Hints and Symbols

Opulence and obliviousness

04:02 AM November 04, 2019

It was only a few weeks ago when presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo took on the public’s “challenge” to commute to work in the middle of what is undeniably a real and distressing transport crisis. Painfully ignorant aphorisms to “just leave earlier” and “be creative” were said. The incident was just one of a continuous stream of insensitive, tone deaf moves on the part of government officials who are hopelessly out of touch with the daily realities of living in the Philippines.

Private presidential jets worth billions. Cynthia Villar’s ignorance on farmers’ incomes and how funded agricultural research benefits the common Filipino. A senator who plays at personal assistant and selfie-taker, and who chronicles the daily life of a President who seems more concerned with trading insults with other politicians than working toward the health, prosperity and independence of his own people. Planned imposition of taxes on dried and salted food, which makes up a significant part of most Filipinos’ diet due to their affordability. The reemergence of previously vaccinated diseases, and the powers that be wasting time playing the blame game. All of this is at play in the middle of what, in any other country, would constitute a humanitarian crisis; in the Philippines, it’s merely the way of things.


It is, then, terribly unfunny that local celebrities should follow this tradition of insensitivity and tone-deafness and host a Marie Antoinette-themed party, called “Opulence: Let Them Eat Cake,” in a Third World country experiencing such a crisis. Let history majors quibble over the attribution, because the symbolic significance of the phrase is clear: It reflects the frivolousness and ignorance of a queen who, being told the peasants were starving and had no bread, said, “Then let them eat brioche.” It unironically subverts the image of a self-absorbed, privileged ruler and turns her into an icon of fashion and opulence, referencing the Sofia Coppola film about the unhappy royal.

The significant point isn’t whether one should, or shouldn’t, sympathize with Marie Antoinette as a figure in history, but whether those benefiting from power and privilege are able to sympathize with the Filipino everyman of today. If such a clumsily named party is any indication, perhaps not. It makes the unwitting partygoers seem shallow and indifferent, and washes off whatever gloss these individuals may have gained with any previous humanitarian work. The fashion magazines congratulate the stylings of their costumes, while the rest of us look numbly on, unable to relate to this level of obliviousness.


We’re not immune to reading celebrity news and looking admiringly at their outfits from previous parties; they are, after all, pretty and pleasing distractions from daily drudgery. This incident just takes the cake — pun intended — as its extravagance and theme seem to thumb noses at those suffering from no access to water, from recent natural disasters, from the ache of poverty. One doesn’t get to reference a historical figure while omitting the context of starvation and unrest that surrounded her.

There’s a fine line between cheeky irreverence and sheer insensitivity. If we praise our local artists for their ability to inspire and uplift, then there should be words for when they do the opposite. We’ve already come to expect the worst of insensitivity from our local politicians, so it’s disappointing when our media darlings self-indulgently follow suit.

In being offended, are we taking things too seriously? Is our “woke” culture looking for yet another target, shooting down harmless celebrities having harmless fun? Maybe. But maybe it’s also time for a reminder that those at the top should be taking the plight of the Filipino citizen more seriously instead. Let’s do better. Let’s read the room.

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TAGS: Cynthia Villar, Hints and Symbols, insensitivity, kay rivera, Salvador Panelo
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