Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dress me up, dress me down

For section ‘M’ of the Philippine Star, 3 October 2007.

There’s a tempest brewing in my little teapot, that quaint university sitting atop a hill where I teach. The climatic disturbance that threatens to turn into a storm is a proposed change in the dress code: the administration of the Ateneo’s Loyola Schools is considering making it more stringent. News of the impending changes spread like wildfire, and predictably students were up in arms. As I write this, the changes are still being considered and will be implemented, if they are pushed through, when the second semester begins.

The spirit of the proposed revisions might be captured thus: What is appropriate wear in a university setting? Other schools have answered the question more forcefully than my good old alma mater has. I’m told that La Salle has a long list of proscribed items, a few of which — flipflops and blouses with spaghetti straps — are rather commonplace over here in Loyola Heights. The University of Asia and the Pacific goes further and forbids shorts and sleeveless tops. (Shorts were first allowed in Ateneo when I was a student, in 1986–87.) Compared to such schools, Ateneo is quite on the liberal side of things.

One reason school authorities have given for the proposed tightening of the rules: students seem to be losing a sense of propriety in the matter of attire. Stories abound of students who go out of the campus and meet others, perhaps to conduct an interview or other school business, wearing shorts and flipflops. It has happened in my own department. One of our literature majors who graduated just this past March applied for a teaching position with us this April and arrived for his job interview in — you guessed it — shorts and flipflops. Our chairperson, needless to say, was not amused and reminded the candidate that he wasn’t at the beach. (He didn’t get the job.)

One of my own firstyear classes agrees that their generation dresses more casually than the ones before it. I got them to admit this when we discussed the idea of a dress code for churches, a matter in the news a few months ago when bishops were reported to be miffed by the too-casual wear especially of the youth. During that session the class agreed on another statement: that the church is a special place deserving special treatment. Most of the students thought these two assertions were true, yet they had a hard time conceding that church officials were right in wanting tougher rules on what the congregation should wear. (Isn’t it that the church has been, like other such spaces in our cramped lives, domesticated? Doesn’t it then become difficult to get a sense of the sacred in a place where you dress as if you were in another room of your house?)

Dress is one expression of the necessary tension between the private and the public. As students insist, they have the right to express themselves howsoever they wish. Dressing up is a purely private affair. But they forget that dressing up is an act that takes place in the context of other people. It is an act in which you acknowledge the existence of others around you and the responsibility you have to them. It is this sense of the public that has gone missing. One doesn’t show up at the embassy of a foreign country dressed for the beach, in the same way that one doesn’t show up at a friend’s wedding underdressed, unless your intention is to insult your friend. (I learned that lesson the hard way when I once went to an evening wedding in casual slacks and a button-down shirt when all the men were in barong tagalog. The bride and groom, though, did their best not to make me feel ill at ease, and I am forever grateful to them.)

Clothes are a kind of language, and to arrive in jeans and t-shirt when coat and tie are expected is akin to saying, “I don’t respect you” or “You don’t deserve better from me.” So a student who comes to class looking as if he just crawled out of bed is going to have some work to do in getting my good opinion.

Teaching the young how to dress is a way of teaching them how to behave with other people. It is a way of socialization. This is, after all, why we still insist on meeting in a common physical space (a classroom) despite the availability of technology that allows us to conduct class virtually. Students need to know how to live with others, and one place they learn to do that is the classroom. (The reason sociologist Michael Tan rues the disappearance of public parks is that these are places in which we learn to negotiate the private and public spheres of our lives.)

Don’t we tell children, when they’ve reached a certain age, that it is no longer cute to take off one’s pants at a party, that it is not all right to run around the house naked if there are guests? One must learn the art of being with others, and learning this art is a long, painstaking process. (You could argue that it never ends.) So knowing what can and can’t be worn at certain times in certain places is one way in which people demonstrate their sensitivity, or lack of it, to others.

Cultivating this sensitivity becomes even more urgent in the context of the increased sexualization of our culture, thanks to our extensive and all-too-willing exposure to American pop culture. Music videos offer us images of scantily clad women gyrating in front of a low-angle camera for our delectation. Porn actresses are achieving the celebrity status previously acquired only by mainstream movie stars. Images of models wearing less and less adorn print ads, TV commercials, billboards. (And have you noticed that the models seem to look younger and younger?) The older among us may be alarmed at this trend, but the younger generations who are born into this take it all in with blithe innocence. Hence, their sometimes risqué choice in clothes. Apparel meant to be worn at a bar in the wee hours of the morning while throwing back a shot of tequila might not be the smartest thing to wear while strolling to your next class across a crowded quadrangle in brilliant afternoon sunshine.

People in the workplace who are reading this might be amused that teenagers are agitated over the possibility of no longer being able to wear their flipflops to school. I know how you feel. I too was in the corporate world for a while. I sometimes wonder whether my students realize that when they enter the world of work, the most important ways they will have to express themselves sartorially is whether to wear a plain or striped tie, or whether to put on earrings or not. They don’t know how good they have it.

Yet despite the clear need to develop in them a stronger awareness of and sensitivity to others, one can easily imagine how matters can get out of hand. The impulse to get individuals to go along with groups can all too quickly give way to the impulse to assert control. You may think you are developing discipline when you are actually encouraging conformity. Respecting others doesn’t mean running with the herd.

When control becomes repressive, expect an equal and opposite reaction. Students I’ve had from a certain Catholic school for girls in San Juan tell me that they were not allowed to color their hair or wear it beyond a certain length. Makeup was forbidden. Which explains, one girl said, why so many of them grew their hair and colored it when they got to college. I’ve read how women in Saudi Arabia, required to veil themselves from head to toe, wear underneath this cover outfits that would make Shakira blush. Imposed with too heavy a hand, rules may only encourage the behavior they try to stamp out.

And the need to teach discipline can be just another excuse for the arbitrary exercise of power. In some schools the authorities administer a dress code on their teachers as strictly as they do the students. A uniform is good as far as it goes, but I would like to ask these school officials: If you’re going to make your teachers wear a uniform, why choose an icky color like gray or brown? After all, your students have to look at them all day. No wonder they get bored out of their skulls.

Beyond these concerns is a larger one I would like to end with: the idea of relationship. Rules aren’t formulated in a vacuum. They are fashioned in the context of a relationship between the ruler and the ruled, boss and subordinate, parent and child, teacher and student. How the rules are accepted depends greatly on what kind of relationship exists between the two unequal parties. If the subordinate views authority with suspicion or even downright hostility, he will probably meet any move to control his behavior with resentment. I can imagine students packing flipflops and skimpy shorts and tops into their knapsacks to bring them out when they leave the campus and hang out in the coffee shops along Katipunan, brandishing their defiance on their bodies on the other side of the concrete highway.

And in the end, what will have been achieved? Will the new rules make people more respectful of others, more aware of decorum, more appreciative of the rules of propriety? Or will they only foment ill will? Isn’t it true that if the relationship between rulemaker (parent, boss, teacher) and ruled (child, employee, student) is chilly, then being told how to dress up will only feel like being dressed down?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pure love and a wondrous tale

For The Philippine Star, 19 November 2012, in Art & Culture.

The third time’s the charm. Tanghalang Ateneo had staged Sintang Dalisay (Pure Love) twice before, on the Loyola Heights campus in July 2011 and February 2012, the second run improving upon the first. Now, as part of this year’s National Theater Festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the production reaches a triumphant height. 

 Actually, I had already gotten to see a prototype of the play, a thirty-minute concept involving only three performers that director Ricardo Abad had taken to a Shanghai festival in 2009, performed in a conference room for a limited audience. The germ of the idea: using dance, namely, the igal of the Sama-Bajau people of Mindanao (with choreographer Matthew Santamaria), music, and a stripped-down text to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The response was strongly positive. At the suggestion of the nation’s leading Shakespeare scholar, Judy Ick, Abad turned to a little-known adaptation of the play: an awit written by G. D. Roke in 1901. Recognizing that by itself the text, in a traditional Filipino form of narrative poetry, was insufficient for staging, he turned, with Guelan Luarca, to the late Rolando Tinio’s translation of the tragedy and lifted passages from it to plug the narrative gaps. (Luarca, now a college senior, submitted a play to this year’s Virgin Labfest, the CCP’s annual festival of new work. Not only was “Mga Kuneho” accepted and staged, the play was chosen with two other works to form part of next year’s “Best of 2012” set. He is an emerging talent in his own right.) Muslim names were assigned to the locale (Semporna for Verona) and the characters (such as Rashiddin and Jamila for Romeo and Juliet).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The view from the juggernaut

For the Philippine Star, 24 October 2012, in section M.

When the game finally ended, I logged onto Facebook and posted a new status update: “SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE!!!!!” Then I added a comment: “I waited all season to post this status, dammit!” 

And really, I did. Not ever having been a devoted fan of my alma mater’s men’s basketball team (I would watch a few games on TV every so often), I decided to catch every single one this year. We had won four straight UAAP championships, after all, and if a landmark fifth crown was to be won at the end of the season, I wanted to witness the journey.

Why? Maybe because success isn’t something I’m used to. Sure, when I was a student the Blue Eagles won back-to-back titles. The first one, in 1987, was clinched by a wild come from behind victory in the championship game. The team came back from a twenty-point deficit with ten minutes to go in the second half to take the winner-take-all match against a UE team led by Jerry Codiñera (who would go on to have an illustrious career in the Philippine Basketball Association). And I missed it. The next year, the Blue Eagles were back in the finals, this time against arch rival La Salle, and this time I caught the clinching game live in Rizal Coliseum, a much smaller and cozier arena than the cavernous Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The half-life of the stage performer

For The Phlippine Star, 5 November 2012, in Art & Culture.

Because of a mixup, the version that was printed and posted online was an earlier draft I sent in. Here is the most recent version. The two are substantially the same except for stylistic differences, most visible in the last five paragraphs. 

Also, the print version mistakenly identifies Mario O'Hara as the director. The play is directed by Chris Millado.

Shows about shows are nothing new. Movies about movies or plays about plays often contrast the world of celluloid or stage with a usually more grim or banal reality. Tanghalang Pilipino’s Stageshow offers a vivid version of this concept, this time depicting a band of performers and their off-stage lives.

Written before his untimely death in June this year, Mario O’Hara, who made an indelible mark in radio, theater, and film as writer, actor, and director, intended the play to be a tribute to the performers he knew and learned from in his youth, bootstrapping men and women who sang, danced, told ribald jokes, acted tear-jerking skits, and even did magic tricks. Close kin with bodabil, stageshow was supposedly where entertainers such as Dolphy, Elizabeth Ramsay, and German Moreno got started.

As its title suggests, TP’s Stageshow has a simple heart, with no greater ambition than to entertain with modest means while remembering the people who spent their lives doing so. And it succeeds smashingly.