Last week, NBC canceled a show before it even started. “Mail Order Family,” a half-hour sitcom about a widowed white father who orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines, was inspired by the life of writer and producer Jackie Clarke. Clarke, who is white, was herself raised by a Filipina mail order bride.
The debate and outrage surrounding the show and leading up to its cancellation centered on the lack of representation of Asians in television, and the travesty that would’ve been a Filipina sex slave at the center of a comedy. But the uncomfortable truth is that the concept of Philippine mothers leaving the Philippines in pursuit of better wages is not far off from reality — a reality that leaves some 9 million Filipino children missing a parent each year, according to The New Yorker. In other words, there is some authenticity to the concept of Clarke’s show that many critics seemed to have missed.
Since the seventies, the Philippines has supplied all kinds of skilled and low-skilled workers to the world’s most developed regions, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In fact, over a tenth of the Philippine population works abroad, and 75 percent of those workers are women. The remittances of these so-called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) accounts for more than one tenth of the gross domestic product in the Philippines. In 2010, remittances from Filipinos working abroad reached over $20 billion. The push factors are clear: economic growth in the Philippines could not keep up with population growth, and the Philippines suffered — and continues to suffer — from a severe balance of payment problem.
“The reaction to ‘Mail Order Bride’ should extend beyond offense and into a critical interrogation of the dark economic reality the show unintentionally highlights.”
The consequences of overseas work are tangible. Romona Diaz’s groundbreaking documentary The Learning examines the familial and interpersonal fallout from working abroad. In exchange for higher salaries and a better quality of life for their families back home, OFWs go months and even years without seeing their children and families. They miss birthdays and the time that would’ve been spent forming relationships with their children in their formative years. Many times, they face the pressure of supporting their families on one salary.
Backlash over the show from the Asian-American community was, while deserved, quick, though narrow. TV critic Daniel Fienberg tweeted: “This was always only ever just a script order, but NBC’s hasty cave suggests they were basically clueless that it might offend somebody.” Asian-American TV critic Jeff Yang tweeted: “Today in terrible ideas: NBC buys “family comedy” about widowed white male who orders a Filipina mail order bride”
The reaction to “Mail Order Bride” should extend beyond offense and into a critical interrogation of the dark economic reality the show unintentionally highlights. Yes, we should continue to interrogate the normalization of exploitation and violence against Asian women by white writers and producers in mainstream media. But we should also interrogate the push factors that give narrative to Clarke’s show.
That means interrogating the failures of the Philippine government, the lack of economic development and the country’s unsustainable reliance on labor exportation as a means of alleviating the national debt and nationwide poverty. That means recognizing that the woman who raised the show’s writer was probably just another one of the thousands of Filipino women leaving the Philippines for opportunity they don’t see at home.
Organizations like Gabriela USA, a Philippine-based organization at the forefront of national and international economic and political issues that affect women, turned the issue on its head by focusing on the ways economic policy such as labor exportation continue to perpetuate gender-based violence. Gabriela garnered 13,266 signatures on a petition to stop NBC from airing the show, rooting their rationale in failing economic policy. “The mail order bride industry in the Philippines is rooted in historical U.S. colonial occupation of the Philippines, feudal-patriarchal view of Filipinas, and current neo-colonial economic policies that have impoverished the Filipino people,” Gabriela USA wrote in its petition.
We must root contemporary Filipino issues in history, policy and structural racism. In not doing so, our outrage is, at best, mere outrage.