January 19, 2004
SOLEDAD C. REYES
Lina Flor (l914-76) was a prolific writer not only of fiction but of Tagalog soap operas and essays. She was also a newspaper columnist for the Manila Times and The Daily Mirror. As an exceedingly popular writer in both English and Filipino, whose influence spanned almost fifty years (different audiences reacted positively to her from the 30s until the 70s), she deserves critical attention especially in light of feminist critical thought.
This essay proposes to address a number of issues related to her being a female writer, and the consequences of being one in a patriarchal society. Because the position she assumes is a feminist one, this writer will ask several questions: How did Lina Flor’s works represent women? What do her voluminous writings reveal about existing gender relations in society at a definite period in our history? As a consequence of prevailing views on gender, how did Lina Flor stake and consolidate her own position in the fields she entered? Finally, in light of feminist theories, what does this present study hope to achieve insofar as change in prevailing gender relations in society is concerned?
Indeed, central to any feminist theory (and there are many of them) is the view that no interpretation is neutral or innocent. All interpretation is political because “specific ways of reading inevitably militates for or against the process of change” (Belsey and Moore 1989, 1). In some ways, this study is an attempt to challenge existing cultural norms. But this critical stance will seem to be more explicit and more obvious in this paper because feminist theories, on which this section depends, have almost self-consciously asserted the need for the reader/critic to state her position vis-à-vis the texts, and to use the insights extracted by oscillating between text and context, to identify the areas for possible change.
The history of feminist theories has always manifested this political concern from the 18th century when Mary Wollstonecraft savaged the sentimental novels of the time for presenting women as helpless victims, until the second half of the 20th century when a systematic questioning of values created in patriarchy took place that led to the production of texts as diverse as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Mary Ellman’s Thinking About Women, Ellen Moer’s Literary Women, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, and the works of the French feminists led by Julia Kristeva and Helen Cixoux, among others (1). Of particular relevance to this present project is feminist theory shaped by poststructuralist categories, especially those influenced by Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. Among the variegated concepts in this theory, of special importance is the concept of discourse. Chris Weedon’s discussion is particularly illuminating:
Feminist poststructuralism, then, is a mode of knowledge production which uses poststructuralist theories of language, subjectivity, social processes and institutions to understand existing power relations and to identify areas and strategies for change. Through a concept of discourse, which is seen as a structuring principle of society, in social institutions, modes of thought and individual subjectivity, feminist poststructuralism is able, in detailed, historically specific analysis, to explain the working of power on behalf of specific interests and to analyze the opportunities for resistance to it. It is a theory which decenters the rational, self-present subject of humanism, seeing subjectivity and consciousness, as socially produced in language… Discourses present political interests and in consequence are constantly vying for status and power. The site of this battle for power is the subjectivity of the individual and it is a battle in which the individual is an active but not sovereign protagonist (Weedon 1987, 40-41).
The Critical Project
There is no doubt that in her lifetime, Lina Flor was a prolific writer, an indefatigable producer of different kinds of texts, an adventurer who entered various fields (and in some cases was hailed as a pioneer), and in the process wrote millions of words which became the site not only for constructing diverse realities, but perhaps, more importantly, for constructing characters in gendered relationships. Thus, as a producer of texts which hundreds of thousands read or listened to, she could not help but address her message to the public—both male and female—and who, because of the seductive nature of popular texts, were positioned to receive this message rather uncritically. The question is: Where was Lina Flor coming from as a producer primarily of fiction, soap operas, and journalistic columns and articles, and biographical texts? In other words, what power relationships defined gender relations from the time she began to create, first as a radio singer then as a fictionist in the l930s until the l970s when she passed away?
The other question is: Would it be fair to analyze her texts within a critical framework that views these works as expressions of her experience already constituted in the world beyond fiction? The answer is: To do so would defeat the purpose of this poststructuralist project which rests on the argument that the subject is a changing site for various struggles which the subject necessarily experiences in interacting with different institutions and forces.
To read for the expression of women’s experience, for example, is to locate the meaning of fiction outside itself in the life and consciousness of the author rather than in the historically placed interaction between reader and text. The author gives expression to her experience and guarantees its authenticity. This way of reading relies on the assumption of a fully present female subject, rather than a changing and contradictory subject, such as the subject of poststructuralism, whose experience is discursively produced and constantly open to definition. From the poststructuralist position for which this book is arguing fiction offers access to the discourse constituting gender and the meaning of women’s lies at the time of writing as framed by the conventions of the literary discourses of the period and read through the concerns of the present day. It cannot be the expression of already constituted experience (Wheedon 1987, 137).
This paper will thus view Lina Flor’s texts in the way representations of women were made as probably influenced by the ways in which these appeared in popular perceptions during the historical period under examination. At the same time, this paper will strive to show possible moments and sites of subversion or dissent within the author herself and in the texts themselves.
Having clarified the perspective through which Lina Flor’s works will be analyzed, this section will now proceed to a discussion of Lina Flor’s illustrative texts (written in different periods) and the socio-historical contexts in which they had been produced.
Positioning the Self: The Various Sites for Recognition
Immediately after her high school graduation, Lina Flor strove hard to be recognized and her voice literally heard. It was as an entertainer, as a radio singer and dispenser of dulce, that she thus learned how to delight her listeners by rendering love songs and other popular hits on the air either alone or with the three Ramons—Ramon Escudero, Ramon Estella, and Ramon Alberto. She was Little Lark at this point in her career, who made beautiful music with three male singers. And when she won the title Miss KZRM, she attributed her winning to her looks, not to her talent (Berthelsen, 22).
Lina Flor would not only be heard; she had to be read and this she accomplished when she started the first ever radio column. Graphic magazine asked her to edit a column, “Ye, Music Lovers’ Nook” which consisted of several parts: letters from radio fans, feature articles on radio talents such as Ramon Escudero, Ramon Navales, Luz Mat. Castro, Carmen Rosales, Franciso “Koko” Trinidad, among others; and news about programs, changes, and movements in the new and exciting industry. She was not merely a popular radio talent. More importantly, as a columnist she had power to choose which talent to showcase, which program to highlight, which fan’s letter to publish, which angle to reinforce in her weekly column. Receiving all these messages were thousands of readers who were also radio fans. Thus, early in her twenties, Lina Flor probably understood the power of words and the various ways she could use them to further a particular interest, both personal and professional. The column lasted for two years, from l934–35.
In retrospect, what she achieved could be seen as a direct challenge to “received notions of womanhood” (Spencer 1980, x). That women should be seen not heard was refuted by Lina Flor in her ascent to fame as a radio singer and when she became the first woman to by-line a weekly column, she willfully inserted herself and her name into a magazine dominated by male writers and staff. Moreover, she was making waves as a professional, as a young woman who had as much right as any man to enter an area where her talent would be recognized and rewarded.
The world of the radio and journalism could not contain her energy. She had aspirations to be recognized as a writer of fiction and even before her first short story in English was published in the Graphic in l934, she had published elsewhere (On Being Nineteen. 1934. The Scrapbook: National Teachers’ College Writers’ Club Journal. (March) 32). From l934 until the l950s, she would publish short stories in practically all the weekly magazines, first in English and then in Tagalog. In this phase of her career, two influential writers gave her recognition as a fictionist of some promise; they were A. E Litiatco and Jose Garcia Villa. The first encouraged her to publish her short stories, while the second publicly recognized three stories of hers worthy of inclusion in his list (2).
Although there were popular women writers that had published their works in the l920s and l930s (among them were Paz Marquez Benitez, Paz Latorena, Ligaya Fruto, Trinidad Tarrosa) side by side with male writers, the fledgling field of what passed off as literary criticism was dominated by male writers such as A. E. Litiatco, Graphic literary editor, and Jose Garcia Villa who had his Honor Roll of the best short stories. Essays about literature and criticism were mostly written by male writers such as Leopoldo Yabes, Maximo Kalaw, A. E. Litiatco, and eventually in the late l930s, by Salvador P. Lopez, Manuel Arguilla, Arturo B. Rotor, when the call for more committed literature was made.
Early in the development of Philippine Literature in English, therefore, we see a coterie of mostly male writers describing and prescribing the directions that literature should take. By the l950s and the l960s, the tendency would be reinforced with the publication of several anthologies of Philippine Fiction in English edited by male anthologists such as Maximo Ramos, T. D. Agcaoili; critical works would also be written by Fr. Miguel Bernad, S.J., Richard Croghan, Leonard Casper, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Leopoldo Yabes, Bienvenido Lumbera, to name a few.
In the male-dominated and extremely powerful literary institution, Lina Flor seemed almost a non-entity. The only affirmation of her works took place in the mid-1930s when her name occasionally appears in some critical essays but only in passing. This was an area, defined by a definite set of criteria evolved by a group of male critics, from which other writers—both male and female—have been banished.
A major reason springs from the uncritical acceptance of realism as the dominant mode and formalism as the dominant critical perspective. In a binary opposition, realism/formalism/masculine is set off against a non-realistic mode of writing, a non-formalist perspective, and feminine writing (3). However, this is not to say that women writers have been totally marginalized; the likes of Paz Marquez Benitez, Paz Latorena, Estrella Alfon, Tarrosa Subido, Edith Tiempo, Kerima Polotan, among others are on the list of significant female writers. But in initial but influential evaluations made mostly by male critics, their works qualified because they manifested certain qualities and features—deep psychological motivations, careful use of language, subtlety and restraint, attention to craft, and explorations of certain themes—that male writings possess. From a realistic, formalist view, these stories were worthy of being anthologized. This is the display of power in a cultural institution which has sought to contain what has been perceived as other forms of writing that are “loose,” “sentimental,” “unrestrained,” “lacking in irony,” “meandering,” and “shallow” because of insufficient exploration of facets of reality. According to entrenched norms, Lina Flor’s stories such as “Grandmother Muses,” or “The Woman Next Door” are not successful stories.
If her stories in English suffered the same fate accorded to what we could hazard as large number of female writers, her stories in Tagalog did not fare any better. Like their English counterparts, male critics in Tagalog operated within certain formalist and realistic frameworks. Although Alejandro G. Abadilla included Lina Flor’s story in his anthology, the rest of the critics of the l940s and l950s such as Teodoro Agoncillo, and Clodualdo del Mundo, to name a few, did not pay much attention to Lina Flor’s stories in the same way they valorized the works of Liwayway Arceo and Genoveva Edroza Matute. By the l960s, Lina Flor as a Tagalog fictionist had been almost completely ignored.
The reason for this was her dazzling achievement in another field—a relatively new one which demanded a tremendous amount of energy and creativity to single-handedly sustain a Herculean project—the presentation of the soap opera over the radio. Gulong ng Palad was on the air from l950 until l956, and for seven years, Lina Flor had to provide the script for the daily 15-minute show which to all accounts, was the most successful series on the air. The show was so well-liked that according to an eyewitness account, cities, towns and barrios seemed to stand still while the program was being aired, and street after street, the only thing that could be heard was the soap opera (4). It had become a national pastime.
This was an institution that originated in the United States and became so popular in the l920s until the l950s that daytime radio was occupied by soap operas sponsored by giant corporations such as Proctor and Gamble (5). In the Philippines, the format patented in the United States was observed by the local producers. Moreover, certain structures and themes, even types of characters that appeared seemed to follow the imported fare (6).
Once again, the soap opera which was designed to appeal to women (consider the timing, the narrative, the characters) who were domestically busy, as it were, with cooking or washing and who could concentrate on the radio without interrupting their usual chores, who could feel various emotions—anger, joy, fear, anxiety—as they followed the adventures of Luisa, Carding, Carina, and the other characters of the series. For these precious moments, the distinctions between life and fiction became blurred, and escape was made possible from the humdrum of everyday life (7).
In the institution of the soap opera, Lina Flor had her revenge: the acclaim and recognition that she never got from another institution which was in charge of the more “formal” and “serious” texts were heaped on her as the author of Gulong ng Palad and Dr. Ramon Selga. The motifs and themes she had earlier utilized in her fiction constituted the stuff of the soap opera—the search for true love, sin and repentance, loyalty and betrayal—but the difference was she was writing explicitly for the masses, and no longer for the readers of Graphic and Free Press. Domesticity was the compelling ideology in the soap opera and the millions of listeners responded to her endless variations enthusiastically. As a producer of text, she must have been doubly happy when in l951, the film version of the soap opera became the top grosser of the year (del Fierro 1950).
Lina Flor, by the l950s, was no longer a voice, a name, but the source of power and influence the effect of which still has to be determined insofar as the popular mind is concerned. With the success of Gulong ng Palad, the ll:00-l2:00 a.m. slot became the time identified with the soap opera for many years; the audience was a captive one, ensnared and captivated by these colorful and interesting series of tales revolving around the hearth and the home. This success was inscribed in the public’s mind to the exclusion of her other achievements in various fields.
Only in her 30s, Lina Flor was a household name mostly because of the opera but also because of her short stories and columns in Tagalog in popular weeklies in the l950s.
Moreover, her name was also by-lining articles for weekly magazines in English such as This Week, Sunday Times Magazine, Herald Magazine, and later in the l960s, Weekly Woman’s Magazine, Graphic, Woman’s Home Companion, among others. In her 40s and 50s, Lina Flor continued to write for various magazines and newspapers. In this phase of her career, she appeared to have decided to stick to journalism as a news hen writing on the distaff side.
By writing for weekly magazines in English and Tagalog in the postwar years, Lina Flor appeared to have entered another world constructed and reserved for women readers and as importantly, dominated by female editors and writers. This female appropriation of a popular form meant easier access, especially for an established name such as Lina Flor’s, but did not mean the emergence of a powerful group that would help problematize traditional views about woman and femininity.
Women’s magazines had gained tremendous popularity from the time they were first introduced in the West in the last decades of the 19th century. By the l950s, it was a flourishing industry which systematically churned out images and representations of women in blissful domesticity. Collectively taken, these magazines have probably been responsible for perpetuating certain notions about woman and her perceived role in her family and in society.
According to some critics, the women’s magazines, like the soap opera, replicate the cyclical nature of women’s lives—open-ended, never completed, meandering, free flowing (Fine 1981, 98).
It was no wonder then that millions of women took to them like fish to water because they saw reflections of their own conditions in both the opera and the magazine. Moreover, both cultural artifacts provided them ways of momentarily gratifying their wishes for the “good life” best embodied in numerous features on lifestyle, fashion, and beauty tips (8).
In the l950s and l960s, Lina Flor had consolidated her powers as an important player in the cultural scene—she had her regular daily columns on high society and the movie industry and she kept writing her essays and articles for various publications. She belonged to a group of journalists who were also ensconced in positions of power in the various magazines and newspapers (mostly in the Lifestyle section). She had become a friend to the high and mighty in government and high society, a trusted confidante among influential movie moguls, a judge in prestigious film festivals, a recipient of several travel grants abroad. She was on top of the world with a successful career as a chronicler of social events which had unquestionably peaked by this time. This was a relatively calm period under President Carlos P. Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal; the trauma brought about by the nation’s politicalization was only a glimmer, and not yet a full-blown reality (9).
The prison-house of “femininity”
Notions about femininity were yet to be problematized, and so what Lina Flor depicted as the ideals of the “good and happy” life in her columns and articles lay deeply within the collective psyche. As a prolific producer of texts that celebrated the “good and the beautiful,” Lina Flor was probably responsible for reinforcing dominant stereotypes—society matrons filling their days with parties, soirees, fund-raising activities, attending reunions, and generally leading an ideal life. For example, in her column Sundries (March 1, l957), we read about the inauguration of the “Oriental Room” which was a feature of the famous Aristocrat Restaurant. Attending the bash were such notable personalities as Mrs. Luchi Lacson, the wife of Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson, Meldy Reyes, former Miss Universe Armi Kuusela Hilario with her husband Gil. She also talked about Dr. Margaret Stepan, a WHO specialist who visited Manila as guest of Helena Benitez who met her in Europe a few years ago (Sundries. 1957. The Philippine Daily Mirror, March 1.).
People read Lina Flor and other society columns because presumably they answered certain needs of ordinary readers—to escape the monotony of life and to participate vicariously in the “good life” as defined by the activities of a close-knit circle composed of ladies and gentlemen known for their power, prestige, and influence. In this ritual, the reader was made privy to the life of the rich and famous—the birth of a child, a wedding in the family, a new grandchild, a family trip to Europe, the inauguration of yet another building, the reception for a visiting dignitary, a death in the family. In this world, hints of unsavory activities, scandals, a family’s deep dark secrets did not dare make their appearance. How could they when in the column’s first paragraph, the reader was immediately informed that this day was the feast day of a particular saint, followed by the names of society luminaries who were also celebrating their birthdays.
On the other hand, a good woman was also an excellent cook, a nice mother, a faithful wife, an all-around domestic help who could sew curtains, paint bedrooms, and treat minor illnesses, among others. This image of the woman as self-sacrificing, generous, and willing to do everything for the sake of the family dominated not only her fiction and her soap opera; this representation also appeared in a number of columns she wrote where her role was that of a dispenser of advice to women as wives, mothers, housekeepers and all-around expert. Fiction and non-fiction texts reinforced each other in affirming powerful values that had been deeply entrenched and were not about to be questioned in a patriarchal society.
For example, we read this advice in Sining ng Tahanan about a woman’s responsibilities in terms that were exceedingly unambiguous and betrayed no hint of anxiety:
Napakarami ng mga pagkakagalit ng mga mag-asawa na nagbubuhat sa aking mga sinabing iyan. At ang lahat ay nagmumula sa kapabayaan nating mga babae. Kung lubos na nalalaman natin ang hilig ng ating asawa ay ating maiiwasan ang mga pag-aalitan, at lalo na ang paghihiwalay. Dapat nating malaman na kung ang hinahanap ng isang lalaki upang maging aliwalas ang kanyang isip o lumigaya kaya sa mga sandaling siya’y nasa bahay ay di matagpuan ng kanyang asawa, natutulad siya sa isang ibon na sa ibang dako humahanap ng butil na matutuka. Maiiwasan ang lahat ng ito kung matutuhan nating pag-aralan hanggang kaliit-liitang bagay na kinahihiligan ng ating kabiyak. May bagong kasabihan tayo na ang wika’y “ibigay ang hilig.” Ibigay nga natin ang hilig ng ating mahal na asawa. Ang pag-asa nila sa atin ay huwag nating biguin. (Sining sa Tahanan. 1947. Ilang-Ilang, October 26.)
In this message we find perhaps one of the clearest indications of Lina Flor’s positions vis-à-vis the issue of domesticity, and when evaluated against the dominant systems of beliefs and values of the time, they appear as exact representations of the period’s ideology of love and marriage. In this construct, the woman was solely responsible for the success or failure of any marriage: she was Atlas on whose shoulders the world lurched drunkenly from one crisis to another.
In the same decades—l950s and l960s—Lina Flor also wrote voluminous writings which can be considered “biographical”. Of these texts, her two-volume series on Luz Banzon Magsaysay is particularly interesting as indicators of what Lina Flor perceived to be the role of a female writer, and what she thought were the areas which would interest the readers during that time.
Mrs. Luz Banzon Magsaysay was the nation’s First Lady from l953 until l957. Her husband was the immensely popular President Ramon Magsaysay who was touted “the man of the masses” by local media, and who, during his stint as Secretary of National Defense, was supposed to have broken the backbone of the Communist movement in the country. Lina Flor’s narrative focused on Mrs. Magsaysay, from her birth and childhood in Balanga, Bataan, to her school days in a convent, and then her subsequent marriage to Ramon Magsaysay. Following a strict diachronic structure, Lina Flor then chronicled her life as the wife of a government official, as wife of a candidate for the presidency, her life as the First Lady, her Christmas in Malacanang, her trip abroad and the circumstances behind this trip, and her return to Malacanang. The second volume concentrates on the details of what took place after the President’s death in an airplane crash on March l7, l957 and how the former First Lady coped with her loss.
Like the magazine writer and society columnist that that she was, and in accordance with her perceived role as a biographer who happened to be a close friend of her subject, Lina Flor offered her readers a glimpse of Mrs. Magsaysay’s private life, with some historical information thrown in to create a sense of time and place. But like a simple novel with little interest in social realities, Lina Flor’s narrative is precisely that: a straightforward narration of the more important aspects of a woman’s life with scant attention to the social forces against which she emerged and rose to become the wife of the country’s most powerful man. Her numerous friends and their relatives were described, the furniture in Malacanang were also minutely documented, some personal crises were mentioned but their roots in the political context were glossed over. The point was to provide what was passed off as intimate glimpses of the First Lady as a teen-ager, a woman in love, a loyal and devoted wife, and a grieving widow. To a certain extent, Lina Flor succeeded in her attempt to give her readers a portrait, perhaps the first ever portrait of the First Lady that went beyond the sketchy, predictable enumeration of the events in her life.
Adding to the informality of the text was the tone—chatty but never irreverent, fond but never obsequious, familiar but controlled, never adulatory. In short, this was how Lina Flor saw Mrs. Magsaysay: not only as a powerful woman but as a friend and Lina Flor was the confidante allowing her reader to gain access to her subject’s heart. Like a soap opera and a magazine column, the narrative was flowing—smooth and soothing—and even the account of the family’s grief was handled with deeply felt emotion but always with restraint. Mrs. Magsaysay was first and foremost a woman who happened to be the First Lady who embodied what was expected of a Filipino woman in those times—her grace, her generosity, her simplicity, her love for her family, and concern for the country. In this biography, Lina Flor clearly affirmed what had already been intimated in her shorter works: her deep belief that although a unique individual, a woman could better define herself when she was with a man.
The view that women need not define her worth through any other person, nor for her to be seen through a prism created by men was not articulated in Lina Flor’s discourse. In this precise sense, and Lina Flor was only one among millions of Filipinas of her time, she was a product of a hegemonic discourse to which she, wittingly or unwittingly, succumbed and in the process helped disseminate through her works.
Lina Flor was to continue this apparent uncritical reflection of this ideology of domesticity in her last series, Beauties of Yesteryear, where she chose to deal with the no longer current favorite of Manila’s high society, or the controversial figure of filmdom, in terms that sounded elliptical, chatty, impressionistic. In this work, the past seen no longer through colored glasses, but with the objectivity brought about by much-needed distance, became the object for analysis, fleshed out in the gallery of women who once upon a time occupied the throne as the nation’s beauty queens.
In this final emplotment of her grand narrative revolving around a young woman’s quest/search for some magical object or ideal person who would be the source of happiness, and the inevitable disillusionment that followed, Lina Flor examined life’s myriad realities and surprising twists and turns methodically and systematically, and with fewer illusions. The women were still beautiful, modest, and chaste, and in many cases, extremely intelligent and accomplished; the men were still good-looking, brave, and bright. But in the unfolding of the drama, Lina Flor brought in the not too ideal situations that attended the event itself—the underside of the glorious and dazzling rites and rituals of coronation night when the world became one big fairyland. She described the infighting, the politics, the put-downs, the internecine conflicts, the vaulting ambition, the machinations, the duplicity to which individuals and groups were heir.
Furthermore, she narrated the aftermath of the carnival—the life eventually led by the beauty queen, the path she trod after she passed on the crown to her successor. In many cases, the beauty queen became more famous as a civic leader, a professional, a government official; in a few instances, she faded into obscurity. The ten percent of “failures” was small but not insignificant: they were grim reminders that not everybody lived happily after the carnival. And Lina Flor pursued her leads and wrote about such women, individuals with whom the rest of womanhood could identify; these were women who had to wrestle with bad marriages, ungrateful children, with mental and emotional breakdowns. These were individuals whose destinies were sharply intertwined with those of other people who were less than ideal, whose warts and imperfections stared the readers in the eye and who, like everybody else, had to make sense of life’s recalcitrant realities.
In retrospect, we see Lina Flor gaining more and more recognition as she appeared to strive, hard in the first phase of her career and almost automatically in the middle and last phases, to reflect reified and inherited values and attitudes. The young, eager-for-success, ambitious radio singer and inexperienced but courageous fictionist in English of the l930s had given way to a young wife and harassed mother of four children in the l940s who wrote almost non-stop, to the matron and friend of the rich and the powerful in the l960s, and the older, increasingly frail writer who asked herself ‘Where have all the flowers gone?” in the tumultuous 1970s when the world which she knew and constructed according to society’s norms was about to collapse, and the position she built for herself was being eroded by factors within and without. She was a subject constantly interpolated by changing societal forces, and although she appeared to have subscribed to inherited beliefs and values which could be considered conservative and traditional, her numerous texts seemed to have been the sites where areas of resistance and subversion took place, perhaps only intermittently and perhaps not at all in a sustained manner, but present nevertheless with a certain force that could not be stifled.
Fissures and Gaps: Negating the Idealized World
Looking back at Lina Flor’s life and colorful career, and her almost dizzying ascent to fame and glory, and juxtaposing her and her texts against feminist theories, we can easily view her as a prime example of conservatism at its worst. On the surface, she produced texts to please her listeners and her readers; she gave them what they expected—idyllic and magical moments when one was deliriously in love, tons of information on the goings-on among the mighty and the powerful, enough sentiment and bathos in her soap opera, nuggets of advice in her columns, humor and fun in her comic strip. Most importantly, she appealed, almost insistently and deliberately, to hundreds of thousands of women listeners and readers by dealing with topics and themes that were thought of as women’s principal concerns—love, marriage, family, interpersonal relationships—and not politics, the economy, wars and revolutions, philosophy which were viewed as men’s domains.
Indeed, Lina Flor painted a particularly predictable series of scenarios where women were subservient to men, where women were willing to give up everything to right things in a dysfunctional family, where women helped reinforce unequal relationships between genders. To our own more enlightened age, Lina Flor was formed by a system of beliefs where women were denied the right to choose, to fight, to go against the reigning order. She was, in short, too conservative for our taste.
In retrospect, Lina Flor lived when the Filipino woman, after a bloody struggle, was finally given the right to suffrage (10). She was writing when the likes of Paz Policarpio Mendez, Encarnacion Alzona, and many other distinguished women leaders had become a powerful presence in society even before the Second World War (11). And yet, strangely enough, her fiction showed little of the determination and grit that women in real life manifested, to men’s shock. Thus, it is easy to argue that Lina Flor remained untouched by the critique being made by women in that period, and that in general, her works blindly followed inherited norms and values.
However, it is not fair to fix our view on what the texts seemed to be saying, on what the surface revealed, on what the author was apparently communicating to her readers. In short, a more critical strategy is to see both the author and her writings as texts that ought to be deciphered, to seek to look between the spaces, into the gaps and fissure that shaped her life and her career (see Macherey 1978, 82-90). Indeed, it was possible that the writer did not and could not name and say what society deemed to be unnamable and could not be said/articulated. It was possible that as a writer bound to the cultural conventions of the period, Lina Flor found it difficult to free herself from the confined walls of structures. And even if she had wanted to, she could not make the move because that would have meant alienating an audience who were her consumers. Such a move would mean less earnings for her as a working mother.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the path Lina Flor took in the course of her varied career moves was smooth and free from obstacles. Although men played an important role in her rise to success in the sense that they acted as a kind of sponsor, we should credit her with the talent, the will and the courage to venture into unknown fields. She never gave up a career to favor another one; she handled several careers with such dexterity that in retrospect, we wonder what the source of this energy was. When she gave up the radio, she was already a fictionist. When the war broke out, she returned to the radio at the same time that she was writing essays and stories in Tagalog. After the war, she embarked on a series of moves which catapulted her to glory and made her more popular than ever. She embodied traits not usually associated with women: ambition, drive, aggressiveness, spunk in the course of her career. She was truly one of the first professional journalists/writers who received huge sums of money for their labor.
In hindsight, she did not fare well in institutions, especially those formal structures where men were in positions of power; she was virtually ignored in literature, in English and Tagalog. But in areas which still needed to be institutionalized because they started out as inchoate activities, she had real success. These areas were considered then, and even now, as “fields of dreams” as sites where lighthearted and light-minded cultural products for the “unwashed masses” flourished and were indiscriminatingly lapped up by the majority. She was a pioneer in the soap opera; her friends and colleagues were at the helm of power in a certain kind of journalism—society columns, movie columns, and women’s magazines. In these areas, she had little difficulty and because of this, she bloomed as a producer of texts. Then and now, what was perceived as non-serious, trivial, superficial, irrational, almost silly, among others, were identified with the female sensibility. Where Lina Flor assumed a dominant and influential role were precisely the sites banished and marginalized by the male dominated institutions in formal literature, and journalism.
That she wrote endlessly, despite her banishment from the center, merely proved that her voice could not be stilled. Her collective discourse, criticized for their basic conservatism, nevertheless, must be seen as a foil to the discourse emanating from the center—from the male writers in English and Tagalog, from the male journalists in the newspapers’ front page and editorial sections. Hers was a voice that millions listened to, lulled by the belief that her words would soothe the readers, telling them that everything would be alright. And they did, for her constructed world revealed little tension and contradiction. Her construct was a foil to a world of greed and dirt, of tragedy and death. It is in these areas where tension and contradictions were allowed to surface and shape the narrative that we must now turn our attention as we continue to explore the possibility that beneath the calm surface of her works lay some deep fissures and discontent. This area of the repressed struggling to come out in Lina Flor’s works appeared to have structured some of her short stories and novels, mostly her fictional works.
First, it is interesting to point out that most of the narrators/protagonists in her fiction were female characters, and in a large number of works, she appeared as a wife/mother.
This was a significant fictional strategy, since in her resided the power to determine what could be said and what could be ignored. And a theme that recurred again and again was betrayal and adultery committed by the husband, and the dangerous and almost death-inflicting impact of such an action on the wife and the family. Lina Flor wrote about this again and again, in her Tagalog and English short stories, which in retrospect might have been her way of coping with society’s double standard morality—men could betray and go scot-free, while women must follow the virtuous path and once gone astray, must be meted out the severest penalty (12). In her fictional world, what was minutely examined were the emotions that the female character underwent; the man was seldom included except as the agent who destroyed the family’s peace and harmony. Her novel, Dapit-hapon ng Pag-ibig (l960), is an excellent exemplification of this theme enriched by another concern: the middle-aged woman’s usual fear that as old age crept in, she would lose her attractiveness to her man. Her Gulong ng Palad continued to mesmerize her audience for years because she hit on a formula which, once again, highlighted the Filipino male’s machismo and subsequent disregard for his vows.
Secondly, both her fictional works and columns constructed a world where peace reigned; she offered a haven, perhaps an illusory one, to her readers. Her limitations were also the sources of her strength. In a world of ravaging torrents of war, destruction, natural and man-mad disasters, conflicts and endless struggles, she embodied tranquillity and harmony. Perhaps, these columns could be seen as peripheral and irrelevant, and this is the way such discourse is seen and evaluated. But as a discourse written by a woman, for a female audience, in a space reserved for so-called female concerns, at a moment in history, her columns in English and Tagalog should be given a more positive reappraisal in light of the whole discourse in newspapers and magazines dominated by men and their concerns which society had privileged.
Thirdly, Lina Flor explored peculiarly women’s concerns and experiences that constituted being a woman as a biological and social construct in ways that showed them being effortlessly woven into the narratives. She described the mixture of fear, anxiety, anger because of pregnancy in “Nagbago Si Isa”; she explored the near-death experience of a woman suffering from asthma and her bitter memories of her family’s indifference to her plight; she tried to understand the feelings of a woman abandoned by her husband in “The Woman Next Door”; she portrayed the dynamics between an oppressive mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law.
Indeed, Lina Flor’s world was inhabited mostly by women who were seldom meek and passive; they tended to be generally quiet but were proactive; they did not depend on their fate. They examined their lives and acted on the basis of what had to be done to rectify an intolerable present. It was the male character who was usually weak and opportunistic, fully in love with the self and oblivious to the world outside the ego.
Herein lay Lina Flor’s strength as a female writer: in her own quiet way, she exposed the inequalities and iniquities that shaped women’s lives. While she wrote, countless people, especially women, responded to her positively. Beneath the glitter of her society columns, the tinsel of filmdom, the moralistic tone of her columns, the mirth and easygoing facade of her comedy shows, the apparent conservatism of her fiction, the roller-coaster-like ride in her soap operas, we find, buried in the interstices and gaps of her words, a writer who wrote with such abandon as if through her words, she would be remembered forever through the constructs she made of numerous lives.
Lina Flor was forgotten soon after her death because, among others, she did not conform to what had been privileged in her society. Thus, she was marginalized. And we have all suffered from this banishment of a prolific and popular writer who spoke and did so eloquently and well to generations of Filipinos for almost half a century.
1. For a history of the rise of feminist theory and criticism, read Gayle Green and Coppelia Kahn, Making a Difference. [London: Methuen, 1985] 1-36; Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory [London: Methuen, 1985] 21-88; John Storey, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture [London: Prentice Hall, 1993] 135-68.
2. In her career, Lina Flor would be helped by several men who “sponsored” or “recognized” her innate talent. While she was a name, it would still be male writers/critics who would give her further recognition. Both Clodualdo del Mundo and Alejandro G. Abadilla cited her in their books. The dearth of critical comments from female critics is mainly due to the absence in criticism of female anthologists/editors in the pre-war and postwar years. Thus, the influence emanated mostly from male critics.
3. Both formalism and realism stress rationality, objectivity and linear thinking while a non-formalist and non-realistic perspective tend to valorize the non-rational, subjective, cyclical thinking which are normally associated with women’s writing.
4. This was the observation made by Lina Flor’s contemporaries such as Gloria Villaraza Guzman, Liwayway Arceo, and Lina Flor’s sister, Loida Flores Viriña, whom this writer interviewed in late 1999.
5. For an introduction to the history of the soap opera in the United States, read Cantor, Soaps on Radio. The Soap Opera, 31-47.
6. Cantor, Background. The Soap Opera, 17-30. Read also Herta Herzog, Motivations and Gratifications of Daily Serial Listeners. The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, ed. Wilbur Schramm [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1955], 50-55; Nancy L. Buerkel-Rothfuss with Sandra Mayes, Soap Opera Viewing: The Cultivation Effect. Journal of Communication, 31 (Summer, 1981) 108-115.
7. For the reason that explains the popularity of popular artifacts, including the soap opera, see George A. Willey, End of an Era: The Daytime Radio Serial. Journal of Broadcasting, 5 (Spring 1961) 97-115; Liwayway Arceo, “Soap Opera: Libangan ng mga Maybahay.” Diwang Pilipino, November 1954, 9; Jose Javier Reyes, Radio Soap Opera in the Philippines, ed. Doreen G. Fernandez, 68-74; Exequiel S. Molina, “The Long Unhappy Life of a Soap Opera,” This Week, August 1, 1954, 10-11. For a study of the romance novels which have a number of striking similarities with the soap opera in terms of theme, structure and audience reception, see Janice Radway, Reading the Romance [London: Verso, 1984] 209-222.
8. Read Marjorie Evasco, “Weekly Smorgasbord of Feminine Pleasure,” Reading Popular Culture ed. Soledad Reyes [Quezon City: Office of Research and Publication, 1990] 157-67; Ros Ballaster, et al, “A Critical Analysis of Women’s Magazines,” Turning it On: A Reader in Women and Media, eds. Helen Baehr and Ann Gray [London: Arnold, 1996] 87-96.
9. Ramon Magsaysay (1953-57) was succeeded by Carlos P. Garcia (1957-61) who made the “Filipino First” policy the centerpiece of his administration. Garcia was defeated by Diosdado Macapagal (1961-65) who is remembered for his land reform policy and attempt to unify the countries in Southeast Asia through MAPHILINDO. In a bitterly contested presidential fight, Macapagal was beaten by Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986).
10. For accounts of the women’s movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s, see Dr. Maria Paz Mendoza-Guanzon, “Why the Ladies Want to Vote,” 9 Graphic (May 14, 1936) 8, 50; Encarnacion P. Alzona, “Woman Suffrage in the Philippines,” 5 Graphic (September 2, 1931) 1, 56; Anatolio Litonjua, “Suffragists Believe They Will Get the 300,000 Affirmative Votes Required,” 10 Graphic (April 8, 1937) 32, 54-55.
11. The leaders of the women’s movement would subsequently write about their struggle in retrospect. Read, for example, Elisa Abello, “The Filipino Woman 25 Years Ago,” 33 The Fookien Times Yearbook, (1973) 284-286; Encarnacion Alzona, “Filipino Women in the Republic,” 14 The Fookien Times Yearbook (1953) 99-100; and Geronima Pecson, “Fifty Years of Feminist Movement in the Philippines,” The Fookien Times Yearbook (1956) 42-44.
12. The unequal relation between men and women was a theme earlier explored by a number of novelists such as Iñigo Ed Regalado, Juan Arsiwals, Faustino Aguilar, among others in the 1910s and 1920s. See Soledad S. Reyes, Values in Love and Marriage in the Tagalog Novel. 28 Philippine Studies (Third Quarter 1981) 288-304.
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