PHILIPPINES: Billie & Emma (2018)

The Queer Female Space

by Hajar Gaznawi

Please read the crafter statement before watching the video essay.  Thank you.

Billie & Emma is a coming of age film, with many of the typical characteristics of one: a sweet love story, themes of growing up and the loss of childhood innocence and emphasis on inner turmoil and dialogue. However, it tells the story through a specific lens of the queer female experience. The protagonist, Emma, is a star student, leading her school assembly and having high hopes of winning scholarships for college and studying to be a lawyer. She is one of the most popular girls at her all-girls Catholic school, adored by her friends, boyfriend, teachers and principal. This is all put into jeopardy when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. To make things worse, she begins a tentative friendship that quickly develops into something much more with the new girl, Billie. Billie was sent to live with her aunt and Catholic school in the Philippines countryside after her parents learned about her sexuality. Emma has two choices: to submit to societal expectations, or to subvert those expectations and make space for herself.

In her subversion, she is supported by two people, her mother and Billie. Her mother, who had Emma at a young age and by herself, indicated by Emma’s lack of a father figure, does not want her daughter going through the same experience alone. She knows what it feels like to feel lost and out of options, all while being condemned by everyone around you. She guides Emma through the process and gives her room to take up space and to decide what she wants to do with her body. Although sometimes she may act more like her best friend than her mother, she does not judge her or pressure her. Billie provides support as someone her own age, as they find companionship and then love between bookshelves in the library and through passed notes in class. She sees Billie unapologetically take up space, with her heavy boots and short haircut as well as the way she speaks up for what she thinks is right. With Billie, she learns to take up the space she needs and be unapologetically herself.

The idea of making space for oneself that I refer to in my video essay is the ability to act authentically yourself and act according to your own will, and not feel the need to submit yourself to others expectations and values. Women are constantly told they take up too much space, meant to be unheard and unseen. Before the past century or so, there was little place outside of the home for women and in some fields there is still a lack of a “female space,” from science and technology to literature and film. As for “queer spaces,” queer stories and experiences have been buried and overlooked all throughout history. The film in itself is a subversion by showing the queer female experience. Historically both women’s and queer stories have been underrepresented and overlooked, and in conjunction have faced even more disregard. The film decenters men entirely, with very little male characters, allowing the focus to fall on Emma’s coming of age experience as it becomes clear that much of growing into womanhood is about the world trying to strip you of your personal agency. The film thus posits that queer female stories deserve to be told and are important, and shows young queer women that it is okay to take up space. The director, Samantha Lee opted to cast openly gay actresses in the film as well, saying, “I’ve always said that my films are the kinds of films my younger self needed to see, to make her feel less alone, to tell her everything will be okay. Growing up without seeing representations of myself in local media made me feel invisible, like I didn’t really matter.” (qtd. in “Billie & Emma”).

Many queer women did not grow up with stories that reflected who they are, such as the director herself. It is extremely important to see parts of yourself and your struggles in the media that you consume and that can’t happen when the experiences of queer people and women are not told. In Philippine history particularly, female writers have been overlooked when writing about the female experience. Angela Manalang Gloria was a Filipina poet who wrote primarily in English, but who’s voice has been muted by the dominant patriarchal culture she lived in. Critics have described her work as “totally inadequate and much-abused ‘romantic’” and called her a “third-rater, a writer of merely pretty poetry, pleasant amateur verse” (Manlapaz & Pagsanghan 293). It should be noted that these criticisms came from men, and there is renewed interest in Gloria’s work from modern scholars proposing a rereading of her work from the perspective of femenist criticism, which assumes that women’s writing differs from men’s writing with a different experience in “life, love and other such verities.” (Manlapaz & Pagsanghan 390).

In the poem “Mountain Pool,” Angela Manalang Gloria writes of woman’s sexual desires, challenging the idea that women are pure spirits free of worldly desires of the flesh:

You who would hereafter
Understand my name,
Learn that mountain water
Can ripple over flame.

For though I love so purely,
I know supreme desire –
My heart, a pool demurely
Holding heaven’s fire.

You woke in me a slumbering Delilah.
You woke in me, O Samson, when you came
This kin of fire that centuries had hidden
Within the ancient caverns of my name.

Although women may be expected to be like mountain water, calm and pure, underneath that, in their hearts there exists a flame, their own passion and desire. In the film, Emma is expected to be the perfect star student she has always presented as, but she also holds her own passions and desires that may not fit in with their expectations. Just as new readings of past literature are emerging to provide new interpretations that were previously inaccessible, new films are beginning to tell stories that were also once inaccessible. Billie & Emma is part of a new wave of Philippine cinema as well as cinema around the world that tells these previously overlooked stories for those who need it most.

Works Cited