney’s credentials as an international human rights lawyer, Panelo described the Lebanese-British lawyer as being “misinformed” about the cases. “I can ‘educate’ her,” Panelo said, adding that he was “excited to debate with her.” And the reason for his excitement? Clooney, he noted, was “beautiful” and “sexy.”
While many may seriously doubt if Clooney shares the same frisson about an encounter with Panelo, better known to the public for his fashion disasters and cha-cha-chaing around the President’s inexcusable blunders, the spokesperson’s reaction is simply all of a piece with the way misogynistic men in power—starting with President Duterte but including even the USA’s Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—try to belittle women they’re afraid of.
Their playbook includes using sex and sexual analogy to embarrass or shame their female targets. This includes focusing the spotlight on the women’s physical assets—or alleged lack of them—the better to downplay the women’s character and expertise or the validity of their cause.
Take the case of still-incarcerated Sen. Leila de Lima. One of the strongest weapons in the Duterte allies’ arsenal deployed against her was an alleged affair with her former driver. This included threats to release a fake sex video. Even if no one had the guts to air the footage (because it does not exist), the mere mention of it was used to relentlessly hound the senator.
Or take Vice President Leni Robredo. Initially “willing” to work with her in the Cabinet, Mr. Duterte increasingly drew attention to matters extraneous to her performance in office. He repeatedly pointed out how she was such a “distraction,” mentioning the length of her outfits, the amount of skin she exposed (mainly her knees) and even the way she looked at him. In the end, it was he who asked her to stop attending the meetings in Malacañang, although the veep continues to maintain a positive image in public polls.
But even ordinary Filipino women—especially the poor and humble—have come under the President’s ham-handed treatment. He “invites” women to come up stage and kiss him on the lips even during public gatherings abroad. He curses and uses crude language and analogy. He reduces women to crude stereotypes.
If a woman’s appearance, manner of dress, sexual history and sheer gender are enough to prevent a male official’s performance of his duty, then perhaps the problem lies not with the woman but with the male official and his level of maturity. And this pertains not just to the President or his oleaginous spokesperson, but to all members of the Cabinet and other senior officials who have dropped some pretty offensive verbal bombs on their own. Which makes us wonder, too, why women in the Cabinet, in the House and Senate and in senior positions in the Duterte administration continue to put up with such behavior and verbal assaults.
Do they not feel the fall-out from such machismo in word and deed? Do they not feel referred to even in some indirect manner when their male colleagues use sexual innuendo to explain away a woman’s success or failure, or use offensive terms to belittle and demean?
Sisterhood, sadly, flies out the window in the face of personal and political ambition and in the search for shortcuts to power. And then, having rejected this natural alliance, a woman targeted for abuse or diminution by men in power will find that no amount of “beauty” or “allure” or even a “pleasant personality” can save her from being reduced to her basest essence.
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