Much has already been said about Billy Crawford and Coleen Garcia's scandalous shoot in Ethiopia – from issues of cultural appropriation (it is), to debates over whether netizens were just being hypersensitive and woke for wokeness' sake (uh, I'm pretty sure you can never want too much human dignity for others, so this debate is ridiculous).
The worst reasoning for me is that the Ethiopians in the shoot were amenable to the project anyway, and that this would help boost the African nation's tourism. It must be understood that oppression is at its most despicable when it is seamlessly ingrained into how the oppressed themselves think. For some Filipinos not to understand this is what upsets me most, especially since our own country has long run on this kind of programmed self-loathing. If they can't see what's wrong with the Ethiopia issue, what more the many issues in their own backyard?
In Ethiopia, Billy and Coleen served as preening, pompously garbed foils for the locals, who in turn are styled as simple, humble, and unable to participate in this Westernized fantasy, relegated as they are to bare-bones lives in a land known for great drought and famine.
What if the shoot were set instead in the Philippines, specifically in spots that highlighted our own country's sore points and setbacks?
Location 1: Hacienda Luisita
Plantation chic. Sugar baron and baroness Billy and Coleen sport crisp, short-sleeved white polos, khaki shorts, and loafers without socks, and top their look off with blonde rattan fedoras. Behind them are 4,000 hectares of farmland baking in the Tarlac heat, dotted with weary farm workers who have spent decades fighting bureacracy and the oligarchy to get what they deserve.
Location 2: Marawi City
Why jet off to exotic Syria when we have an Islamic war zone to call our own? Billy and Coleen wear matching ruby red silk malongs with 24k-gold thread embroidery – Billy's slung regally over his shoulder, Coleen's wrapped tight around her tiny waist. Behind them are the smoking ruins of a grand mosque, a ratty ISIS flag fluttering from the brass crescent up top. If you look closely, you can spot government soldiers and Muslim rebels pointing firearms at each other from their respective dilapidated school buildings.
Location 3: The Cordillera Administrative Region
Move over, Carrot Man! A bahag with the words "Will you marry me" intricately woven down its front makes for a powerful statement outfit for Billy, while Coleen shows off some prime Eat Bulaga-style choreography while balancing clay pots filled with Cristal champagne. Behind them sit Ifugao tribespeople with spare traditional outfits, waiting for the occasional tourist to "play Ifugao" and depreciate their culture on Instagram, all in exchange for a few hundred pesos – barely enough for these tribespeople to support their own family and community.
Location 4: Tacloban City
It's the ultimate seaside escape. In this particularly risqué shoot, Billy and Coleen wear nothing but strategically placed gold and silver salbabidas (inner tubes). Behind them is a breathtakingly barren seaside village dotted with broken fishing boats and decapitated palm trees. Unlike the other shoot locales, there are no villagers posing in the background, as they have been either killed by Super Typhoon Yolanda or are off to neighboring provinces to seek food and shelter.
Location 5: Caloocan City
This is a homage to Mugatu's Derelicte campaign from the film Zoolander. Billy and Coleen are dressed head to toe in Kanye West's latest Yeezy line, known for its flimsy, holey fabrics, drab, sewage-water color palette, and sky-high price points.
They stand in the middle of a cramped, dimly lit alley in the city most recently known for its bloody drug raids, the alley's residents standing by their doors anticipating the next round of policemen to come a-knockin'. When it comes to poverty porn, Caloocan truly serves the money shot.
On the outset, the above 5 scenarios may seem like an exaggeration. Well of course, some people reason, Billy and Coleen's party wouldn't dare do something so insensitive, regardless of whether it was readily orchestrated with the locals' consent and assistance. But what right do these people have to consider the Ethiopia shoot any different from the ones set here?
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries not only in Africa, but in the entire world, and the fact remains that a young and wealthy couple fetishized this by posing before locals in clothes and at angles that clearly suggest a difference in social status. (Regardless of the fact that the Philippines is itself a developing nation! The glaring irony in their actions is a whole other article in itself!)
To hide behind the excuse that the locals weren't forced and that it could boost tourism is not only cowardly and ignorant, but destructive, enabling the oppressed to unwittingly harm themselves over and over.
Consent, in the end, does not override context. It does not a pretty picture make. – Rappler.com
Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Opinion section, and is (happily) wrangled into voice over and hosting work. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for 6 years. She is also a fictionist.