The bakla and the silver screen : queer cinema in the Philippines

  • Michael Nuñez INTON

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


This study looks at representations of the bakla in Philippine cinema from 1954 to 2015. I argue that the bakla, a local gender category that incorporates ideas of male homosexuality, effeminacy, cross-dressing, and transgenderism, has become a central figure in Philippine cinema. I examine the films of Dolphy, the actor who was the first to popularize bakla roles in mainstream cinema, and I outline several tropes that create the bakla image in movies: “classical” kabaklaan (being bakla), which involves crossdressing, effeminacy, and being woman-hearted; the conversion trope, where the bakla stubbornly resists being forcibly masculinized by the men that surround him; and women’s enabling of the bakla to perform femininity despite his male body. The bakla also becomes trapped in the dialectic between the genres of comedy and melodrama – the bakla then becomes either a comic relief character or a tragic character, someone who should be both pitied and admired for enduring tragic circumstances.

Since the word bakla colloquially means both the gay man and the transgender woman, I also look at the intersections between the bakla and global transgender rights discourse in Philippine cinema. I argue that the bakla’s male body and his female heart mirror contemporary thinking about transgenderism, where a person’s birth-assigned sex does not match their gender identity. I look at films in the science fiction/fantasy adventure genre and examine how the male body is transformed into a female body – whether through medical or magical means – but the bakla gender category remains pervasive. I next look at independent films and how the camera constructs bakla sexuality in cinema by framing the male body as an object of desire. I also examine how the bakla have shifted their sexuality from the desiring the otherness of the macho lalake (masculine man) to desiring sameness in the form of other bakla (masculine gay men). Incidentally, this shift in the object of sexuality coincides with the shift in gender performance from “traditional” kabaklaan, with its elements of effeminacy and crossdressing, to a more homonormative image, mirroring the “modern” discourse of gay globality.

Finally, I examine the contemporary Philippine celebrity star system and the popularity of bakla films within the last decade. I argue that Vice Ganda becomes representative of the ideal bakla, one who is affluent but still ‘reachable’; opinionated and politically engaged with LGBT rights; and finally, funny and comic in a way that is empowering for himself, but also in manners that are abrasive and offensive.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Cultural Studies
SupervisorSiu Leung LI (Supervisor) & Yuk Ming Lisa LEUNG (Supervisor)

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