We see a photograph of a scene basked in gold sunlight — and right in the foreground, a girl. She wears a faded pink shirt and slung around her left shoulder is a worn grey cloth tied tightly in a knot. Her eyes are dark and her hair has tinges of brown as golden as her skin.
The picture would be shared several thousand times in social media. A few more days and the girl would star in her own photo shoot. She would be in the news and in lifestyle programs. A politician’s wife would reportedly grant her a scholarship during a show known for handing out libreng tsinelas. And of course we, the audience, would feel elated for the pretty lass.
This has become a trend: photographs of poor but good-looking members of marginalized sectors go viral in multiple online platforms. A farmer, a beggar and just a few minutes ago, my Facebook feed displayed a photo of a supposedly cute kropek vendor. They grace television shows and online news articles; reporters fight over exclusive rights to their stories.
But we will never hear the story of the young boy clinging onto Badjao Girl, or of Carrot Man’s other siblings. And soon, even these trending stars’ own stories will be buried under other internet spectacles. In a nation that’s easily enamored by a former dictator’s “attractive” son (emphasis on the quote marks) or the President’s celebrity sister, narratives about people tucked in the social margins are barely heard. And when they are, the spins are about their charming smiles and good posture—not about their people’s plight.
For a brief moment, we are made to believe that poor but attractive kids are given a chance to education because, well, they’re attractive. The online discourse in Facebook comment sections will not talk about how education is every Filipino’s basic right and not just a gift exclusive to the ones with morena beauty or F4 looks. Any attempt to steer the conversation and ask the piercing questions (Why is she not in school? What brought a Badjao from Zamboanga to Quezon?) are taken over by words of heartfelt but fleeting sympathy.
While these kids get a chance to finish their studies thanks to donors, the bigger systemic problem is yet to be solved.
Although all forms of assistance be it big or small are always appreciated, we should also recognize the fact that acts of charity can only do so much. Free slippers to children will not solve the problem of expensive tuition fees and inaccessible tertiary education in the country. No scholarship or modelling career could stop the armed conflict in Mindanao that drives the Badjao away from their home near the seas. And one person’s success does not necessarily trickle down to the rest of her community; there would still be thousands of other families left behind to suffer the consequences of ethnic wars and institutional neglect.
A cute face and a potential rags-to-riches narrative seem to be the new ticket out of poverty these days. But like artista searches and a big house with a faceless voice, being the star of a viral photo could only have one big winner. And when the credits start rolling and the next picture gets the thousandth click, the social ills that cause these children to be begging for coins instead of going to school still remain.
We consume, we react, but we rarely ask questions. I hope when the next big hype comes about, we start looking at the core social issues that are captured right in these viral photos.