Infidelity is commonly regarded as taboo, a dirty little secret made for dimly lit corners of public spaces or encrypted online conversations. This is somewhat the basis of its appeal: the thrill of trying not to get caught, and the succeeding confidence boost that comes with obtaining something one isn’t meant to have. But here in the Philippines, this topic is discussed out in the open, with television networks and production companies taking turns in rehashing the same plot for both the small and silver screen.
A happy suburban couple lives a rather picturesque life, sometimes with kids of their own, when their peace is disturbed by the arrival of an attractive, exciting mistress. Upon the discovery of the affair, several catfights and word wars ensue in pursuit of the man’s affection and go on for as long as the viewing public permits, until they eventually reconcile and return to life as it was.
Sure, writers have tried to include a couple of contrived twists and turns. Sometimes, the mistress in question is actually a mister, a la My Husband’s Lover, or even the legal wife’s estranged twin sister (it truly does not get more Filipino than this) as we see in The Better Woman. But the predictability of the genre is still unlike any other, I can often deduce what direction a certain story is headed after the first half-hour. I think that’s a skill most Filipinos unconsciously cultivate after prolonged exposure to the various forms of media our country has to offer. But this hasn’t stopped the ratings or box office earnings for shows and movies of the sort from soaring to a record-breaking high.
The popularity of this genre can be attributed to the fact that infidelity is an ironically common phenomenon in this country, with a predominantly Catholic population that believes in the sanctity of marriage and the preservation of the family as the basic unit of society. Here, married men are granted all-access passes into as many extramarital affairs as they can handle. They conjure all types of excuses to justify their inability to stick to their partner but very rarely is this a legitimate source of shame. It’s considered a testimony to their manhood, after all, and seen as grounds for reverence and respect among their peers. They claim it makes them feel young again, free from the boring humdrum of everyday life. Sometimes, it’s just mere escapism, a stubborn refusal to iron out the kinks in their existing relationship.
Our justice system also favors the modern husband: according to the Revised Penal Code, he can only be held criminally liable if he keeps a mistress in the conjugal dwelling, or has sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t his wife under “scandalous circumstances”. In the rare instance that the roles are reversed, women are not rewarded the same compassion lavished on their male counterparts. One sexual intercourse by a wife with a man who isn’t her husband already qualifies as adultery. Along with this comes heavy scorn and slut-shaming, and a scarlet letter that is passed down the bloodline.
But most of the time, women are left to play the role of the abandoned wife who bears the burden of her husband’s disloyalty and wages a war with the “shameless and manipulative homewrecker”. Society programs them to believe that they are to blame for the treatment they were subjected to — maybe if they were as pretty as they were during the period of courtship, or capable of bearing children, this wouldn’t have happened to them.
The urban Filipino wife is touted as the “stabilizing element of the marriage”. Vancio puts it best, saying that “she invests the most of herself while even taking on double physical strain, and is tolerant of the husband’s lapses while seeking to preserve the bond for the sake of the children and the home.” In addition to that, there tends to be an unforgiving stigma towards separated women that bars them from entering meaningful relationships, which is further intensified if she has a child. With this, we are taught to see one another as competition, thus unconsciously absolving the oppressive patriarchy of their sins against us.
Time and again, high-brow critics express their disappointment in the industry for allowing this type of content to permeate our country’s media landscape. They admonish all those who continue to patronize it and even go as far as blaming their lack of taste on their financial status and educational attainment. But it’s impossible to discontinue something so emotionally resonant and representative of personal experience.
Audiences often find themselves projecting onto the characters of the show they’re so invested in to seek either an indirect form of validation or alternative source of comfort. They identify with the suffering wives who feel betrayed yet compelled to forgive their wayward husbands and harbor the same anger for the mistresses who ruined their lives. And of course, they live vicariously through the characters who engage in the wild catfights and intense verbal spats that real-life fails to mirror.
Best of all, the media serves as an excellent way to tackle an issue that society would rather keep mum about.
Researchers have attempted to understand how infidelity is perceived in the Philippine context, but to no avail, since no one was willing to speak on the issue. But in 1976, Ma. Gracia de Vera cracked the code when she was in the process of performing an analysis of the perceptions of residents from Labo, Camarines Norte. She discovered that cheating could be discussed freely and honestly, without arising suspicion in any of the participants by using cinema as a springboard for conversation. With this, we can easily spot the influence these shows and movies have over those who consume them.
It is only reasonable for them to use their power to put a stop to the romanticization of this aspect of our culture and promote the right course of action to their viewers. Thankfully, the usual ending characterized by the death of the mistress and consequent reconciliation is slowly but surely being swapped for more progressive alternatives. ABS-CBN drama Halik’s finale saw the adulterers behind bars, and the couple they broke apart opting to heal first before jumping into a relationship again. This was met with positive feedback from fans, who took their sentiments to social media and landed this episode at the top of Twitter’s trending list.
I know it’s not easy for some to simply do away with age-old social constructs and gender roles, or give up relationships that seemingly warrant a second (or a third or a fourth) chance. Surely, there are circumstances that keep them trapped in the endless cycle of betrayal and repentance, and I am in no position to judge them. But it’s about time we as a society start holding men accountable for their “irrepressible urges” instead of going great lengths to prove we are the one worthy of him.
We must empower women to stand on their own when the man of their dreams turns out to be a total nightmare. We must encourage them to get out of toxic relationships where their worth isn’t seen and their presence is often taken for granted. We must remind women that no homewrecker can destroy them if they refuse to make a home out of anyone but themselves.