Vicente Rafael, Duterte’s Phallus: On the Aesthetics of Authoritarian Vulgarity

Editor’s note: On the eve of the Presidential elections in the Philippines, we asked a few scholars to write about what they perceive to be the stakes. Here is Vicente L. Rafael, History Department, University of Washington, in an excerpt from his newly-published The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte (Duke University Press, 2022)

Obscenity is an integral part of the stylistics of power…The penis [is] a historical phenomenon in its own right. …The [autocrat] thinks and expresses himself through his phallus…Without a phallus, the [autocrat] is nothing, has no fixed identity. Thanks to his phallus, the [autocrat’s] cruelty can stand quite naked: erect.

                                                            –Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, 115; 175

One of the ways by which President Rodrigo Duterte had laid claim to both national and global attention is through his stories and jokes. Duterte is widely known for his irreverence and bawdy humor that constitute important elements of his governing style. His stories reveal a reliance on invective and an obsession with obscenity. He also makes frequent references to genitalia–his as well those of his critics to the delight of his listeners. He revels in what Achille Mbembe calls an aesthetic of vulgarity that has the effect of establishing a relationship of “conviviality” between himself and his audience. What results is an “intimate tyranny,” much of it centered on the tales of his phallus as it encounters the world.

For example, in a campaign stop at a large sports complex in Quezon City in 2016, Duterte told a story that reverberated around the world. While he was a mayor of Davao, there occurred a bloody prison siege in Davao City in 1989. Among the dead was one of the hostages taken by the prisoners, a 36-year old Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hamill. According to Duterte, she, along with the other women hostages, was repeatedly raped by the prisoners before being killed. But rather than evoke pathos, the sight of the Hamill’s corpse stirs desire in the mayor:

All the women were raped so during the first assault, because they retreated, the bodies they used as shields, one of them was the corpse of the Australian woman lay minister. Tsk, this was a problem. When the bodies were brought out, they were wrapped. I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looked like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they took turns. I was angry because she was raped, that’s one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have gone first. Son of a bitch (putang ina), what a waste (sayang). (in Taglish, my translation)

Hamill’s rape and death is used by Duterte as a set up for a joke about himself, more specifically, about the arousal and frustration of his lust. He sees her dead body and her beautiful face, and he feels that he should’ve been the first in line to assault her. Instead, he comes too late and so isn’t able to come at all. It is his failure to assert his claim on the woman’s body that is presumably taken by his audience as the object of hilarity. Seeing her dead body fills him neither with rage nor grief, but with desire that cannot be fulfilled. He is unable to discharge his authority, as it were. The horror of the scene is thus displaced into a story of about a mayor lamenting the failure of his phallic power. Rather than an erectile victory, the story ends with the punch line, “sayang”, what a pity, preceded by the cuss word, “putang ina.”

But all is not lost. Duterte’s disclosure of desire unfulfilled and phallic authority undercut produces a payback. The audience laughs, and their laughter compensates him for his lost power. It returns to him both the pleasure and authority that dead prisoners and the woman’s corpse had deprived him of. Unable to pull rank, the mayor is nonetheless rewarded with the people’s recognition of his narrative performance. Reports of the story drew sharp rebukes from feminists, human rights advocates, the Australian and US embassy and many other quarters. But among the electorate, his popularity soared. Horrifying his critics but delighting his supporters with his pungent shamelessness, Duterte’s bad language and obscene stories were crucial in propelling him to the presidency.

In tracking his jokes, we can see a set of obsessions built around the question: Who gets to own the phallus? Who gets to wield it and for what purpose? Here, the phallus should be understood less as a biological thing synonymous with the penis as a symbolic weapon for asserting autocratic authority and patriarchal prerogatives over women and men alike. Like guns, cars or wealth, the phallus can be used to impress and to threaten, to unify and disperse, to induce pleasure but also coerce submission. Duterte routinely threatens to castrate his opponents even as he repeatedly asserts? his generous endowment. Used to avenge imagined hurts and shore up a fragile ego, Duterte’s phallus proved effective in shutting down his opposition.

The presidential phallus, however, is far from being an unassailable force. As we saw in the rape story above, it can also be blunted by other men and the woman whose death frustrated Duterte’s assertion of his privileges. Indeed, Duterte is notorious for joking about rape as a way of re-asserting his ability to police women’s behavior and enlist men into affirming the sexism that buttresses his authoritarian imagination. Hence, when critics point out that contrary to his claims, crime in Davao while he was a mayor had gone up, especially rape, he retorts that wherever there are beautiful women, there will be plenty of rape. Along the same lines, he also spoke approvingly of men who had “the balls” to rape candidates for Miss Universe in exchange for facing certain punishment. Women are raped not simply because they are women for Duterte; it is because they are “beautiful.” It is as if their beauty is a challenge that has to be faced down, a provocation that must be put in its proper place, under the rule and in the service of the phallus.

In joking about rape, Duterte upholds patriarchal norms and sexist attitudes by wielding what the philosopher Kate Manne calls the “cudgel” of misogyny. And that cudgel is the phallus, at once “combative” and “anxious,” always wary of challenges and eager to assert itself. One particularly disturbing story that illustrates the coercive role of misogyny involves Duterte encouraging soldiers, when confronted with Communist female fighters, to spare their lives but to shoot them in the vagina: “There’s a new order coming from mayor. We won’t kill you. We will just shoot your vagina. So that…if she has no vagina she would be useless.” Shooting them in their vagina was, in a way, taking away what made them “women.” It was the punishment for taking up arms and defying the State. It amounted to “castrating” those who challenged the patriarchal norms integral to the exercise of its authority. Hence, we see how Duterte’s misogyny is directed not at every woman, but at particular women who attempt to seize the phallus for themselves, daring to go against his political and sexual authority.

One last revealing example of Duterte’s power of storytelling: his tale of being sexually abused at the age of 14 by an American Jesuit priest during confession. He often returns to this story as a way of casting aspersions on the Catholic Church that had been critical of his human rights abuses. Folded into this story, however, is another: his sexual abuse of their household help (which he later confesses was fabricated). Here what we see is a double confession—Duterte to the priest and to the audience–and a double assault: the priest’s on Duterte and Duterte’s on the maid. The two acts of violation turn out to be intimately related whereby the priest’s assault of Duterte becomes a means for the latter’s domination of his audience. He has frequently told these stories on various occasions, usually in a mix of Taglish, Bisaya and English.

Duterte recalls going to Friday confession while a freshman at the elite boys’ school Ateneo de Davao. In vivid detail, he tells of how the priest held on to his genitals as he forced him to tell more stories of his sinfulness. The longer the stories went, the more Duterte found himself captive in the confessional to the desires of the priest. One of these stories involved the young Duterte confessing to molesting his sleeping maid by inserting his finger in her vagina while she was asleep, then proceeding to the bathroom to masturbate not once but twice. Later on, Duterte claimed that the scene with the maid never happened. He made it up under pressure from the priest’s demand for more stories so he could continue molesting him.

Many of Duterte’s stories are arguably confessional to the extent that they are about exposing what usually stays hidden, bringing to light what otherwise remains in darkness. The subject who speaks is also the subject who is spoken about as s/he reveals the history of their sinful acts to a priest who in turn dispenses penance in the name of God. As the mediator of divine forgiveness, the priest exercises an inordinate power over the penitent, registering the penitent’s debts and prescribing the penance with which to cancel these. However, in Duterte’s telling, the very act of confession is subverted. It is no longer meant to seek forgiveness and acknowledge someone else’s authority but precisely to ridicule it. In his oft-told story about his abuse at the hands of Catholic priests as a teenager, Duterte reveals the priest’s concupiscence, showing how confession becomes a vehicle not for forgiveness but for clerical abuse. Confession breeds obscenity rather than divine dispensation, making for an uncanny encounter between priest and penitent. What emerges in the experience of confession for the penitent—here a young boy—is the return of the repressed in familiar form: the predator as father. From the perspective of the boy, the father’s demands appear autocratic. He cannot be refused. His lust for the boy requires that the latter must stay longer in the confessional, making up sins in order to satisfy the priest.

To comply with the priest’s demands, Duterte makes up a story about “fingering” their housemaid, then masturbating in the bathroom. He evokes a circle of touching: while the priest fondles his genitals, Duterte talks about foisting himself on the genitals of the woman as she sleeps, then subsequently fondling himself. His story connects these improper connections into a sequence of submission and mastery that yields pleasure and laughter. The trauma of sexual abuse for Duterte at the hands of the priest is transmuted into the excitement of probing the maid’s genitals then mastering, as it were, his own. In the end, the priest waves him off with a few feckless prayers, assuring him of eternal damnation. Rather than a site for the contrition and divine forgiveness, confession here is converted into a kind of pornographic machine for the reproduction of sadistic male pleasures. Duterte’s exposure and disempowerment by someone above become the conditions for overpowering someone below. He thus reverses his position from being abused to being the abuser, from a position of submission to one of domination, from one of fear to one of satisfaction and release. But only at the expense and through the exploitation of a subordinate other.

And what of his audience? Feminists, human rights advocates, the Church hierarchy and other critics of Duterte reacted with anger. They decried his misogyny at making light of sexual abuse as consistent with his disregard for human rights. Others were scandalized by his “indecency” and filthy language, his lack of “delicadeza,” or civilized behavior. In other words, they read Duterte’s obscenity in the way that he had meant it: as an unremitting war on social conventions.

Judging from the transcripts and the videos, however, those who were present at his speeches reacted differently. They applauded his stories and laughed at his jokes. Why? Freud once posed this question. When we laugh at jokes, what are we laughing at? Are we responding to the technique of joke-telling or to the content of the joke, or to both? It is never clear, he says, to the extent that jokes, like dreams, are fulfillments of the same wish: to evade repression. The political significance of jokes, the fact that they go against the grain of the reasonable and the normal, would seem to make them valuable resources for the oppressed seeking to overthrow the weight of authority. Mikhail Bakhtin further argues that medieval celebrations like the carnival and modern literary forms like the novel were sites for this upending of hierarchy through satire, disguise and social inversions. The high is brought down low and the low is elevated, especially parts of the body and its functions.

Bribing his audience, Duterte is like a smuggler of illicit goods, promising forbidden pleasures and overturning repressive strictures. He says what they would’ve have wanted to say but could not. Their laughter could thus be read as a sign of their identification with Duterte’s efforts to find a way out of his suffering at the hands of the priest with a tale about abusing the maid who nonetheless remains unaware of her violation. They delight in his resistance and at his bumbling attempts at mastery that leads to some sort of self-recovery. Decades later when he tells this story, he is no longer a boy but the president of the country. Occupying the heights of power, he is capable of commanding attention wherever he goes with whatever he says. Duterte’s obscenities feel subversive, but subversion in this context is in the service of an autocratic end where laughter produces an intimacy between ruler and ruled. The vulgarity of his language positions him as a kind of rebel inviting others to join him in his assault on bourgeois sensibilities and norms. But it comes with the condition that the audience must submit to his narrative. Only he can tell the stories and expect their laughter. The reverse is never possible as no one, as far as I know, jokes with Duterte in public. He expects no narrative reciprocity, no return with interest, but only a kind of passive acceptance of the surplus of stories he gives you. There is thus nothing democratic in Duterte’s humor. Instead, the pleasure that the audience gets from his jokes is intrinsically linked to their willingness to participate in the imaginative violation of others, especially women. Whether he seeks revenge or release, Duterte’s tales seek to assert his phallic power over his enemies while simultaneously subordinating and overpowering his audience.

In looking at the narrative structure of his jokes, we see how it hinges not only on classic techniques of joke-telling—those of condensation and displacement, as in dreams. It is also productive of a hierarchy of listening whereby Duterte as the teller monopolizes the time and the language of telling. As part of the audience, you have no choice but to wait for him—and he is always late—then listen to him take his time unspooling his tales. Unable to leave without drawing his ire, you remain a captive audience. Jokes then become a way of establishing his authority. He exposes himself, renders himself vulnerable and risks dissolving his authority, but only to recover and re-assert his mastery over the scene of exposure. This dialectic of disclosure and domination allows him to forge a tyranny of intimacy, extracting your consent registered by your laughter. Humor is thus a means of playing out his anxiety while assuaging his fear. Vulgarity is stylized and obscenity performed to release the audience’s inhibitions at defying conventions. But this defiance is bogus and deeply conservative since it always comes with the price of submission to Duterte’s authoritarian imagination.

While laughter creates conviviality and community, it is always shadowed by violence and fear. Duterte recreates in every story something of the tone and texture of his primal scene: the dark confessional where he is held captive by the hands of the American priest. Indeed, his performative shamelessness today may be read the unfinished struggle to master his fear of the father-predator as he attempts to take on the latter’s power for himself. It is precisely that same phallic power that he seeks to grasp and wield when he addresses those he considers critical of him such as women and “lesser” men, and especially abject figures of criminality like drug dealers and users. Recklessly cussing at them, he lusts after their deaths, brooking neither dissent nor opposition.

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