, July 19, 2024

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Icing on the Cake: MTRCB, Censorship, Conservatism #CulturalCrisis

  •   7 min reads
Icing on the Cake: MTRCB, Censorship, Conservatism #CulturalCrisis
via Rappler
By Katrina Stuart Santiago

While it’s easy to jump in on the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) decision to issue a summons to the producers of “It’s Showtime” for the purported “indecent acts” of real-life couple Ion and Vice Ganda, it is as easy to start finding even more offensive TV content that we imagine the MTRCB should find just as indecent.  But the more difficult conversation that needs to be had is this one: why does the MTRCB continue to exist in a purported democracy whose Constitution completely disallows censorship?

Maybe we can start with easier questions: how can one thing that happened on “It’s Showtime” be offensive, but the same thing happening on E.A.T. not be offensive at all? We could extend that to other shows that continue to use skimpily clad women dancing provocatively to sell products, or to function as counterpoints to macho show hosts and their punchlines.

Contrary to what the dominant mob on Twitter and Facebook (group-)think, it has nothing to do with homophobia, at least not on the part of Lala Sotto or the MTRCB.

Rather, it has everything to do with the way in which the MTRCB was imagined as a government agency that is supposed to “protect” our children and audiences from inappropriate TV and film content through the exercise of regulation-and-classification. It has everything to do with a government agency that is built on deliberately ambiguous notions of morals and public good. It has everything to do with an agency that is nothing more but an outdated vestige of the Martial Law regime, but strengthened and empowered during the Aquino admin that deliberately refused to engage with the cultural sector as a response to the Marcoses’ use of culture to further its oppressive regime.

It has everything to do with us — a public that cares little about cultural regulatory institutions like the MTRCB until it does something that’s “controversial” enough for our social media feeds.

Some basics. The MTRCB’s summons to producers of shows that are deemed as “problematic”, i.e., shows images considered indecent, violent, against public norms, unjust portrayals, etc. are generally brought on by public complaints. This means it is rarely about the MTRCB itself deciding that something already shown is offensive; the claim is always that a public complained about the material. There is never proof of these complaints of course, which points to the lack of transparency when it comes to this part of the regulation process, as it does to the possibility that those complaints don’t exist at all. At the same time, in this case, given what we know of the general viewing public, it is not difficult to imagine that enough people complained about Ion and Vice Ganda licking icing off their fingers, and not about Tito and Helen kissing.

It is why this comparison misses the point entirely. If Tito and Helen kissing on nationwide noontime TV was offensive to a public, why did that public not complain when it happened?

Homophobia exists here, yes, but not from the MTRCB. Instead it is coming from the public that it serves. Sure, that’s you and me, but it is also (obviously and apparently) the homophobes among us.

Note too that this notion of “public complaints” shields the MTRCB from accountability. It can, for all intents and purposes, let certain things slip through, on the premise that no one complained; it can also pinpoint specific incidents based on complaints from the public, real and imagined, and no matter how the ones who complain lack any kind of credibility.

Another basic fact. The MTRCB is a regulatory and classification agency for TV shows and films. This means that it has no power over anything that appears on YouTube, or your streaming platforms. And so anyone who’s using YT content to highlight for Lala Sotto how unfair she is to “It’s Showtime”, Sotto can simply say: that’s not on me.  Any material aired on TV before her tenure as MTRCB chairperson is not on her either. The change in leadership means a change in what is acceptable and what isn’t. TV soap director Albert Langitan said it best when sexy scenes from a soap he did in 2018 were censured, even as those were just as sexy as scenes from his 2014 soap: “Siyempre, nagkakaroon ng shift of values depende kung sino yung nakaupo sa MTRCB.”

Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

The thoughtlessness with which every kind of content is now being thrown at the MTRCB, even ones that they are not responsible for, is also ultimately dangerous. What it pushes for is even more regulation on the culture that we can consume. Sure, we might all agree that those soft porn films on Vivamax should be regulated; but really, is there a way of doing that without touching Netflix, and HBO, and Disney, and Prime? I doubt it.

Here’s the thing with censorship and regulation. It will always try to cover more ground, not less. After all, the goal is to “protect” the public from content, ideologies, thoughts, portrayals that are deemed as detrimental to our well-being. After all, the premise is that we, as an audience, are not responsible or knowledgeable enough to process, analyze, and understand what it is we are watching, and to some extent, that parents and elders are also not able to do this for their children. As such, the free-er the platform is from regulation, the more “dangerous” it is deemed.

But the fundamental problem is really one that’s simply a question of morals and norms, which the MTRCB is mandated to protect. Because how does one operate based on something that’s ever-changing? How can any government body regulate film and television shows based on something that’s at best subjective, and is ultimately at the mercy of real life? How can it protect good customs, for example, when we have seen how what is good and bad can be put into question by those who sit in government? Say, how can the MTRCB decide that scenes from a TV show or film are “objectionable” because these have a “dangerous tendency to encourage the commission of violence or of a wrong or crime” when we come from Duterte as President, he who encouraged citizen arrests and killings, he who cracked rape jokes and lived off a propaganda machinery of vitriol and hate? How can any act of intimacy between two individuals (Ion and Vice Ganda, Tito and Helen) be offensive, when we came from a President who normalized stealing kisses from random female audience members, and objectified women as often as he could?

Here’s the thing with the MTRCB functioning as it does in the present: it is horribly outdated and terribly dysfunctional. If we are to be reminded of anything with this censure of Ion and Vice Ganda, it’s that what is “objectionable for being immoral, indecent, contrary to law and/or good customs, injurious to the prestige of the Republic of the Philippines or its people” changes with every leadership, every government. This means that we are at the mercy of an MTRCB leadership (appointed by the President), and what it deems as offensive at any given point. We are at the mercy of what is deemed as immoral, or indecent by individuals who are not necessarily thinking about cultural production at all, and instead are generally and usually dictated upon by religiosity and conservatism when they talk about public good.

That cultural productions will always be ahead of the curve when it comes to changing and challenging our sense of what’s normal, what’s good, what’s decent and moral, is important to realize. Because it also highlights how the mere existence of institutions like the MTRCB is a cultural crisis in itself: it is a symbol of the backwardness of our institutions, at a time when creativity and cultural production — good and bad — are on overdrive. And let’s not even begin about who gets appointed into the MTRCB Board: this is nothing more but presidential appointments based on connections, not credibility or intellect. And without the latter, majority of these people have no right to even be discussing arts and culture, much less censuring it.

Lastly, just because summons aren’t issued, it doesn’t mean that TV shows are not regulated. Before these shows air, all of them pass through the MTRCB, and in the case of noontime shows, all of them are given that Parental Guidance rating. Acts of censure already exist before these shows even go on the air. Self-censorship is what it depends on — that is, it hopes that the creatives of a given show, be it the TVJ and dabarkads, or Vice Ganda and the rest of the “It’s Showtime” hosts, will know to rein themselves in, have a sense of what can be said or not on live TV, given their timeslots, what actions are acceptable and what are not.

This is why to some extent, this falls back on Vice Ganda and Ion. Did they think nothing of the act of licking icing off their fingers, given the way Ion looked, the reaction of Vice Ganda, the tenor of that moment, and the fact that it was a segment for, and with, kids? Could the producers of “It’s Showtime” honestly say that this was nothing more than an organic romantic moment shared between the real-life couple that was appropriate for the kids (on the show, and at home) who were watching them?

If the answer is that this was romantic, not at all sexual, then the challenge is to define the extent to which intimacy and romance might be viewed on noontime, nationwide, TV. If this was in fact bearing the weight of sexual innuendo, then taking responsibility is key. If there’s anything we all know by now about television, all it takes is an apology, and you’re scot-free. Joey de Leon has done it many times before (1, 2), as has Vice Ganda (1, 2, 3).

The icing on the cake is if we realize that what these instances demand is responsibility from all of us. We shouldn’t need any kind of regulatory body if we proved a level of maturity when it comes to creating and consuming, and taking part in culture, including social media platforms. But how this discussion has unraveled, with mob rule and groupthink and hate and vitriol? That makes it hard to prove that we can be responsible enough with the freedoms we are given. Ion, Vice Ganda, TVJ, and us viewers, included.

Sometimes the icing on the cake is a bitter pill. ***

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