Filipino celebrities

[OPINION] Should stars pay for their politics?

Isabel Lacson-Estrada

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[OPINION] Should stars pay for their politics?

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'Free speech, as they say, is not free'

In the Philippines, politicians and artistas make for strange but helplessly entangled bedfellows. Like a snake eating its own tail, stars become statesmen and the converse, in a feedback loop that has left us with action stars in Congress; a slew of former Governor ER Ejercito’s technically ambitious, though somewhat vain, movies; and actor and former President, Erap Estrada.

Even their relatives become beneficiaries of this borrowed light: superstar presidential daughter Kris Aquino rises and falls, inextricably steeped in family politics; presidential son Mikey Arroyo manages to gift us with a middling movie and political career; and moms, dads, children, and even extramarital relations run for and win offices.

It’s a tired tale – a mostly benign cancer of Philippine politics. What’s changed in the past few years is the democratization of communication: where suddenly, every Juan has a platform to voice their opinion and a chance to “influence;” where few famous people professionally vet their messaging before posting on social media; where the internet never forgets and has receipts of (perceived or actual) misdeeds; and where the news cycle (fake or otherwise) is 24/7 and everyone has a cellphone to document, witness, and magnify your every move.

In this untamed new world, the lines are blurrier. A star doesn’t need to be a politician to become political, and the average Joe doesn’t need much beyond the zeitgeist to “cancel” them if they say or do something offensive. Just as communication was democratized, so has power.

Boycotting an erring star has been the penalty of choice for their contentious political positions – a lesson ABS-CBN marquee name and Pinoy Big Brother host, Toni Gonzaga, recently weathered. Her defense of an evicted contestant’s controversial politics inadvertently resurrected her own history of eyebrow-raising connections, inspiring calls for her ouster.

Not that it mattered much. Gonzaga is still gainfully employed, none the worse for wear. More important than measuring the effects of her fleeting brush with “cancellation” though, is another question: should stars like her – and artists in general – be penalized for their personal politics?

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Two other prominent Duterte-era examples come to mind. In 2018, rom-com daddy Aga Muhlach took a hit when comments he made against one of the President’s critics inspired calls to shun the film he was promoting at the time. More recently, the animated film, Hayop Ka! The Nimfa Dimaano Story faced calls for a boycott, too, amid the casting of Robin Padilla. The once-chronically forgivable rogue has lately been known for – somewhere within the meandering mind maze of his social media– supporting some of the President’s controversial moves.

The quantitative impacts of these boycotts are hard to determine. Were the boycotters part of the target audience to begin with? Were the movies any good? Was the marketing effective? A lot of input go into the success of a project, but that is the point: a lot of input, a lot of people, make a project. Even if you were willing to penalize stars as individuals, why should entire film outfits have to pay, too?

In international relations, there is a doctrine on proportional response – a complex idea that can boil down to: an eye for an eye. If someone attacks you, you are allowed to respond in a more or less equivalent manner to restore a semblance of balance, rather than escalating the situation. You don’t throw a nuke at someone throwing stones. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

By this logic, First Love probably shouldn’t have been damaged by Aga, and Hayop Ka! because of Binoy, when doing so penalized innocent bystanders (or in the case of Hayop Ka! the innocent animators, one of whom had pleaded their case against the boycott). But if critics can’t hit stars where it hurts – their pockets – what other venues are available to demand accountability?

Then again, should accountability be demanded in the first place, when attempts to muzzle dissenting opinion echoes one of the alleged flaws of the very administration these stars are being penalized for supporting? Besides, shouldn’t artistic work stand and be judged on its own, independent of the character of their maker?

These are immortal debates – where free speech ends, whether or not artistic genius can mitigate its makers’ transgressions, and how many “civilian casualties” are acceptable in “punishment.” All the answers will cut to the quick, because it will always hurt to weigh your values and give up one for the other. The answers, therefore, will always be highly personal.

As a political moderate, I think free speech is a right and a responsibility. It ends where speakers spew out lies, endanger other people, or enable those who do. Free speech is not a blank check. It was prepaid by those who founded our nation and is protected by our institutions, but overdrawing on your account means you either steal from someone else’s freedoms, or you have to pay dues for your mistake. Free speech, as they say, is not free.

Art is the favored child of free speech and celebrity, its beautiful bastard child. The work and its maker both hold captivating truth and/or beauty. Our Spanish colonizers showed they knew both could move mountains when they put to death Jose Rizal, who had written of ugly truths beautifully. Clearly our national hero’s execution had been wrong, and local creators the internet disagrees with shouldn’t be sent to Bagumbayan. The point is, Rizal had some knowledge of how powerful his words were and what they could cost. He was aware of causality – an act, and the consequences of that act. He found it necessary to speak out, and lost his life but knowingly inflamed an emerging sense of nation.

These are questions today’s creatives – artistas included – should also be asking themselves: What will their opinions accomplish? Is it necessary to speak out? And to what end? While these are tough questions, no one should ever say theirs is an easy job. Whether it’s right or wrong, whether they want this responsibility or not, it is just what it is: as influential public figures they should be mindful about sharing opinions because they have outsize effects both good and bad, for themselves and for others. Cause and effect here is apolitical: what they do affects their fans, the general public, the success or failure of their projects, and consequently, the fortunes of their co-workers.

All artists, even the mediocre ones, are people of courage. It takes balls to share parts of yourself with the world and live with the consequences, both in your work and in your personal life. Sometimes they get wealth and accolades, other times ridicule and other times…a boycott. When we demand accountability from them, we recognize them as human beings of intelligence, responsibility, and discernment.

Some stars, for example, use their powers to sweep aid into crisis zones and speak out for the marginalized. Others are mercenaries and will accept paychecks for politics, either playing willful ignorance or actually naively believing they are “only” entertainers. Others support repressive regimes, and/or are trying to get a Marcos back into Malacanang.

I know whose work among them I will patronize, and which intense performances and artistic auteur voices I cannot in good conscience support anymore. In the run up to the elections, I hope everyone weighs the same considerations, so that our stars become more purposeful about who they speak for – and ultimately, what they stand for. –

Isabel Lacson-Estrada is a freelance writer with a Master of Science Degree in Global Affairs from New York University. She is a stay-at-home mom and is underqualified but lucky to have the best job in the world. 

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