NBC’s “Mail Order Family” fail proves who really has a seat at the table in Hollywood

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When I found out that NBC was tossing around the idea for a show called, “Mail Order Family,” to include a Filipina mail order bride as a main character, it transported me back to my first visit to the Philippines.

This was in 2011, my first time visiting the islands that birthed my mother.

As clichéd as it sounds to have your life changed by a college study abroad program, that’s exactly what happened. We traveled all throughout Luzon, and I had a chance to see my relatives who I’d never met. It was a profound experience that I could probably write about for the next decade.

At one point, we stayed a few days at the beautiful tropical getaway called Boracay. Unlike the the crowded barrios of Manila or farmlands out in the province that we’d visited earlier in the trip, this was all hotels and resorts, jet skis and parasailing. Bars were around every corner. Night clubs illuminated the evening. Tourist from all around the globe came here to spend their summer vacation.

As I roamed the streets with my classmates, I couldn’t believe the number of young Filipinas in what appeared to be romantic relationships with white men who had to be at least 40 years their senior. My insides rebelled at the sight of them walking hand-in-hand down the streets.

I didn’t have the language for it yet — I was new to naming the scars of our colonialism — but something told me these weren’t relationships of mutual attraction, but rather of necessity. This was survival. This was how these women helped provide for their families.

I thought to myself that this could have been one my relatives. Under my breath I cursed this nightmare of imperialism and all of its deplorable manifestations it’s wreaked on the world.

That people would think that this would be a good concept for a TV show demonstrates how shortsighted some of these TV networks are. It says a lot about who’s not sitting at the table when decisions are made.

By now it should be obvious that before mainstream media decides to depict a community, they should actively seek consultation from that community. Better yet, have them at the table from the beginning. Sure, that could become a political tug-o-war over who is the right representative of a given community, but we have to start somewhere.

Filipino Americans have a formidable political voice that must be respected…this “model minority” business can go right out the window.

If media institutions want to be competitive, they must be able to adapt to the rapidly changing demographics of this country. The mainstream media must come to terms with the fact that the time when predominately white writers, directors, and producers could depict people of color however they choose to is long gone.

Times have changed. There will be push-back and resistance at every step of the way.

Apparently the idea for “Mail Order Family” was based off of the creator Jackie Clarke’s life. Her father actually thumbed through a catalogue and placed an order for a woman from the Philippines to become his wife. That that’s even a possibility hurts my soul beyond description. But I digress.

After listening to NPR’s episode of, “This American Life” where Clarke details her tumultuous experience with her Filipina step-mother and absentee father, the picture became a bit more clear to me. Here we have a white woman, taking her actual life experiences and turning that into a sitcom. On the surface this sounds pretty standard, right? But this is where the nuances of race relations in America become ever more complicated.

On one hand, I think everyone is entitled to share their personal story with the world. But on the other hand, when your personal story is intertwined with people from different ethnic groups, it’s important to tread carefully in how you portray those communities.

A memorial plaque in the King County Courthouse commemorates Susana Remerata, a mail order bride who was shot by her husband during divorce proceedings. (Photo from Flickr by Wonderlane)
A memorial plaque in the King County Courthouse commemorates Susana Remerata, a mail order bride who was shot by her husband during divorce proceedings. (Photo from Flickr by Wonderlane)

Our personal life stories are connected to larger histories of oppression in this country that were systematically put into place to subjugate, exploit, and murder some groups of people to the advantage of other groups of people. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.

Now whether we agree with our social positioning or not is a discussion for another time — the point is that we are all involved in this dance, we are either benefactors of this unfair system or we are marginalized by it (with a lot of grey area in the middle, mind you).

To make it plain, when a white person’s story can be interpreted as contributing to an ongoing legacy of dehumanization of people of color, a comedic cartoon just isn’t the best look to tell that story, fam.

It was a relief to discover that NBC decided to pull the show after a lot of protest from the public. Strong Filipina Americans from GABRIELA USA led the charge. I couldn’t help but smile to see how quickly the decision was made by NBC.

One thing we’ve learned from this turn of events is that Filipino Americans specifically and Asian Americans in general have a formidable political voice that must be respected. We are not subservient, nor are we passive, so this “model minority” business can go right out the window.  

What better way to kick off Filipino American History Month?

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