Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, has been called a violent “strongman,” initiated a nationwide “war on drugs” that has led to thousands of deaths, and could be investigated by the International Criminal Court for mass murder and crimes against humanity.
His 39-year-old daughter, Sara, is the mayor of Davao, the largest city on the southern island of Mindanao. She also runs a popular irony Instagram account. Well, sort of. Her bio reads “Grammy Award Winner for Song of the Year,” which she is not. But under the handle @indaysaraduterte, she often posts about official city business for her 277,000 followers, and sometimes puts up some nice pictures of flowers or her family. She also likes to post pictures of her guns.
On May 25, she posted a set of resident guidelines for Davao, which has a population of 1.6 million. This was after her father declared “martial law” on the entire island, with the stated goal of fighting Islamist rebels.
On June 6, she posted a picture of a gun, with the caption “Advised to prepare for everything, I'm going down with this baby 😍 Mindanao will never be the same again 😔.”
On June 7, she posted maybe one of the best winking-pig memes I've ever seen.
Spending time on the @indaysaraduterte timeline brings home two things about the Philippines that are usually surprising to people not familiar with the country.
First, the Philippines is very American. The U.S ran the archipelago directly as a colony from 1898 to 1946, and the ongoing influence is remarkable. President Duterte gives his speeches to the nation mostly in English. The Golden State Warriors are a very, very big deal here. Culturally, the Philippines and the U.S. are close cousins, but politically and economically, they occupy different universes.
Sara Duterte’s Instagram account oscillates effortlessly between these two realities, at one moment fluent in triple-ironic English-language meme culture, and another, back to defending her father or attacking the press in Cebuano, the language spoken in this part of the Philippines.
Here's a good one where she takes some members of her staff and pretends they are Maroon 5 and playing a Christmas concert. It features one of her favorite hashtags, #goodvibes.
Here's her telling the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines to “Shut your pie hole.”
And then, this gem from “the man page.”
The second reality underlined here is that President Duterte is overwhelmingly popular in the Philippines at the moment. His daughter's levity, even when dealing with some of his more controversial policies, reflects that a wide range of Filipinos — including some leftists and liberals, LGBT activists, etc. — treat her and her family as normal politicians. It is possible, but relatively rare, to meet Filipinos that view President Duterte the way that much of the international press and many human rights organizations do — as a butcher widely accused of crimes against humanity.
This is why President Duterte mostly brushes off things like the International Criminal Court allegations. His popularity, and his year-long leadership position within ASEAN, the organization of Southeast Asian nations that is placed directly between the U.S. and China's contest for global hegemony, affords him a degree of security, especially as he pulls the group away from Washington and towards Beijing.
Donald Trump did much to shore up Duterte’s position even further when he called him recently and reportedly praised his war on drugs and invited him to the White House.
If you compare Sara Duterte's online output to that of the Trump children, well… it's different. Let's just say you get the sense that she appears much more at ease.
Here she is, with short cropped hair, showing off some “sibling tats” with her two brothers (President Duterte has four children; Sara and her brothers with his first wife, Elizabeth, and one daughter with his current wife). If I’m reading it correctly, her shirt says “Chillers Skate Company — Nothing But Good Times.” #goodvibes #hatersgonnahate.
Like most everywhere, the overwhelming number of politicians in the Philippines are men. But women have a prominent public role in the country, and there have been two women presidents since the fall of the U.S.-backed dictatorship in the 1980s. Filipino feminists like to remind people, correctly, that society here was much less patriarchal before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, who pushed women out of public roles and insisted on their Catholic version of modesty.
Social media is a very big deal in the Philippines, where most people are online, and most of those people are online a lot. And social media plays a very large role in Philippine politics, since so many of the country’s citizens work abroad, and conversations often play out on Facebook rather than on television and radio. Online, President Duterte supporters often vigorously defend him from accusations, and sometimes attack the journalists who report them.
Sara Duterte has a more lighthearted approach to her content.
“She is usually ironic on her Instagram,” says Daf Padilla, a columnist for the SunStar newspaper in Davao. Is that normal in Philippine politics? “Sometimes...” she says, adding that it's part of Duterte’s brand to be irreverent. “She's a no-frills kind of woman. Politically, people see her as no-nonsense. She's not the kind to act coy.”
Duterte, trained as a lawyer, is seen as a “reluctant” member of her family's political dynasty, returning to Davao to take over for her father, who was its longtime mayor, instead of one of her two brothers, and residents broadly think she has done a decent job. Multi-generational political families are common here, says Padilla.
Padilla is no diehard supporter of the Duterte clan, but she readily admits that Sara is often quite entertaining online. I challenge you to spend time on her timeline and disagree.
Here is a photo triptych she posted earlier this year about gender and her family.
Ani ha, sa mga tambok dinha nga ang karibal si kate o si ellena, ani atong pose, ipa hiwi ang paa ug tiil, human tabunan ug tshirt ang lawas, unya di gyud makalimot mag cge ug smile ha.. mudaog gihapon ta, salig lang.. makaingun gyud si Baste, unsa kaha naa sa ilalom sa tshirt!! Ah basta lageh! Nah! Hahahaha #reefsideartworks
On the right is Sara, and on the left are magazine shoots featuring two models publicly linked to one of her brothers. The caption reads, in Cebuano, “It's like this, for the big girls out there, we are competing with [the models on the left]. This is how we should pose. Bend your legs then cover your bodies with your t-shirt, and never forget to smile...We will win, just trust. [My brother] will probably say, what is under that t-shirt!”
There’s like, a four-level joke going on here, along with some serious points about women in modern society. Padilla, who translated, called the whole composition “downright funny.”
(It’s possible I am interpreting some of the jokes in her Instagram posts incorrectly. The Outline did not reach out to Mayor Duterte for comment; I recently spent a bit of time reporting in Davao City, and officials at City Hall there were very helpful in providing information and arranging interviews with officials. Sara Duterte herself invited me to any press conferences she was holding but declined an exclusive interview, so I decided not to bother them further with a request for comment on her Instagram posts.)
At times, however, her posts have gotten her in a bit of trouble. Happens to us all.
Some didn't understand why she responded last month to Communist Party accusations that she was a “mini dictator” by describing her size and saying “there is nothing mini about me.”
Then there's this, which made local media think she had actually recorded a song.
No, she was joking. The song “Walang Forever” — which translates to “no forever” — is not real. Another song she posted about, however, is extremely real.