The problematic portrayal of Filipinos on American TV

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Vincent Rodriguez III stars as Josh Chan in "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and is one of two actual Filipino actors playing lead characters who happen to share their ethnicity in comedies on American television. Photo courtesy of THE CW

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A couple of months ago, Mara Wilson, the “Matilda” actress turned outspoken writer, addressed a pressing issue that had some personal pull on her: that pesky Hollywood “habit” of whitewashing. “You know the game where you name actors who’d play your friends [or] family in a movie?” she tweeted. “I could never come up with one for my stepmother. Why? Because she's Filipino.”

She admitted to being unable to name any Filipino actresses in American films or on television, with the exception of Lea Salonga, nor could she name a single Filipino character, much less one that was portrayed by an actual actor of Philippine descent. “This is the way that it is,” she concluded. “But it is not the way it has to be.”

Filipinos themselves may not be so attuned to these problems, but it is a big deal on a national level whenever anything or anyone remotely Filipino is given international recognition. When you find yourself watching a Western movie or show with family or friends and a character makes a quip about the Philippines, there’s a good chance at least one of you will remark, “Uy, Philippines daw, o!” So, in a sense, despite witnessing plenty of representation in local pop culture, we still crave that sense of true diversity from American media — a chance to make a connection, and to relate.

Pinoy references are especially common in American sitcoms, for a number of reasons. Some staff writers could be Filipino, or the references could actually be of service to the plot. (Hey, it happens.) More often than not, though, they are written from the perspective of observational comedy, which can mean perpetuating strangely specific stereotypes, owing to the fact that Filipinos have grown to become such a large minority group in the U.S.

“30 Rock,” throughout its seven seasons, was quite the repeat offender. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, wearing a hideous pink business suit in the pilot, sarcastically says, “Yeah, if I was president of the Philippines,” obviously referring to then-president Gloria Arroyo, when told that she should dress like that for work more. There have been allusions to mail-order brides and escaping to an island with Filipino lovers, as well.

Although unclear, the "EGOT" chain that Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) buys on "30 Rock" may be a reference to the Filipino slur derived from the term "Igorot." Photo courtesy of NBC/UNIVERSAL

A more ambiguous — but definitely more controversial — example can be found in an episode in which Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) purchases a gold chain that says “EGOT” in huge block letters, supposedly an acronym for the aspiration to be a quadruple threat and win four major entertainment-industry awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. The word is also a local slur, derived from “Igorot,” which Vulture, in a 2009 article about the episode in which the chain appeared, had called an “obscure N-word.”

It remains unclear whether the connection was intentional on the showrunners’ part. However, Fey has come under fire a number of times for cultural insensitivity in her work, as seen in the joke of the white actress Jane Krakowski’s character being Native American in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a show she created, and in her portrayal of a “fish out of water” reporter in Afghanistan in the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” which has been called racist and exoticist — words that can also apply to the way Filipinos were made to be mute punchlines on “30 Rock.”

The "Saturday Night Live" sketch "St. Joseph's Christmas Mass Spectacular" features a gag about Filipinos' ties to Catholicism. Photo courtesy of NBC/UNIVERSAL

Throwaway lines that mention the Philippines have occurred once or twice in other comedy series, to varying degrees of negativity. In “2 Broke Girls,” Max (Kat Dennings) says that she needs to get to a coffee shop before 10:30, because otherwise “you can’t hear yourself think over the sounds of people Skyping to the Philippines,” no doubt in reference to OFWs or close-knit families making an effort to keep in touch. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” has Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) ask Jake (Andy Samberg) to guess between two images — one is his locker, and the other a garbage dump in the Philippines. Both turn out to be the former, but the hyperbolic gist is that Jake’s locker is indistinguishable from a trash site in a third-world country, and he should be ashamed. “Saturday Night Live,” for its part, aired a more good-natured sketch about the people you would find in church, which includes “rows of little Filipino ladies you’ve never seen before,” in line with the country’s strong identification with Catholicism.

All references carry the connotation that the place of the Filipino in American culture is firmly in the minority, an easy target. The idea of “otherism” is in play; it’s easy to make these generalisms because Philippine culture is so “different” and so “weird,” and pointing this out to the audience makes the show edgy or smart.

A pair of parallel plot points in two single-camera sitcoms are clearly present because the Philippines is known to lead the world in terms of social media. In the series finale of “The Office,” a failed audition clip for a singing show featuring a tantrum thrown by Andy (Ed Helms) goes viral, and it becomes the basis for a Filipino parody on YouTube. Clifford Bañagale, a Filipino actor, along with three others, is featured in the parody clip in which he speaks fluent Tagalog.

A Filipino viral video appears on "Silicon Valley" after Manny Pacquiao tweets out a link to a video stream. Note that the title makes no sense, obviously culled from Google Translate. Photo courtesy of HBO

Meanwhile, the season-two finale of “Silicon Valley” involves Manny Pacquiao (“The Filipino legislator!” “No, boxer.”) tweeting a link to the main characters’ sponsored video stream, which then becomes entertainment to “tens of thousands of Filipinos.” The stream features a man in tears, and a video of his pleas becomes the basis of a Philippine-based meme similar to the viral video of a Japanese man playing guitar in sync with the wailing of a crying politician. For the meme, which prompts the character Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) to call Filipinos a “fascinating people,” the show used the syntactically incorrect and nonsensical title “Umiiyak tao sa cliffside kweba na may guitar !!!”, clearly culled from Google Translate — an interesting oversight, considering that the showrunners hired mathematicians from Stanford for the accuracy of a single spectacular dick joke in season one.

Still, the past year has seen great progress in terms of Philippine representation in American comedy, thanks to two new shows that happen to have two Filipino actors as leads: the hour-long musical romantic dramedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and the half-hour single-camera series “Superstore.”

The Thanksgiving episode of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" made it the first American show to feature a full Filipino family, including extended/background characters, played by mostly Filipino actors. Photo courtesy of THE CW

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a critical darling that’s proved itself to be a game-changer in more ways than one, has a cast that includes the part-Filipino actor Vincent Rodriguez III, in the role of Josh Chan. The series star and creator Rachel Bloom, as well as her fellow showrunners, wanted to cast an Asian actor as the love interest — not necessarily Filipino, but when Rodriguez was chosen, the character of Josh was eventually written as a member of a traditionally Fil-Am family. The same episode also featured Bloom’s character, Rebecca, cooking dinuguan, and the execution is overall positive and true to life. According to Rene Gube, the episode writer who also happens to be Fil-Am, the show’s team took great pains to make the Chans as accurate as possible to the way Filipinos are. In addition to this, when Josh’s sister gets married in the season finale, Lea Salonga — who is, of course, regarded as an icon both locally and internationally — appears as Josh’s Aunt Myrna and performs a song during the reception.

In “Superstore,” viewers are introduced to Mateo Liwanag, a new employee at Cloud 9, the titular supermarket. Originally written with a “Latino gangster” in mind, Mateo’s characterization was changed instead into a version of the actor Nico Santos, who plays him — that is, gay and born and raised in the Philippines. Mateo’s heritage is especially prominent in an episode in which he tries to get the position of store manager. He mentions his full name (Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag) and that he came from Manila, even projecting a photo of the city on a slideshow.

Santos has expressed amazement that he is able to play a Filipino character as part of the main cast, and has high hopes in terms of the proper, positive inclusion of Filipinos in American pop culture. This applies not only to more open-minded and accurate portrayals, but also to prominence and presence. On a bigger scale, these forward-looking steps join the overall better representation of Asian Americans as a whole, who have even proved themselves able to lead shows as main protagonists, as seen in “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Master of None,” “Dr. Ken,” and “The Mindy Project.” Perhaps someday a Filipino could be the next Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari.

"Superstore" stars (from left) America Ferrera as Amy, Mark McKinney as Glenn, and the Filipino actor Nico Santos as Mateo Liwanag, a new employee at the titular Cloud 9 superstore. Photo courtesy of NBC/UNIVERSAL

Santos, as an actor and part of the audience, says that he is happy to share a part of his culture as Mateo. And on the other side of the world, his fellowmen, finally seeing themselves addressed as more than just inferior punchlines, must agree.