Irene Curtis’s roommates jumped to their feet and rushed to her side when they heard the blood-curdling scream.
As they burst into her room, however, they found no assailant, no signs of struggle, just Irene, sitting in front of her laptop, still visibly seething at the series finale of Ika-6 Na Utos (The Sixth Commandment).
In Ika-6 Na Utos’ final episode, the character of Georgia (Ryza Cenon), the mistress of Rome (Gabby Concepcion), dies when her car smashes into a truck loaded with LPG tanks. Not immediately though.
A piece of metal from the truck pierces her chest. As she struggles to breathe, coughing up prodigious amounts of blood, fire licks toward the tanks on the truck as she watches in horror, letting out a scream just before they explode, consuming the car and roasting her alive.
It was a violent death, a painful death, one straight from the typically overwrought playbook of Filipino soap operas, but Irene wasn’t satisfied — Georgia deserved far worse.
“It was not enough for all the evil things she did!” she told her roommates, still fuming.
Welcome to the world of the kabit serye, or “mistress series,” a Philippine TV genre in which evil mistresses busily wreck otherwise happy families in their pursuit of someone else’s husband, until, of course, their dramatic comeuppance.
In the Philippines, there are millions of women like Irene — and not a few men — tuning in each week for the emotional fix provided by those comeuppances. All too often, the mistress serves as an emotional surrogate for enemies and situations they believe they’ve faced in their own lives.
The kabit serye’s popularity is indisputable. When Ika-6 Na Utos‘s year-long run came to an end in March 2018, 10.4 percent of households surveyed by AGB Nielsen watched it, nearly double its closest competitor that day, according to local entertainment website Pep.ph.
Another kabit serye, The Legal Wife, posted even higher ratings. According to ABS-CBN, a whopping 36.2 percent of households surveyed by Kantar Media watched its final episode in June 2014, wiping the floor with its competitor that night, another kabit serye, which clocked in at 8.8 percent.
One December episode of the still-running Halik (“The Kiss”) attracted 24.9 percent of the households surveyed by Kantar Media, while its closest competitor, a Korean drama, rated just 8 percent, reported Pep.ph.
The numbers don’t lie. In a country where drama serials entertain viewers every night, the kabit serye rules supreme. And even those who consider them low-brow entertainment grudgingly concede it will likely be a long time before something displaces them.
‘It stimulates my blood’
Monica (Angel Locsin) is furious. She strikes her husband’s mistress Nicole (Maja Salvador) repeatedly, slapping her face and pulling her hair. Monica sobs as she does it, screaming: “Is he good? I will never forgive you! You ruined my family!”
As her father finally restrains her, Monica manages a parting shot, taking off her shoes and striking Nicole with them as she’s dragged away. “Snake! You’re a snake!” she screams.
That moment — a scene from ABS-CBN’s The Legal Wife — is what’s known in industry parlance as a “confrontation scene,” the moment the wife finally confronts the mistress for having carried on the affair with her husband.
Irene lives for these emotional encounters.
Now an Overseas Filipino Worker working in Singapore, she said the scenes “stimulate” her blood. The adrenaline rush she feels from seeing mistresses beaten — or burned alive in cars like the unfortunate Georgia — comes because they remind her of her own enemies, she explains.
“When I see the wife hurt the mistress, physically or otherwise, it feels like justice is being served,” she said.
Another fan, Josephine*, shares Irene’s hate for mistresses. A fan of Halik and The Legal Wife, she told Coconuts Manila she feels an intense rage whenever she sees mistresses on television.
“I hate mistresses. I want to slap them!” she says, raising her hand as if to slap someone.
For Josephine, the stories that unfold in the average kabit serye are deeply personal. She personally lives with a near-constant paranoia that her own husband is having an affair, she tells us with disarming candor. More than once, neighborhood busybodies and acquaintances have cruelly suggested he has a girlfriend on the side.
Dr. Nathalie Verceles-Africa, director of the University of the Philippines’ Center for Gender and Women Studies, says it’s natural for female viewers to feel hate towards mistresses, even as they typically give male characters — and the men in their own lives — a pass.
“We think it’s important to appear attractive to men. With that framework, women see other women as competitors. We don’t look at men as oppressors or as a group lording it over the patriarchal system,” she said.
Verceles adds that the hate towards mistresses might be rooted in the fact that in the deeply Catholic Philippines, where divorce isn’t even a legal option, Filipino women face intense pressure to keep their marriages intact, whether from society at large or their own parents. Too often, their value is measured by whether they can keep their man.
“That’s why we have this word for separated women, separada,” Verceles explains. “It’s a word that carries a lot of negative connotations.”
Beyond wanting to see mistresses punished, there’s a flip side to why Josephine watches — she sees herself in the suffering wives. In the world of the kabit serye, wives are typically portrayed as martyr-like, suffering indignity after indignity, only to ultimately forgive their husbands.
Taken as a whole, the dynamics at play have a deep resonance for Josephine.
“When I hear the character say something, I often think, ‘That’s something I would say,’” she says.
According to Dr. Mary Grace Orquiza, a psychologist from Gray Matters Psychological Center, what Josephine is experiencing is a form of projection, a subconscious means of coping with real-life issues by projecting their own concerns and goals onto a fictional character.
“When a person watches something and sees a character experiencing the same thing, it validates their experience. It shows the viewer that they are not alone when they are experiencing those things,” Orquiza said.
Given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising to find that viewership numbers skew female. According to data given to Coconuts by Nielsen TV Audience Measurement, 54.55 percent of the viewers of Halik are women, while an even higher 58.84 percent were for Ika-6 Na Utos.
While super fans like Irene and Josephine see the kabit serye as a tonic for dealing with the harshness of their lives, the format has been widely assailed by both academics, who consider their influence dubious at best, and TV industry veterans, who simply yearn for more challenging material.
One of those willing to say he doesn’t like them is longtime director-screenwriter Jose Javier Reyes. Now teaching at De La Salle University, Reyes has worked in both film and TV since the late 1980s and is responsible for such classic Filipino films as Pare Ko (My Dude), May Minamahal (Someone to Love), and Batang PX (PX Child).
“We are stuck with stereotypes and [the same] plot lines from the 1950s,” he lamented in an email interview, adding that he believes shows that break conventions have little hope of finding a broad audience.
Reyes believes kabit seryes have such a strong hold on audiences in part because they reflect the contradictions in Filipino culture.
“Call it hypocrisy, but I would rather label this as duality in the sense that we flaunt the fact that we are the largest Christian nation in the Far East yet we have a preoccupation with illicit [affairs], they appear most delicious and attractive.”
The Legal Wife’s co-creator, veteran showrunner Henry King Quitain, agrees with Reyes, at least to some degree, arguing that the prevalence of the kabit serye is simply a function of giving the market what it demands.
ABS-CBN creators have tried offering new kinds of stories, he said, pointing to ABS-CBN’s streaming platform iWantTV as a place where bolder and more unique programming is getting a chance to breathe.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to find producers taking those sorts of chances on free television, where, according to Quitain, programming tastes are largely down to a viewer’s social class status and the broader culture.
He explained that the majority of Filipinos, many of whom are poor, do not have the luxury of sitting down and enjoying more intellectually taxing shows. Just as often as not, TV serves as background noise to their everyday lives as they work, do chores, or take care of the kids.
This is why programs have to be written and acted like a local radio drama, with highly emotional interactions between characters that kabit seryes serve plenty of.
“When Filipinos and the Philippines have progressed, then that’s when the type of content on TV will change,” he said.
Quitain believes there are very few Filipinos currently looking for shows similar to the ones produced in Hollywood.
Referring to the middle and upper classes who like to binge watch on Netflix and other platforms, he said: “Sorry to tell you, but we are a very small part of the population.”
But from University of the Philippines film professor Rolando Tolentino’s point of view, kabit serye creators are to blame for the lack of creativity in the TV and film industries.
Tolentino derisively refers to the kabit serye world as a “kabuhayan showcase” (literally “livelihood showcase”), projects created not because they are artistically fulfilling, but simply because they keep people employed, a sort of unofficial jobs program for writers and directors in the industry.
“[Writers and producers] would like [kabit serye] to continue to ensure work and compensation. But how many variations of infidelity/mistress stories can you do when the ending is already defined? Wife gets back her man, mistress dies, goes insane or forgives the man,” he said.
Jay Fernando, showrunner of The Legal Wife and the screenwriter of several feature films about warring wives and mistresses, has good reason to defend the kabit serye, and does, saying part of their enduring appeal is their ability to resonate across cultures.
When The Legal Wife was shown in Africa, for example, he received Facebook messages from fans across the continent, he said, telling him how much they love the show.
“They cross cultural barriers. They’re very exportable compared to other shows,” Fernando said.
He added that they are also relatively cheap to produce, something that’s very important for Filipino producers.
“There are no special effects; there are no action sequences to mount. The scenes are very portable. You can shoot them at a coffee shop; even at a building’s fire exit stairs. These shows create a lot of buzz without requiring too much budget.”
Fernando is proud of his kabit serye and mistress movies. In fact, he’s currently planning other projects in the genre. For him, they accurately depict the conflicts that real Filipino relationships go through.
“[They show the] very human experience of getting broken hearted, of being betrayed, and of going through that journey of deciding whether to forgive someone or not.”
Even so, he holds out hope that someday, someone will have the audacity to reshape the Philippines’ TV landscape with shows that can stand alongside the world’s best.
“It just takes one brave spirit to do it,” he said.