- "Why Don't You Love Me?"Post/colonial Camp and the Imeldific Fetish in Here Lies Love
They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but—thank God—all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes!—Imelda Marcos
Around the world today, Imelda Romualdez Marcos is often remembered solely for the extensive shoe collection she left behind when she fled the Philippines.1 Her accumulation of over three thousand pairs of shoes, most notably stilettos, underscores the rampant corruption and abuse of power under the regime of her and her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, from 1965 to 1986, during which the majority of the country lived in destitution. Among the many crimes they committed both during and outside martial law (1972–81)—crimes the former First Lady vehemently denies—are assassinations, executions, disappearances, secret detentions, torture, censorship, and extortion.2 Yet, as Imelda's cry of relief attests, the shoes were her saving grace. Captivated by the extravagant footwear, the international community has largely forgotten or abandoned the search for the thousands of skeletons hidden in plain sight. Through their incongruous juxtaposition, the beautiful shoes and the missing skeletons become dialectically linked within competing narratives around the Marcoses' legacy.
This dynamic elucidates the fetishistic attachments prevalent throughout popular accounts of Imelda Marcos in the American cultural imaginary. Her shoe collection has become a fetish, "the object to which one consciously clings as a means of disavowing trauma."3 Such disavowal thus acknowledges trauma only to manage it through acts of displacement and substitution.4 Redirecting attention toward the shoes, Imelda's statement both registers and denies the possibility of skeletons in her closet. For Imelda, however, these skeletons only constitute a trauma insofar as they indicate the ongoing potential for a tarnished reputation. Whereas the masses who stormed the palace hoped to find the skeletons that offer definitive proof of the violence under the Marcoses, [End Page 993] their absence signals a crisis averted for Imelda. What they discovered instead suggests that her main crime is the extravagant actions that led to the excessive accumulation of not skeletons but shoes.
Given how common invocations of Imelda remain fixated on the shoes, the highly publicized Off-Broadway production Here Lies Love raised concerns about its motives for performing martial law. Produced by David Byrne, frontman of the rock band Talking Heads, in collaboration with Fatboy Slim, an English DJ, it began as a concept album that centered on the relationship between Marcos and her domestic caretaker from childhood, Estrella Cumpas, and was later adapted into an immersive musical, which opened at The Public Theater (New York) in April 2013 and followed "the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos" through music reminiscent of the 1970s–80s disco scene.5 Featuring a predominantly Asian/American cast, the musical was heralded as a victory for diversity in theater. Yet some caution is needed against any emphatic embrace. Reminding us that "she danced while a nation burnt,"6 Luis H. Francia questions the implications of yet another cultural production centering on Imelda, through the form of a musical set to disco music no less, for a historical period marked by brutal state violence. Meanwhile, Denise Cruz calls attention to how the album "relies on the screen of structural ironies to attenuate its complicated politics."7 As Neferti X. M. Tadiar clarifies: "To be ironic (a deliberate act) is after all quite different from being in an ironic condition (an unwitting state)."8 She questions the prevalence by which Americans interpret Filipino cultural performances as being intentionally ironic, explaining: "The view of the ironies of third world existence comes with a long history of delighting in the contradictions that colonials/traditional peoples represent when they bear the trappings of an alien modernity."9 The fixation on Imelda Marcos may reproduce this dynamic by positing her as emblematic of the individualized act of "being ironic" while eliding consideration of her political actions and the broader ironic condition of the Filipino people under postcoloniality. Productions that encourage American spectators to delight in the acts of Imelda Marcos both invoke and disavow a broader fetish for the colonial other.
Defenders of Byrne, however, might dismiss these...