Try to bear with me here: Philippine Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte is a lot like a professional wrestler.
Perhaps even for his most ardent supporters, Duterte is not exactly the most articulate or eloquent Chief Executive we ever had. But that espouses a certain kind of eloquence: one that assumes that everyone exists in polite society. At least for his supporters, his brutal frankness and spontaneity is a refreshing break from the rather straight-laced and prosaic traditions that come with politicians of yesteryear. You don’t expect Mayor to “arrogate” something, much less “abrogate” anything or “abjure” a lot of things. The Mayor is the kind of person who would not hesitate to pepper his fiery rhetoric with curses, long-winded anecdotes, and innuendo. He’s a veritable goldmine for impersonators, impressionists, and the occasional attempts at Dubsmash.
Just last year, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella traced the colorful language to “Cebuano subculture.” And in so many other threads on the Internet, the defense for the Mayor’s language somehow careens to the repudiation of traditional Philippine politics that has propelled Duterte to being the country’s Mayor. Waxing lyrically: when the Mayor curses, it’s all part of the continuing rejection of elite politics, and him embracing the people.
In his classic essay on wrestling, Roland Barthes writes that each action in the wrestling ring (or arena, for that matter)—be it a slam, a hold, or the mere act of a promo—”discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature.” Much in the same way that police officers won’t arrest someone in a wrestling ring for swinging a sledgehammer on a person but would in real life, Duterte’s actions are at home in a wrestling ring more than in diplomatic or political ones. Wrestlers don’t mince around with words, or beat around the bush, when they threaten to kick your ass; when it’s all said and done and all the smoke has cleared, it’s often settled in a wrestling match.
To me, promos are as important as the match itself: a couple of people trying to pin each other down the mat for the three-count is one thing, but making one a hero and another a villain is another. Popular wrestling, at least, is as much a way with words as it is a way with athleticism and pain. Like how Ravishing Rick Rude would run down an entire arena for being “fat, out-of-shape, overweight, [insert city here] sweathogs.” Or how The Rock could probably carry an entire two hours of WWE programming simply by running down his opponents with creative insults. Or how the cocky and confident swagger of Roman Reigns about owning The Undertaker’s yard was met by the latter with complete silence.
When you come to think about it, Duterte’s the same: when he threatens death upon people (such as eating terrorists alive with salt and vinegar) or cursing the lot out of nations, it’s never a joke or a hyperbole that requires our collective creative imagination. Rather, it’s a pro wrestling promo: much like how Hulk Hogan would run wild over the enemies of America, it’s something often settled by the rules of his context. He won’t kill, per se: there are enough machinations on the war on drugs to do the killing. He won’t go out there to pick a fight with the European Union by jutting jaws in Brussels, but present a carefully-cultivated image of toughness as a motorcycle-riding tough-talking self-styled “Punisher” who rose to the highest office of the land. And all this does not take place over a one-and-a-half-hour world of fiction, like in an action movie: it’s episodic, at least for the remainder of his term.
Yes, Mayor Duterte has more in common with pro wrestlers than he has with action stars, or folk heroes, or comic-book vigilantes. Duterte’s term is an extended promo that frames him and his legions of fans as a movement in constant battle with the themes of his story: drugs, crime, and the occasional forays on sex. It’s like the Attitude Era: only this time Duterte takes the mantle of both Mr. McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Yet because wrestling isn’t real, this isn’t exactly how the world works.
True enough, it may be futile (or even misguided) to try and even change Duterte: it works for him. Yet as with a lot of things about wrestling, it gets a little predictable. Wrestlers get flak for having “Five Moves of Doom,” but Duterte never seems to stray away from carrying his thick list of narcopoliticians, or his kilometric and profanity-laced rants on everything from oligarchs to drug pushers to the United Nations itself. In wrestling, fans have moved on from anti-Russian sentiments of the 1980s to accept more nuanced storylines (even going so far as creating universes where xylophones play extraordinary roles). Mainly because the stories have lost relevance. Or maybe they just got too old and boring.
Should we expect the same thing, I guess, from the Chief Executive?
But it probably won’t: after all, during the campaign period, Duterte himself is reluctant to discuss economics or business or whatever. It’s not his line of expertise. But every time he does so, Barthes’s ghost comes back to haunt us: only a part of the public exists in that realm of drugs and crime and anti-Catholicism. As parasitic as those meanings and topics could be, they are real in the world, and have no consequence in a wrestling ring. And ordinary citizens know that there’s a lot more to being President than, well, being Mayor: we don’t live in an arena watching a wrestling show.
I prefaced this entry with the thought that maybe—just maybe—Duterte has more in common with a professional wrestler than he would with the global community of heads of state. That’s just fine: but even professional wrestlers have to find new enemies, forge new alliances, or at least refresh their promos. Maybe it would do good for Mayor Duterte to look into the other fundamental ills of the Filipino nation: beyond the drugs and the crime and the oligarchs and the historical grievances that he likes to shove into the faces of Caucasian foreign correspondents every now and then. Maybe even go pro-wrestler-promo over it if he has to. Evolution, so to speak.
That’s all well and good, until the Mayor starts talking about Viagra. But even that has to wait for a while.