The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history 2
These illustrations come from a 16th-century manuscript now known as the Boxer Codex, depicting Filipinos and their apparel. Elaborate gold jewelry was worn by both sexes.

The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history

Filipino manhood has been displayed through disparate symbols. At one point, it involved major earrings and hair-plucking with tweezers.
Ramon N. Villegas | Jun 12 2019

Each generation seeks to formulate its own concepts of gender identity and particular ways of expressing them.

Thus, young Filipinos today do not look like their fathers, like they used to generations ago. They now tend to look like their peers. Today, those who are in their 20s to 30s sport Celtic tattoos, Gothic jewelry, body-piercings, short hair or even shaved heads, leather or bead chokers, and collarless T-shirts. They look buff, ready at any time to shuck off their tees, as if they were in "Bora"—never mind if they are in the middle of Makati. To this end, they work at shaping those abs, and achieving that attitude of insouciant sensuality, like playing to a camera, looking straight at it, as if to say “O, ano ngayon?”


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The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history 3
Elaborate tattoos on a group the Spanish called ‘pintados’ signaled social status as well as imperviousness to pain.

Those who are in their 50s now themselves rebelled against the strictures imposed by their fathers, and are loathe to impose any on their children. They look upon their own sons’ earrings, body piercings, tattoos, and open relationships with amusement, a “been-there/done-that” attitude.

The ideas of manhood which were imposed during most of the 20th century continued to be shaped, to a large extent, by Catholicism. There was a rejection of the human body because it leads the soul to sin. Thus, in Catholicism, the male body is depicted undressed in humiliation and only to undergo dire suffering, as in the execution of St. Sebastian by arrows, or the nailing at the cross of Jesus.

Otherwise, the body was to be well covered.

The saints held up to be life models are rather different from you and me: St Augustine eschews a playboy's life; St Francis Xavier turns his back on a soldier's career; St. Francis of Assisi rejects his merchant father's lifestyle and wealth and so on.

St. Joseph, the model of fatherhood, is held up for his rather unexciting life – not even drinking wine with his neighbors, gambling with dice or watching the First Century’s version of a basketball game.

The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history 4
Men wore multiple gold earrings, cuffs and necklaces, enough to make any modern-day rapper drool. Boxer Codex pictures from the Lopez Memorial Museum.

And the young Jesus of course doesn't even indulge in the equivalent of today's computer games or sudoku, or chill just listening to the latest harp music or Yiddish rap.

Indeed, Jesus is asexual, in his maturity not even allowed by his official biographers to have a girlfriend. His only walk in the park with his bros end up with his being arrested. Eventually, he is tired, tortured and executed in the company of thieves.


The Catholic Filipino

During the early years of Christianity, such ideas of men sacrificing their lives for their beliefs were important towards the advancement and consolidation of Western religion in Asia. That was how the New Faith gained so much ground in so many lands in such a short time with so few men.

The Pinoys that the misioneros confronted with the Catholic ideas of manhood could only have been leery. To Filipinos, there was no difference between gender and behavior: lalaki can be related to lakay, or honorable gentleman, and babae can be related to bai or distinguished lady.

The lakay was head or elder not only of his immediate family or just the extended clan, but the baranggay. He was rendered respect by his peers from surrounding villages, and the misioneros eventually learned to at least consult with him, if they did not defer to him, as cabeza.

Not all the lakays were baganis (whence bayani, or hero). The bagani was not only a warrior, but a man dedicated to the welfare of the village. Thus the term bayanihan, usually represented in 20th-century art in depictions of groups of men cooperating in the moving of a nipa hut.

The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history 5
‘Tulisan’ originally meant men armed with pointed weapons—for hunting and defending the community—not banditry, as it later came to mean.

The bagani eventually became maharlika or members of the upper class, if one sired children of like mold. But they had to be men of uncommon strength, great courage and leaders of their fellows, accomplished in the art of war and, in times of peace, diplomacy. They were approached for adjudication and lionized by society.

Pigafetta's account of the 1521 Magellan expedition describe Leyte bagani/maharlika that they first encountered: they were very dark, had tattoos all over their bodies, they wore only bahag (G-strings), had long hair on their heads, very little hair on their bodies, and gold earrings.

Most Filipino males were dark because they spent a lot of time in the sun: working the fields, sea faring, or even just walking. The majority or males wore bahag, which were not necessarily like the scant G-strings worn now by peoples in the central Cordillera in Northern Luzon. The late 16th-century depiction (now known as the Boxer Codex) of typical Filipinos show that the bahag could also have been similar to the loose, voluminous cloth worn around and tucked under the crotch, like the Indochinese ones.

Tattoos were not only marks of the person's imperviousness to pain, but also a mark of having undergone rites of passage and achievement of high status. Thus, tattoos were sported not only by men, but also by women, and designs were dictated by convention for each social level.

Although long head hair seems to have been the norm, depilation was observed by the Spaniards: Filipinos used tweezers to pluck hair from most of their bodies (nobody mentioned whether that included pubic hair).


When in doubt, accessorize

The wealthier and more powerful Filipinos of that time wore large and heavy gold earrings, and according to Pigafetta, the Magellan chronicler, some boasted that they could put their fist through the earring holes on their lobes. The datus wore multiple ear ornaments, heavy gold necklaces, armbands, rings, and gold appliqu├ęs on their bodies.  

The symbols and signifiers of Pinoy manhood throughout our history 6
Men wore multiple gold earrings, cuffs and necklaces, enough to make any modern-day rapper drool. Boxer Codex pictures from the Lopez Memorial Museum.

In the interior, highland villages, men were expected to defend the village and go hunting: thus, the term tulisan, which initially meant men armed with pointed weapons (spears with iron points, bamboos with sharpened ends, or arrows), but later referred specifically to those who preyed on their fellowmen.

The women, on the other hand, were expected to tend the fields, and keep house. In short, males were expected to provide brawn and surges of physical force, while females were assigned the generative role.

There might always have been little distinction between bana (husband) and asawa (wife). The terms for marriage, pag-asawa and spouse, asawa, are not gender-specific. The idea of being a barako (stud) has negative connotations, referring to a low-life bully. Male sexuality is there to please the female as well. (Early Spanish chroniclers reported that penis rings, ticklers and other sex toys were used because the women allegedly demanded them and would not lie with the men without them.)

Till today, magpakalalaki means not so much a phallic flaunting, but hewing to a sense of responsibility and a certain set of standards. A man is expected to be matigas (firm) and matikas (having stature), both of which allude to being erect. But the man is also expected to have katuwiran (rectitude) and pakikipag-kapwa (sense of responsibility for fellow men). 


This originally appeared on Metro Him Magazine April – June 2007