On Baduy

Novelist Miguel Syjuco on the subversive concept of baduy in Philippine culture.

On Baduy

“YOU’RE SO BADUY!” Which, by definition, she was right in saying, like everyone else. I am baduy. As baduy as the cover of my new book, or my promiscuity with puns, or my groovy post-hipster Gen-X stylings. As baduy, in fact, as my use of the word “stylings,” and “hip,” and definitely “groovy,” because that kind of irony is now as baduy as a belly-button piercing or a wax-curled mustache. I’m baduy because I believe in love. And hoard hotel slippers. And dig Manila Sound disco music. And would humblebrag shamelessly when I was still baduy enough to use Facebook. Oh, and I found my karaoke voice late, in middle age, and am so making up for lost time.

“What’s this baduy?” you’re wondering, twisting your mouth around the word, your instinct understandably accenting the “bad-” when really it should land on the “-duy,” that syllable languidly stretching like something gooey, cheesy — fittingly, and just as delicious. Go on, try again. Pronounce it like us Pinoys. Ba-duuuy. It is capacious, so say it accordingly.

What it is is hard to define. What it isn’t is “basic,” which is just, well, basic. And neither “corny” nor “normcore.” And definitely not “preppy,” at least not yet. Or “tacky,” though that’s closer. It is kind of like “extra.” And sort of like “cheugy,” though that tries too hard (which makes it baduy). “Kitschy,” actually, it is and it isn’t — because kitsch is always baduy but baduy isn’t always kitschy.

Now, I’m going to be really baduy here and plug my own novel, though purely for explanation. Because in it, I set out to examine the concept of baduy in Philippine culture, offering the sort of book-length space that such complicated, nuanced, and fraught ideas deserve. In creating a protagonist born from mass culture, one who is both defined and enabled by it, and who uses it to gain power in order to challenge those possessing absolute power, I discovered as a novelist something essential whose complexity is often cast and dismissed as simple. I found that baduy speaks of definitions, perspectives, contradictions, identity, agency, power, and history. It unpeels another layer from what it is to be Filipino and, actually, human.

Not that Filipinos are baduy, though we can be. It just means we get it. We’re comfortable with this slipperiness of language, of interpretation. We understand it as if it were code. In that way, it’s ours. And if you come to understand it as a foreigner, we’re happy if it becomes yours, too. (We’re very not baduy that way.)

Let me explain further. When I’d finished my novel, I was fortunate to be asked by my publisher for ideas for its cover. Wanting one by which the book could risk being judged badly (as baduy), I sent images that to me represented my novel’s literary aesthetic — with its colloquial language, pop-song lyrics, telenovela melodrama, and scandalous satire of Philippine politics. My visual examples included pulpy Pinoy romance novels from the 1980s and ’90s, as well as old hand-painted, oversaturated movie billboards that once towered alongside the downtown streets of Manila in my youth.

If you haven’t seen the latter, they share a similar aesthetic to African barbershop signs, or even Afghan war rugs: tending towards the cartoonish, roughshod, homespun, as if any visual success in composition is well intentioned but ultimately coincidental. The best of these are often described as “naïve” or “outsider” art, or the vaguely disparaging “art brut” — which overlooks the process, skills, techniques, and craft of making pieces that may be pedestrian in purpose but become indelible in our memories, appreciated and missed only when they’re gone. The kinds of movie advertisements that looked less like the original posters and more uniquely their own thing, which get saved, perhaps, by an aficionado — an urban intellectual, maybe a film director or ad man — who had foresight, access, and enough space to make a collection for his living room, where you linger after a sous-vide dinner and fine Barolo, admiring the relics as cool, nostalgic, delightful. Artworks that to another dinner guest — from, say, the West — might seem consciously kitschy, while to you, a Pinoy, it is so much more.

Yet kitsch can help us get to the heart of understanding baduy, thanks to both the overlap and the differences. According to the Oxford dictionary, kitsch is “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.”

As a definition of baduy, that’s close, but no cigarette. Because baduy’s not quite kitsch, which defined in that way is cliché, trite, smarmy, artificial, emotional yet hollow. Baduy can be all that, but not necessarily, because baduy is usually sincere in effort, heartfelt in aspiration. What both concepts share is an essential relativity that speaks more of the viewer than of the subject. “Kitsch,” Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” Kitsch is all about interpretation; it is reflexive, in all senses of that word. That, baduy shares.

It also shares a self-awareness embodied in what philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote about aesthetics, described as “preemptive kitsch” — a strategy of an artist whose work is made deliberately kitschy, but as a way to avoid ever inadvertently creating kitsch, which would make the creator actually kitschy — unoriginal: the opposite of creative. That artful dodge, and its uses, was exemplified in the ironic use of appropriation and unoriginality by hipsters in the aughts. The blog Accidental Chinese Hipsters, for example, exposed this a decade ago, featuring Chinese people whose style, presumed as indeliberate or sincere, coincided with the deliberately ironic styles of the kinds of hipsters who’d take selfies with filters that mimicked the analog limitations we in the past had hoped the future would fix — those hipsters’ “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s,” as James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem wrote in “Losing My Edge,” that 2002 song about the angst of one day becoming, you could say, baduy.

In its roots, being baduy was something best avoided at all costs. Because at worst, it was a form of critical contempt, or even culturally manifested oppression. But that’s since changed, and it’s important to understand how and why.

According to the literary scholar Soledad Reyes, baduy likely derives from the Visayan word badoy, which the dictionary defines as démodé, old-fashioned, passé, tacky, cheap, garish, tawdry, and tasteless. But while the Tagalog and Taglish (Tagalog-English argot) mutation into baduy saw it retain those definitions, culture inevitably expanded it. As Reyes explained to me via email: “Baduy has also evolved in time and is now weaponized to reduce complex processes and practices. This is a weapon wielded in a class and culture war.”

Writing in 1982, in her essay “Pinoy Baduy,” cultural historian Doreen Fernandez recognized exactly that, particularly baduy’s relationship with the very Filipino trait of the colonial mentality. She charted an early definition to a magazine article from six years earlier, in which the cultural commentators Peachy Prieto and Gilda Cordero Fernando identified baduy as being, at that time, parochially overaccommodating — in other words, trying too hard — or, also, being beholden to the latest fads and name brands. Fernandez noted how both her younger student and her niece had criticized as baduy such choices as that of a cigarette brand or outfit ensemble (i.e., “wearing mustard-yellow pants, a violet printed shirt, a wide belt, chunky-heeled shiny brown boots — all at the same time”). Baduy, therefore, was both “something that the foreigner or upper class […] would never do” and “not being ‘in the swing,’ fashionable, in the know, hip.”

Fernandez was writing during a dictatorship in which the elite in power both venerated Western high-art sophistication and mandated a sense of indigenous nationalism and sovereignty, largely overlooking the in-between, the everyday culture of the masses. In that, Fernandez recognized baduy as both a judgment by the elite — by the in-crowd of the out-crowd — and a positive aspect of anti-elite identity held by the majority of Filipinos. “Baduy,” she wrote,

is reproach, and it too can become a badge of pride. Because it means being authentic, and not pretending to know of or like that which others have stamped with approval. […] If baduy means being out of the Western, foreign mode, then by all means let us stay ourselves, proud to be emphatically, Pinoyly, baduy.

Even when it wasn’t yet called baduy, as an idea it already possessed that subversive bent, as seen in bakya, its 1950s and ’60s precursor. Taken from the name of cheap wooden slippers worn by peasants in the barrio, bakya predated baduy but oozed even more explicitly with the issues of class. The writer Jose Lacaba, in his seminal 1970 essay “Notes on Bakya,” explained that “bakya” was coined by the film director Lamberto Avellana for the kind of crowd who didn’t appreciate his critically acclaimed movies. It came to mean, Lacaba wrote, “anything that is cheap, gauche, naïve, provincial, and terribly popular.”

But it’s from such supposedly terrible popularity, such mass appeal, that bakya, along with baduy, draws its subversive power — in a way that is democratic, even populist (which perhaps accounts for baduy’s current nuanced status at this moment in history). The colonial mentality, and deference to the elite, has always been as tenuous as it’s been insidious, and it’s worth quoting from Lacaba’s essay, where he discusses Philippine comic book heroes:

[Bakya] tends to favor something which is one’s own, though it be ersatz, and to reject something entirely alien, though it be the original. Kapitan Kidlat may be just a little brown Captain Marvel and Darna nothing more than a xerox copy of Wonder Woman, but at least they speak a native tongue, they fly over nipa huts and bamboo groves. In this sense, it is not wrong to say that, however fantastic they may be, however remote from reality, Kapitan Kidlat, Darna, and other such bakya figures are closer to the Philippine experience than anything directly obtained from abroad.

Baduy, therefore, is authentic, and there’s something always admirable about authenticity. In that way, unlike kitsch, baduy has always been endearing in its sincerity. Take, for example, one of my favorite songs, from 1975, which some may say makes it either really baduy or super cool: “Ang Boyfriend Kong Baduy” (“My Boyfriend is Baduy”), by the band Cinderella. In swishy, breathy tones the female singer coos in Tagalog:

My boyfriend
really loves the disco
He’s at the disco
every Saturday
And when the kids go out to dance
he’s always the first to dance
but when he dances
his dance
is the Mashed Potato.

That’s my boyfriend there
I don’t get what he likes
he is in, as in in
but he’s also out, not in
My boyfriend is baduy.

And therein lies baduy’s inherent pleasure. It’s like dancing as if nobody cares, or watching someone dance that way and understanding them. Not only is it earnest; it’s also familiar, relatable, shared. It’s a judgment, but it’s also recognition, something we’ve seen before — like a joke whose punchline we all know but want to hear told all over again. And while something new can be baduy, it’s baduy only because it reminds you — of an aesthetic, a trend, or something you once owned and loved and abandoned as fashions changed. That recognition is what binds us culturally, via baduy, despite judgments always changing, as they do, with time and tastes. What was baduy in a bad way might become baduy in a good way after it goes viral on TikTok, but such shifts matter less than its origins rooted in our collective culture. Just as clichés remind us that we’re not alone, baduy does as well.

What’s more, baduy as contempt can also be empowering — a way to cope, to reject. It can be a subversive, rebellious act, akin to gallows humor. To say that the Chinese Communist Party is baduy becomes our shorthand for its sins and transgressions against a free and democratic world; to say that its sneaky stealing of islands, mass censorship, propaganda, and doublespeak victimhood is all really super-duper baduy confirms our widely shared awareness of how obvious their blatant efforts are. By calling China baduy, we seek to disempower the regime despite their clear effectivity in brainwashing millions — who themselves also become baduy in our eyes, because they are clearly not in the know.

Baduy is both a weapon that wounds and a salve that heals. And that’s why I love it: for its contradictions. And whichever way it gets used, it speaks to the agency we individuals have in a community of others. For baduy is always in the eye of the beholder. A Ferrari is never baduy to its owner, but to most everyone watching, that Ferrari driver is baduy, especially if he slows down in front of the crowded café, then revs the engine loudly before peeling off. Both beholder and beheld have the freedom, the independence, to pass, or reject, judgment. But a baduy tree falling in the woods with nobody there to judge it is not baduy. Baduy’s always a conversation.

It’s also a reminder that we’re part of history. For while baduy is a question of taste, it’s also an evolution of perception. Baduy can indeed be bad, but it can eventually be so bad it’s good. In that way, it’s been judged twice over, in a dialogue across time and culture. First, enough people had to have rejected its previous acceptance in society. (Think: Crocs, glam rock, or authoritarianism.) Eventually, recognition takes place of what had once made that baduy thing very not baduy, through which it gets celebrated, often in exuberant rediscovery, delighted defiance, and identification of a communal experience. (Quentin Tarantino does this well, in both his aesthetic fetishes and his choice of actors.)

Rowena “Weng” Pinpin, the bassist of Aegis — the multiplatinum band often dismissed for being terribly popular — once asked: “What really is baduy? Is it our songs, or personality, or what we’re wearing? That’s where I’m confused. Because when they say something is for the masses, automatically they’re saying that’s baduy.” Yet Aegis, which started as a cover band in Japan in the 1990s before rising to fame at home via Filipino noontime variety shows, has become iconic for its signature defiant, anthemic songs — eventually collaborating with our country’s preeminent philharmonic orchestra, who accompanied Aegis as they played their songs in the most vaunted pinnacle for the snobbish arts, the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex. Pinoy pop music, long derided as baduy, has become — according to the Filipino ethnomusicologist James Gabrillo — “an influential force that has bestowed on its mass audience assurances of cultural and social authority.” Does that sound baduy to you?

Indeed, baduy speaks volumes. Of the dynamism of language. Of individuality. Of community. It is proof positive of culture’s malleability. Baduy is recognition, rejection, acceptance, resilience, and even joy. It dodges definition precisely because of its contradictions. It is exclusive and inclusive. Ironic and sincere. Ultra-current and nostalgic. Local and cosmopolitan. It is affection for what’s been rejected. Endearment and disdain. It’s sublime melodrama and serious play. It’s shame and pride. Death and life.

As I said: capacious — like our humanity (and just as intricate). Baduy is young-love romance. And midlife-crisis infidelity. It’s refusing to sing at karaoke. And singing with all your heart. It’s standing out in a group. And timidly blending in. It’s being TH (try-hard), or OA (overacting), or dedma (feigning indifference), or KJ (killjoy). And like the other words we’ve given the world — like boondocks, cooties, yaya, kilig, mani-pedi, and gigil — it is quintessentially Pinoy. And now it’s yours.

So baduy my ending, no?


Miguel Syjuco is a Filipino novelist, journalist, and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. His debut novel, Ilustrado, won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and his second novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, was published in April 2022 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

LARB Contributor

Miguel Syjuco is a Filipino novelist, journalist, civil society advocate, and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi. His debut novel, Ilustrado (2008), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Grand Prize at the Palanca Awards, his country’s top literary honor. His second novel, I Was the President’s Mistress!!, was published in April 2022 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Syjuco has worked as a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, written for many of the world’s most respected publications, and spoken on Philippine politics and culture at the World Forum for Democracy and the World Economic Forum. He currently serves on the advisory councils of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an international arts residency program, and the Resilience Fund, a project by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime to empower communities most threatened by criminality.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!