The Darna Standard

This August 26 marks the National Heroes’ Day for the Philippines. For today, J takes a slice of the fantasy pie and focuses on a different kind of heroine and her character's role as a symbol of Filipina beauty and strength.

Superheroine characters like Krystala, Super Inday, and Volta have made us all laugh and cry and relate to their lives’ struggles even if they are just pieces of fiction. Among these powerful fictional women, Darna is probably the most famous one here in the Philippines. Originally created as Varga in 1947 by Mars Ravelo, the iconic character was rewritten as Darna in the 1950s and served as an image of strength to look up to while Filipinos were rebuilding their lives post-World War II.

There have been more than 10 versions of Darna but in general the story starts when a young woman named Narda chances upon a white stone with the word “Darna” written on it. For some reason, she swallows the stone and becomes Darna instantly. The timid and gentle Narda is then transformed into Darna, a warrior-like superhuman who is said to have originated from a planet galaxies away.

Darna is identified by her two-piece costume of red with accents of gold and two stars printed on the chest part of her top. She also has a red headpiece with a gold wing emblem worn over her long black hair. Her powers include super-strength, flight, and lightning speed, among others. Narda’s brother, Ding, plays the sidekick role and helps her out whether she’s in her human or alien form. Her main enemies include Valentina, the serpent queen, who is likened to Medusa from Greek mythology. Dubbed as the “Filipina Wonder Woman” due to the parallel between the two characters, Darna remains to be one of the biggest roles in the local TV and film industry.

Photo Credits: ABSCBN

From Rosa del Rosario and Vilma Santos to Angel Locsin and Marian Rivera, the Darna standard seems to be consistent - flawless and fair-skinned, plus a body that fits what's then considered as sexy. Their boobs, legs, and butts are highlighted, especially during action-heavy scenes. Given this, should Darna still be considered as a feminist icon?

When Darna's creator - despite his noblest interest to pioneer an animated superheroine - reeks of male gaze, it is definitely hard to do so. Male gaze refers to the tendency to objectify or sexualize women and this is usually prevalent in media (where most of the writers/producers/directors are men). As male gaze takes over, we got men superheroes totally covered in tights and women superheroes with as much skin exposed as allowed by the MTRCB (Movie and TV Review Classification Board). It seems as if the only way to become a superwoman is to wear a ridiculously sexy outfit while punching bad guys. I’m not saying that skin exposure translates to indecency but the way it’s portrayed as well as how the audience reacts is what indignifies the character.

Yes, it feels good to have a woman as a powerful fictional character to look up to while I was growing up but all I remember was how my guy peers (and older relatives) talked about Darna and her awesome boobs and her flawless legs and how sexy they all think she is. They weren’t even seeing her as a symbol of truth and justice but basically another woman to objectify. When Darna’s fight scenes were being shown, they weren’t amazed by her superpowers (like they did when they watched Superman or some other male superhero); these guys were waiting for the camera to zoom in on Darna’s body parts. How sick is that!

To add to that, the profile of the actresses they picked as Narda/Darna definitely contributes to the societal pressure of what is accepted as powerfully beautiful. It seems traditional to pick a slender, sporty, and fair-skinned young girl who would, as they say, look good in a bikini. Before Jane de Leon got picked to be the newest Darna, there have been debates on social media on who should be the next iconic superheroine. Only 6 months ago, netizens suggested using the hashtag #BagongDarna as they voiced that Filipina celebrities like Nadine Lustre, Jennylyn Mercado, Jane Oineza, and Kathryn Bernardo - all morena beauties - should be given the opportunity and honor of playing Darna. Even our Miss Universe 2015, Pia Wurtzbach, made the list.

A TV Patrol clip showing Nadine Lustre top the polls as next Darna at 48%.

Hopefully, the next Darna can break free from the male gaze and finally earn her well-deserved space within the ranks of other male superheroes who are admired for their stories and characters. It is true that Darna’s character opened up the possibility of women as symbols of strength and power. But there is still a long way to go when it comes to media portrayal as well as audience reception.

How can we shape the minds of those around us when every day the media overloads us with the notion that when it comes to powerful women, they sell shows by sexualizing the characters? How about they focus instead on writing fresh origin stories, shocking plot twists, and character development to increase the ratings of these films or series? As people in media, they have to be entertaining but they also have a social responsibility to create shows that would influence their audience to lean towards what is good.

Women - fictional or not - shouldn’t be objectified. We are more than boobs, butt, and legs. We have so much more to offer to the world, if only everyone would take off their male-gaze glasses and focus on women's talents, wit, and skills instead. I believe that more women need to be actively involved in both creating, producing, and directing characters similar to Darna. At the same time, all of us need to be brave and call out each other for falling prey to the male gaze. This way, we can better shape how we and the future generations perceive Filipina beauty and strength.

- J

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