Filipinos are rarely seen in Hollywood. Growing up (as a Pinoy living in the Philippines), I found it particularly interesting to see someone with a familiar-sounding surname put on the international spotlight.
Watching U.S. shows on cable, my family and I would exclaim “They said ‘the Philippines!’” or “Pinoy, o!” when we heard something related to our country. Usually it was a sports feature on Manny Pacquiao. Or less frequently, an entertainment clip about Lea Salonga. In any case, every time a show featured anything remotely Filipino (or even something as uniquely Pinoy as ube), it piqued our interest because we rarely hear anything about the Philippines on an international scale.
But beyond the occasional news feature, the Filipinos are rarely depicted in Hollywood, despite making up 19% of the Asian American population in the U.S., or 3.9 million people.
The depictions thus far seem to be stereotypical. Back in 2007, the hit series Desperate Housewives made headlines in the Philippines for a controversial line by actress Teri Hatcher about Filipino doctors.
“Can I check those diplomas, because I want to make sure they’re not from some med school in the Philippines.”
I remember this very quote echoing on newspapers and on national TV over and over. So much so, that the spokesman for former President Gloria Arroyo demanded an apology from ABC, the network which aired the show for all eight of its seasons.
In the sitcom 2 Broke Girls, Max (played by actress Kat Dennings) says that she needs to get to a café before 10:30 — because otherwise, “you can’t hear yourself think over the sounds of people Skyping to the Philippines.” This likely refers to the many Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) making calls back home.
Over in the UK, an episode of the BBC sitcom Harry and Paul showed comedian Harry Enfield ordering a Filipina maid to give his friend Paul Whitehouse a lap dance.
More recently in 2013, Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan made a joke on BBC program Mock of the Week, this time about Filipino children.
As with other stereotypical portrayals of Filipinos, these jokes angered many back at home, with militant political groups such as Bagong Alyansang Makabayan demanding an apology from the British network.
But beyond these punchlines (which at the very least I’d say are one-dimensional), there are a few more interesting depictions of Filipinos — ones that delve deeper into our culture and heritage.
I was pretty surprised when Filipino folklore, namely the aswang creature, took the spotlight on the TV show Grimm. Being a bit of a pop culture nerd, I gushed about this to my friends who were hardcore fans of the show.
In the episode “Mommy Dearest,” the fetus-eating creature was an integral part of the plot, along with what I felt were authentic depictions of Filipinos in general.
There was a glimpse of the Filipino-American community in Portland. A street scene in Manila. And unlike other shows, the spoken Filipino here actually sounded natural — not some phrase obviously run through Google Translate.
Perhaps the most well-known show that encompasses this nuance at the moment is the comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which tells the story of Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom) dropping everything to follow ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (played by Filipino-American Vincent Rodriguez III) back to his hometown of West Covina, California.
When I first stumbled on this show, I was unaware of the Filipino-American themes or cast members. I thought it was really hilarious because of the brilliant musical numbers and zany characters involved. But as soon as they began throwing in one Filipino reference after another, I really started laughing out loud.
This show is refreshing because it highlights Filipino-American experiences in an otherwise mainstream American storyline. In one musical number, we see Josh’s family celebrating Thanksgiving, with Rachel preparing a batch of dinuguan to gain his parents’ approval. We witness a Filipino-American family that is obviously in the minority, but portrayed in a way that isn’t “abnormal,” but just different. We even see Filipino guest stars, such as Lea Salonga — who plays Josh’s equally hilarious Aunt Myrna in the season finale.
There’s a lot to be improved when it comes to Filipino representation onscreen — from the mere presence of Filipino characters, to depictions beyond stereotypes. I am also appreciative about the increasingly complex material now seen on television. Hopefully the movie industry will follow suit soon. No matter the medium, Filipinos deserves to be seen and heard — and like any other group of people, they are here to stay.