Love in the Time of the Teleserye

At the core of all the adventures (or misadventures) of a teleserye, the Philippine soap opera, there is but one important element that is often undervalued, simply because many people have been conditioned (perhaps by class consciousness or education) to dismiss it for its tawdry performance and lack of sophistication: love, romance. But romance is a timeless theme, even in the high literatures of both the East and the West. Thus the dis-ease comes to us very curiously since it basically has been propelling all thinkable plots in all of literary history.

All histories (that is fictional or real) are basically narratives of love, animated by desire for the other, fired by this desire which compels people to move mountains, so to speak, and even to come up with all sorts of tropes and treatises. This desire for the other is structured on a premise of possibility, where two individuals could eventually become one—and this precisely is the focal point of all orchestrations of fictional fulfilment or impediments. In the classical narrative sense, a tragic one directs us to frustration; a comic one, though traditionally sporting distortion, promises attainment. The possibilities of love commence depending on the trajectories.

Love is not lost on the teleserye as it is its important element. As a popular cultural text framed by the importance of the basic social unit of the family, it thrives by perpetrating the strengthening of this institution, which weathers the storms and becomes, in the end, a stronghold of characters. Any aggression towards an individual is an aggression towards the family. In our current social disposition of various familial dysfunctions, the teleserye family, as in Angel Locsin’s The Legal Wife, Piolo Pascual’s Hawak Kamay, or Sharon Cuneta’s Madame Chairman, the recovery of any form of equilibrium, by all means, is a necessary resolution to all present conflicts.

The love of the family, as well as the love between family members, situates the character as part of the institution, which is the primal symbolic order—which is also what governs the laws of friendship. Friends are like family, and they usually play the role of the other voice providing perspective and foresight. The recent resurgence of the “best friend” figure embodies this philic love. Every time Matet de Leon’s Rowena bathes Maja Salvador’s Nicole in the choicest sarcasm, she acts as a mirror that only shows genuine love and concern, despite the uncouthness, which the audience loves, and even discourses in social media. All the unrelated figures performing some didactic roles in teleseryes are basically to be considered philic.

But love above all is the fulfillment of the eros, the commencement of the romantic unity. And this unity may be prevented by certain things, at the very least: poverty, a familial difference (usually between two warring political or feudal families), or circumstances, natural or man-made. In her articulations of the romance plots of popular novels, the poet and scholar Joi Barrios mentioned of capsizing ships or volcanic eruptions as preventing couples from eloping.

The idea of love in popular texts, as in a teleserye, is to purify the feelings, to heighten desire, to reiterate the fragmentality of one without the other, en route to the romantic fulfillment. Love is the expression, as affection, as it also is the very journey by which this feeling, this articulation is narrated. While love is told, several other discourses are consequently implicated, like notions of differences, aside from the obvious character polarities. Our value system upholds the belief that love must be a way of bridging disparities since it is the universal forger of relations, the closer of all arcs. But it is, in a way, also a creator of forgery, as it offers givens, which if left uncontested only perpetrate particular ideologies.

Yesterday, I listened to a lecture by the scholar Resil Mojares, who revaluated—in the language of theory, “metacriticized”—his own “blind spots” in a 1979 study of published Cebuano popular fiction. In his clearly empirical survey, he uncovered in the stories the configuration of the “poor boy-rich girl/poor girl-rich boy” plot formula he called in “gugmang kabus” and demonstrated “the value in analyzing “symbolic action” (enactments on a symbolic plane of social desires and fantasies) in large masses of Philippine literary texts, as a way of understanding Filipino popular mentality.”

Though his arguments centered on the need for a larger, more encompassing study of Philippine regional literatures, his analysis directed me towards important insights on Philippine literary romance that may also be found in teleseryes, the subject of my recent studies. Truly, gugmang kabus is still a configuration very much entrenched in Philippine literature and popular culture, though in a follow up question which delved on the current landscape of romance plots and character configuration, I felt that there were very notable differences, especially in the observable placement of male figures in the privileged position (rich, educated, mobile).

Mojares, if I am not mistaken, observed that the prevalence of rich male characters may be associated with the observable lack of women writers in his survey (there were only two, he said). This was in the 1920s, or course, and the tenor was obviously patriarchal (but aren’t we still patriarchal, in the first place?). In the discussions that ensued, I offered some insights about the configurations of the plots, particularly of the teleserye, since, in the earlier part of his lecture, he mentioned a similarity of the plots with that of a recently concluded feudal teleserye, Ikaw Lamang.

I surmised that there are now new configurations, though the traditional (patriarchal, feudal) value system still shapes our collective imagination of class or gender relations. This is not surprising if we consider that the creation of plots and characters, particularly in the teleserye, is borne out of sophisticated market research initiatives, creative brainstorming and pitches, as well as the expected scrutiny and intervention of network management, which puts weight on market opinion. It was easy to conclude that the domination of male writers in the 1920s may explain male prominence in terms of class and gender in popular fiction.

Today, the complex authorship of the teleserye shapes how romantic figures rise and fall. Today’s authorial processes in teleseryes may not easily lend explanation about the configurations of characters. For the most part, I still think that love is still the point of the conquest, whether the characters are poor or not, or merely part of the struggling middle class, since, as many scholars have already observed, much of what we see on Pinoy television drama today are basically fantasy productions that peddle ideas of social mobility or acceptance, as in the case of bolder teleseryes like My Husband’s Lover.

Love remains to be an important literary value as it bestows equity, where class or gender differences are bridged, or where circumstances are undermined, in the name of romantic consummation. Love and its fulfilment are great equalizers, and each possibility is a narrative that animates all consciousness. The world at every turn of history may be enveloped by cynicism, but love in all its myth, is expected to conquer all. Love is a myth, and it is also mythic, and all generations will definitely need their share of its stories too.

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