The “Unlikeable” Strong Filipino Girl, a guest post by Gail D. Villanueva
Strong female characters in both fiction and real life are often described as unlikeable or irritating. It’s a matter of preference, yes. But sometimes, this description comes with misogynistic undertones implying that anyone who undermines the patriarchy is an annoyance and should just sit down, be quiet, and remember their place in society.
It’s a constant uphill battle to let strong girls tell their stories. Even more so when you’re not only a strong female, but Filipino too. Because when you’re a strong female Filipino character, you may get to experience another layer of toxicity—that being the way you are means you’re “too Westernized” to be a Filipino character for a Filipino audience. That you can’t be Filipino enough just because you don’t act in a manner expected of your gender within your culture.
Be like María Clara
I strongly believe works by Filipino creators shouldn’t have to undergo anyone’s litmus test for Filipino-ness, but that’s for a totally different (and much longer) discussion. Instead, let me introduce you to María Clara. Or rather, the concept of María Clara.
María Clara is a notable character in Noli Me Tángere, a novel by José Rizal, our country’s national hero. She is the love interest of the main protagonist in the story, described with Eurasian features, known to many as a character based on Rizal’s own girlfriend, Leonor Rivera.
But what makes María Clara stand out in Filipino culture isn’t just her proximity to whiteness (which, again, merits a totally separate, longer discussion). She was portrayed in the story as shy, submissive, and self-effacing. She fainted easily (I personally thought María Clara had a condition because of her frequent fainting spells, but my teacher said I was taking Rizal too literally, so… *shrug*). María Clara bit her tongue and didn’t talk back. She was respectful. Never mind that she was stubborn and was strong in her own way, many simply remember her for being the epitome of Filipino femininity, subversion to men, and Catholic obedience.
So, in short, María Clara embodied the traditional, Filipino feminine ideal.
An interesting thing to note is that Noli Me Tángere was originally written in Spanish by Rizal. Most Filipinos don’t speak the language anymore, so we’ve read the English and/or Filipino versions in school. Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if María Clara was indeed how our national hero viewed women, or that his intent simply got lost in translation. But Rizal’s book is a required reading in most schools in the Philippines (I remember it being part of our high school curriculum). Translation issues or not, his María Clara had become the image of an ideal Filipina, persisting even to this day.
“Babae ka,” You’re a woman
The irony is that gender equality isn’t even a totally new concept for Filipinos. Pre-colonial Philippines was mostly a progressive, matriarchal society. A woman was considered a man’s equal—perhaps even more—and held high positions in politics and religion. That changed when the Spaniards, eager to impose their patriarchal system and religion, colonized our people.
(Public Domain, from the Boxer Codex)
Thing is, we’re no longer in the 1800’s, or even the 1990’s. Yet, many here in the Philippines still hold on to the idea of traditional gender conformity, and consequently, to the subjugation of women.
“Babae ka.” You’re a woman. As a child, I grew up hearing that from adults (and sometimes even kids my age) whenever I acted in a way that’s “too boyish” for their tastes. They didn’t say I should be a María Clara (well, not to my face, anyway). But I’ve been told I can’t be too loud or ask too many questions, I can’t play rough with the boys, and that I should behave “like a girl that I am.”
It was damaging to grow up hearing that around me. But I was lucky—I had parents who let me be me. They encouraged me to pursue whatever it was I wanted even if it didn’t conform to what my gender role should be. They let my imagination run free. They bought me books and let me read to my heart’s content, even when those books resulted with me asking more questions instead of simply staying quiet. They taught me art; they taught me the basics of running a business. They taught me things that they believed would help me stand on my own two feet.
Because my parents allowed me to be a strong Filipino girl, I eventually learned to code. I became a web designer and programmer, excelling in an industry typically dominated by men. I blogged and found my writing voice. Now, I’m an author, writing my fourth book while publishing my third.
I had the courage to work and fight for my dreams, thanks to my parents who didn’t insist I had to become a María Clara. I admit though, it did hurt a lot whenever I’ve been told by others that I wasn’t good enough just because I didn’t act according to their idea of how Filipinas should behave. But knowing my family had my back meant the whole world—I could be as un-María-Clara as I wanted and be as “me” as I could be.
Let strong Filipino girls be
I wrote Lulu, the protagonist in my Lulu Sinagtala and the Tagalog Gods series, for kids who are like me: Filipina, but un-María-Clara. Lulu isn’t soft-spoken and artistic unlike Sab in my debut, My Fate According to the Butterfly. Nor does she have Jolina’s quiet strength and unflappable resilience in my second book, Sugar and Spite. Not only does she have supernatural strength, but Lulu is sassy, loud, and street-smart.
Lulu is definitely unlike any character I’ve written. Still, she reminds me of my kid neighbor who was so chatty and fun, I couldn’t bring myself to end our conversation and leave for a road trip scheduled that day. Lulu is a lot like the fifth grader I met at a school visit, who wouldn’t let my session end until her shy friend finally got to ask his question during the Q&A. And if I’m being honest, Lulu is a lot like me as a child.
I’m not saying that Filipino girls can’t be quiet or polite or reserved or a total María Clara—far from it. They totally can. There are many forms of strength, and we have room for all: passive, active, or a little bit of both. But I do hope we can give strong-girl heroes a chance before we automatically write them off as “unlikeable,” and in our case, “not Filipina enough,” just because they don’t adhere to the gender norms and stereotypes that we’re used to.
Let’s let strong Filipino girls be. Let’s let every strong kid be. Every child has a story to tell, and they all deserve to see themselves in the books they read, just like you and me.
Meet the author
Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino writer and artist based in the Philippines. She is the author of the Panda Book Awards shortlist title, Sugar and Spite (Scholastic), and the Lulu Sinagtala and the Tagalog Gods series (HarperCollins). Her debut novel, My Fate According to the Butterfly (Scholastic),was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, an Amazon Best Book of the Month Editor’s Pick, a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, and a Sakura Medal nominee. Gail was born in Manila but was raised in Quezon City. She and her husband currently live in Rizal with their many pets—dogs, ducks, fish, turtles, cats, and random birds they befriend in the backyard. Learn more at www.gaildvillanueva.com.
About Lulu Sinagtala and the City of Noble Warriors
In this fast-paced, thrilling middle grade fantasy rooted in Tagalog mythology, a young Filipino girl discovers realms beyond our own full of monsters and gods, a terrible evil who wants her magic, and even a talking duck! The first book in a duology from Gail D. Villanueva (My Fate According to the Butterfly)that’s perfect for fans of Tristan Strong and Aru Shah.
Lulu Sinagtala can’t wait for a fun Christmas break. She’s excited to hang out with her sister, Kitty, and best friend, Bart; to reenact her favorite legends from Tagalog folklore (like the amazing tale of Bernardo Carpio); and, of course, to eat as much yummy street-side inihaw as possible!
But when a vicious wakwak attacks her neighborhood and kidnaps Mom, Lulu discovers the creatures and deities of Tagalog myth are real and that two additional Realms exist beyond our own. To make it worse, Lulu has superhuman strength and the ability to wield magic, meaning she’s the only one powerful enough to stop the evil spirit who’s determined to rule the three Realms at all costs. No pressure, right?
Lulu, Kitty, and Bart set off on a quest to rescue Mom, where they outsmart cunning enemies, battle vengeful beings, and form unlikely alliances. Soon they find themselves swept into a centuries-long fight, unraveling secrets about Lulu and her past that threaten to upend everything and throw the whole universe into chaos. Can Lulu muster the strength (superhuman or not) to find out who she really is and who she can trust to save Mom and the three Realms before it’s too late?
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/09/2024
Series: Lulu Sinagtala and the Tagalog Gods #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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