By: Lorainne Pangalangan
Billie & Emma (2018) is a Filipino indie film directed by Samantha Lee. It is a mushy love story of two high schoolers in the mid-90s. Billie is what we would call a “tomboy” back then, while Emma is the quintessential model student. The unlikely pair are brought together by a school project many Catholic-schooled kids are familiar with—the egg baby project. The film is rose-tinted—literally and figuratively—covered with cheesy punch lines and euphemisms that are at the core of Filipino language and society. Indeed, these euphemisms are what allow transgressors like those in the LGBTQIA+ community to coexist peacefully with the Philippines’ rigid Catholic beliefs. Billie & Emma provides insight into how the Filipino community has progressed. Without explicitly discussing these topics, Billie & Emma talks about the status of the LGBTQIA+ community and abortion in the Philippines—things that Filipinos would rather not talk about.
The film’s main characters, Billie and Emma, are both high school seniors who were, in a way, knocked off their paths. Billie, who is originally from Manila, was sent to live with her aunt and finish high school in the province. Emma, on the other hand, is a model student from the area with steadfast plans to go to college. However, Emma’s plans are turned upside down when she finds out that she is pregnant. Billie and Emma talk for the first time in the library when Emma was confirming her pregnancy suspicions through a biology book. Of course, all of this doesn’t happen without a slow motion of the first time the two meet.
Billie & Emma is equal parts cheesy scenes and impactful lines. Likewise, it is equal parts about the romance and the individual struggles of these two girls. The exchanges between Billie and her aunt Kate, and between Emma and her mother are evidence of this.
Tibo & Tomboys
Tibo (‘lesbian’ in Tagalog), tomboy—these were words that every pre-pubescent girl in the Philippines dreaded hearing. It meant you were unpleasant and undesirable, whether it be as a friend or as a person in general. To be called a tomboy was the worst thing one could be called. Yet, for many of us, this is our truth. Billie, Emma, and Billie’s aunt Kate are tomboys and tibos. Generations of lesbian Filipinas have been living as lesbians, but you will rarely hear them utter the term. If you do, it is not mentioned in a positive tone. Billie & Emma reflects this.
Not once did Billie or Emma mention the word tibo or a synonym in the film. It was heard a few times by minor characters, often to jeer or to confront. True enough, for many lesbians, they mostly hear it in a negative context. This is probably why tibo, tomboy, and lesbiana are such heavy words to utter. The word is not just heavy because of their negative connotations, but also because of the hurtful collective and individual memories attached to them. If you were lucky enough to not hear it directed at you, you have probably heard it said at or about someone you know, and dreaded being found out and called the same term.
The beauty of Billie & Emma is in its sparing use of language. Billie and her aunt Kate rarely talked, but they understood each other on a deeper level. During serious conversations, the two often skirted saying the words tibo or lesbiana, choosing instead to say ganito (‘this’ in Tagalog) or ano (used to mean ‘something’). And who can forget Kate’s circuitous speech about loving and being loved? These two women, while they cannot freely say what they are, are living their truths as best as they can.
In a sense, Billie & Emma frees these characters from the negative connotations of the words lesbiana and tibo by not using it. By skirting these terms when describing themselves, these characters are not allowing themselves to be defined by society’s idea of a lesbian. They may not have a term yet, nor have they reached the time to start reclaiming those terms, but they are already breaking the shackles. True, the situation now is much, much different from the situation in the 90s. Dare I say we are starting to dust off the negative connotations from the words lesbiana and tibo and lift them no matter how heavy they are?
Emma’s struggle was about the baby inside her. Society told her that she can’t achieve her ambitions with a baby, and neither can she get an abortion to get rid of it. Emma often talked about the “baby” but never of the procedure needed to “get rid” of it. She often talked about “getting rid” of the baby, and even considered “pamparegla (literally ‘menstruation-inducing pills’; abortifacient).” Like tibo, Billie & Emma hardly mentioned the words pampalaglag (‘abortifacients’) or pagpapalaglag (‘abortion’), it was merely hinted at. Just the thought of it is offensive for most of the characters, except for Emma and her mother Amy.
Abortion is not subject for debate in the Philippines, except perhaps in truly radical circles. It’s simply out of the question, unlike for instance, in western countries. Women who need or want to terminate their pregnancy skirt the conversation, just as they skirt the law to get ahold of abortifacients or an abortion itself. Seeking unlawful abortion is a dangerous endeavor alone. Unlawful abortion methods and abortifacients are not regulated by law, and any complication resulting from such cannot be reported to authorities. On top of all this, seeking abortion in the Philippines comes with a heavy toll because not everyone is informed of their options or has the freedom to make a decision.
Before the Reproductive Health Law was passed, its proponents had to defend it from churches and religious groups who argue thatthe law does not legalize nor condone abortion. It is as if the only time Filipino society will utter the word “abortion” is to criticize and decry it. This attitude has created a dangerous world for women and little girls. Without access to reproductive healthcare or complete freedom over their bodies and their lives, women will remain at the outskirts of society as second-rate citizens. Whether women want to have kids or not, there is always a trap for them. If you are pregnant, you will face an assortment of discrimination such as being seen as a burden and not being hired by certain companies. If you are pregnant and seeking an abortion, you will have to break the law and risk your life to do so.
Ultimately, the issue of abortion is about giving women agency over their lives. Emma didn’t want to have abortion, but she is trapped between the baby and pursuing her dreams because back then – and even now – young women have to choose between carrying out a pregnancy and their education. By not acknowledging abortion directly as an option, Billie & Emma directs the spotlight to the actual issue: why must Emma choose between her life and the baby’s life? Why must women sacrifice their lives for everyone else?
Lorainne is an aspiring fiction writer. She is a feminist who also loves to pretend to be a make-up artist during her free time.