AlDub, JaDine, and Filipino imaginaries of intimacy
Editor's note: When this opinion piece was first published, the author said the TV show "On the Wings of Love" had an amnesia arc. He has since made necessary corrections.
By now, I have lost count of how many relatives and friends – together with millions of other Filipinos – have raved about two of the hottest and most current love teams in Philippine media: AlDub (Alden Richards and Maine Mendoza aka Yaya Dub) from Eat Bulaga’s so-called KalyeSerye and JaDine (James Reid and Nadine Lustre) from On the Wings of Love.
As a recent Manila Times editorial cartoon illustrates, some of the country’s cultural elites lament such a phenomenon. For them, paying attention to showbiz love teams is a simultaneously silly and dangerous distraction from truly important national issues.
Speaking as a media and communication scholar, I would say that AlDub and JaDine are actually worth thinking about.
As the cultural historian Raymond Williams contends, examining these expressions of popular culture can tell us a lot about what he calls “the structure of feeling.” Here he is referring to those common sets of perceptions and values that predominate in a society at particular points in its history.
In the particular case of AlDub and JaDine, they can say a lot about what imaginaries of intimacy are shared by today’s mainstream Filipino society.
A return to romance
To better appreciate the significance of the popularity of AlDub and JaDine, we need to look at both the content and form of the shows in which they star. In terms of content, we need to situate KalyeSerye and On The Wings of Love within the broader trends of how intimacy is portrayed by the Anglo-American and local TV programs that Filipinos watch.
What is striking about the fever pitch popularity of AlDub and JaDine’s respective shows is that both seem to have bucked the recent trend as regards TV representations of relationships.
Recall that for many years now, the Anglo-American programs that have gained popularity in the Philippines have been those that depict relationships as incredibly complex, scandalous, and even titillating. Take for instance The OC (2003-2007) and Gossip Girl (2007-2012).
In a move that parallels this, the last few years have also seen a slew of high-rating local primetime soap operas that present Filipino relationships in a more complicated and, arguably, realistic way. Examples of this would be Tayong Dalawa (2009) and My Husband’s Lover (2013).
Amid this sea of complexities and complications, AlDub and JaDine both appear as a striking throwback to the older, more familiar portrayals of idealized intimate relationships: think Guy and Pip and Sharon and Gabby. Indeed, Aldub’s KalyeSerye and JaDine’s On the Wings of Love are, at their heart, classic stories of romance.
AlDub’s story is said to have started off serendipitously, with the Eat Bulaga team deciding to pair up the two after catching Maine smile the first time she saw Alden on a split-screen. Building on this first virtual meeting, the narrative eventually develops into a half-fictional, half-reality TV story of a mestizo middle-class hunk and a pretty working-class “yaya” who find romance despite the economic divide that separates them. But because of various complications, they would for the longest time be only able to feel each other’s presence virtually, via split-screen.
Meanwhile, the story of Clark and Leah, JaDine’s characters in On the Wings of Love, is one of second chances.
They start off as two people who marry for convenience, with Clark being the American husband who enables his sham wife Leah to legally stay in the United States. However, after various circumstances that transpire in their lives, they attempt to reboot their relationship and, this time, have a proper love affair (In the original version of this piece, I had mistakenly written that Leah suffered amnesia. It was not an attempt to add or suggest a further twist to the narrative, but an earlier error in retelling the synopsis that unfortunately crept into the final version of the manuscript).
I would argue that, in terms of content, the reason why AlDub and JaDine are such popular love teams is because they offer the promise that couples can still live out traditional Filipino values. In contrast to other TV shows that tend to emphasize the disconnect between Filipinos’ conservative views on love and their often more liberal and complicated actual practice of it, these couples provide hope that this disconnect can be overcome.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) recently tweeted its support for AlDub. It thanked the couple for “supporting the noble cause of spreading virtue, values, and morality.”
To illustrate what the CBPC meant by this, take for example the recent episodes of KalyeSerye. They show AlDub going through the “proper” (and often patriarchal) rituals that potential partners should supposedly enact: keeping physical closeness to a minimum, having the boy seek the approval of the girl’s parents before formal courtship begins, and going out on a proper date to know each other better.
Meanwhile, many people also praise JaDine for the “respectful” way they treat one another. Although they're on-screen characters, Clark and Leah are supposedly very much in love in On The Wings of Love. They also remain reserved about how they express affection for each other.
This respectful reservedness is what drives the kilig that viewers feel. The exemplar for this is that when their much-awaited first kiss finally happened, it was portrayed in a saccharinely sanitized manner. After all the exciting build-up, this so-called “most approved kiss” turned out to be short but sweet kindergarten kisses.
What further intensifies the hopes surrounding what AlDub and JaDine offer is that they do an excellent job of playing around with the always already blurred line between showbiz fantasy and showbiz reality. These love teams tantalize audiences with the possibility of witnessing real couples finding and enacting ideal Filipino romantic love.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that between the two love teams, AlDub has generated a much louder public buzz than JaDine. It is in relation to this that we find the importance of also talking about the form of the shows in which the two love teams star.
JaDine’s vehicle, On the Wings of Love, is a conventional soap opera. As is par for the course for classic melodrama, JaDine’s onscreen characters, Clark and Leah, go through the genre’s usual episodic twists and turns and cliffhangers.
AlDub’s KalyeSerye has a much more innovative form. This has enabled the show to further entrench the idealization of the couple’s romance, making it even more pure, innocent, and, above all, chaste. As a result, it elevates the audience’s “kilig” to a whole new level.
Take, for example, the segment’s partly scripted, partly improvisational structure. This gives the show a distinctly spontaneous and open-ended feel. It also makes the distinction between the on-screen and off-screen personas of the Alden and Yaya Dub/Maine more blurred and, consequently, raises the possibility that their sweet affection for each other is genuine.
The level of kilig is further amplified by the segment’s use of the split-screen and of the Dubsmash-inspired lip-syncing of cheesy pop love songs. Both of these presentational techniques heighten the idealized and romantic quality of Alden and Yaya Dub’s relationship. The distance the split screen creates and the lyrics that the pop songs convey both serve to emphasize the pure emotionality of the couple’s love for each other.
Filipino imaginaries of intimacy
From the content to the format of Eat Bulaga’s KalyeSerye and On the Wings of Love, it is clear that AlDub and JaDine’s popularity is premised on how their love teams are evocative of traditional mainstream Filipino values about intimacy.
On one hand, this is something understandable. After all, couples who truly embody such values are rare gems, if they exist at all. It is just that our intimate lives are complicated by so many things. This is true for the poor Filipino who, hampered by economic realities, marries a “foreigner” out of practical necessity. This is also true for the young yuppie who, faced with rapidly transforming urban youth socialities, has to swipe right on so many Tinder profiles and still end up in seemingly unfulfilling relationships.
On the other hand, it is also worth critically reflecting on the implications of the Filipino public’s seemingly increased interest in pining for this idealized, romantic, and ultimately, impossible vision of intimacy. Without a counterbalance, it might very well leave us disappointed about our relationships.
Even more tragically, it might also prevent us from learning to appreciate our often fraught but nevertheless worthwhile human experiences of trying to love and be loved. – Rappler.com
Jason Cabañes is Lecturer in International Communication at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. One of his current research projects is on how the media shape Filipino imaginaries of intimacy.