Rolando B. Tolentino,

National/Transnational Subject Formation and Media In and On the Philippines

Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001.
971-550-382-9, pp. 205.

reviewed by Mina Roces

A collection of nine separate essays, this book by Rolando Tolentino works successfully as a monograph as common themes weave in and out of the excellent chapters. The essays are mostly about films (documentaries and feature films) but there is one essay on the discourse of Filipina 'mail-order brides' in the United States and Australia. The titles of the various chapters describe the topics well: 'Filipinas in Transnational Space'; 'Inangbayan in Lino Brocka's Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (1985) and Orapronobis (1989)'; 'Issues of the 'Filipino/a' in Asia-Pacific American Media Arts'; 'Nations, Nationalisms, and Los Útimos de Filipinas'; 'Kidlat Tahimik in the Rhetoric of First World Theory'; 'Subjectivity and Nation in Filipino Autobiographical Documentaries'; 'Archipelagic Space and Southeast Asian Cinemas'; 'Geopolitical Space and the Chinese 'City' Films'; and 'Subcontracting Imagination and Imageries of Bodies and Nations'.

One dominant theme raised by many of the essays is the nation as gendered subject in both national and transnational spaces. Whether in the 'mail-order bride' discourses in the internet or print media, or in feature films and documentaries made in the Philippines and abroad, 'the Philippines' was feminised and used as a foil to the masculinisation of the West or the colonial or even former colonial power. Tolentino demonstrated how the 'mail-order bride' discourse reproduced the colonial orientalist discourse where the Filipina is imagined as a woman 'saved' from the economic malaise by a white male husband:
    The mail-order bride functions as a commodity embodying the recently outdated First World narratives of the nuclear family and coloniality. On the one hand, in the exchange of marriage proposals and bodies through the previous technology of the postal system, the Third World woman assumes the domestic and sexual tasks vacated by emancipated white women. On the other hand, the Third World woman is rescued from oppressors—native men and poverty—in her native land. The nuclear family and colonialist fantasies are entwined in the operation of the catalogs (p. 16).
These findings resonate with the anthropological and oral history material on the topic of 'mail-order brides' in Australia and Live-in Care Givers in Canada who marry their employers. While there are a number of studies that explore the discourses of 'mail-order brides' in Australia, Tolentino adds new material and new insights as he analyses primary sources such as catalogs, films, and internet sites.

Both the essay on 'Filipinas in Transnational Spaces' and the essay on the Spanish popular film Los Últimos de Filipinas about the Spanish army's last stand in Baler, interpret the feminisation of the Philippine nation in the context of Western (American, Australian or Spanish) feelings of 'colonial nostalgia'. As mentioned, the discourse on the 'mail-order brides' is premised on the attitude that a white husband will 'save' the Filipina from economic hardship or a life of prostitution. Tolentino explains the Spanish film's popularity in Spain due to its conflation of imperialist desire and colonialist nostalgia (p. 88). Though the movie is set in 1898 'where nationalist historians mark the moment as the founding of "Asia's first republic"' (p. 88), in the dramatisation of the resistance put up by fifty Spanish soldiers 'Spanish national masculinity was regained for 1945 audiences through the valorization of the heroism of its colonial past' (p. 98). The Philippines is represented as 'an unruly woman, a trope that justified the use of rape and violence in the pursuit of "manifest destiny", "benevolent assimilation", and the "white man's burden". Pacification of the female nation-space instigated the very same processes of nostalgia, destruction, then mourning' (p. 98). By mythologising Spain's last stand not as defeat but as bravery, Spain rediscovers its masculinity in post-1945. The connection between gender and empire is also made by Kristin Hoganson's work on American masculinity and the Spanish-American War. [1] Tolentino shows how a masculinity 'lost' from a lost empire could be 'rediscovered' through a mythologising of an empire's bravery in defeat. Tolentino also uses this case study to make a contribution to Benedict Andersons' theory of nation as imagined community[2] by exploring how film has taken over print media in the technology used to imagine the nation (p. 89).

The image of the Philippine nation as 'mother' or the image of the Inangbayan (mother/nation) (I would extend the definition to include the 'suffering mother/nation because the mother/nation is always imagined as suffering) is explored very well through the analysis of two films by Lino Brocka. This is a very welcome essay particularly for specialists on gender politics in the Philippines because the image of Inangbayan is a very powerful and emotive one. Tolentino's critique of the films, including Brocka's racialising of the Chinese ethnic group in the Philippines (especially at the historical junctures depicted in the films) shows a sensitive and thorough reading of Brocka's film text.

Tolentino's analysis throughout the book is consistently sophisticated, 'spot-on', and full of insights on Filipino national and transnational cultures. The analysis of discourse is very well integrated with political histories and political positioning of Filipinos in the United States (as becoming the largest Asian migrant population but with no collective agency) and in the global or transnational era. The essays on the Spanish film Los Últimos de Filipinas, and the documentaries by Filipino-Americans break new ground and deal with new topics not yet analysed by scholars. There are a couple of essays that also explore the Asia-Pacific region through films. Most of the essays attest to the ongoing urgency of the Filipino quest for identity whether in Philippine or transnational spaces with a fresh look at how the Filipino as transnational subject adds to this ongoing debate. The latter is a particularly relevant and important issue to raise. Given the growing number of Filipinos in transnational spaces, and given Tolentino's valid point that the transnational Filipino is closely connected to the 'homeland', contemporary discussions on the 'Filipino' need to include both the national and transnational gendered subject.

The first essay will interest the many scholars writing on Filipinos overseas as migrants for marriage or as domestic helpers and entertainers. Although the rest of the essays on film appeal directly to the specialist audience of film and literary critics, those interested in the gendering of nation in popular discourse will find the essays very enlightening.


[1] Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso, 1983, 1991.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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