October 3, 2016
“Really @nbc, a family-comedy about the sex trafficking of Asian women?”
As soon as various media outlets reported that NBC had acquired a sitcom built around a mail-order mom from the Philippines, the social-media backlash against “Mail-Order Family,” was swift and searing. The project rooted itself in the childhood experiences of Jackie Clarke, one of the show’s writers and its executive producer, who had previously spoken on “This American Life” about her Filipina stepmother. As Laura Sirikul explained: “Her father had his children look through a catalog for a potential wife to be mailed over from the Philippines. He bought a wife and both lived unhappily together for several years.”
Immediately, protest petitions began circulating, including one started by Marivi Solven (author of The Mango Bride), a Filipina novelist who interprets for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and related law enforcement agencies. In an email to me, Solven stressed that the very premise of “Mail-Order Family” not only trivializes “the real risks for domestic violence, but it normalizes that danger. NBC’s decision to profit off the suffering of human trafficking victims is tasteless, tone deaf, and quite frankly, racist.”
With 72 hours of the news becoming public, NBC issued a statement announcing that “Mail-Order Family” was being scrapped.
We purchased the pitch with the understanding that it would tell the creator’s real-life experience of being raised by a strong Filipina stepmother after the loss of her own mother.
A victory for online activism? Yes and no. It’s depressing that a show with this premise would be purchased in the first place; that it made it past umpteen meetings behind closed doors confirms the entrenched racist and sexist norms of the entertainment industry. Correspondingly, the network’s statement is a cloud of clichés that demonstrate no real understanding of the substance of the critiques. (Jenn Fang has written up a very clear explanation of the real-life harm that comes from perpetuating sexist stereotypes of Asian women in pop-culture vehicles, which include the animated version—since taken offline--of “Mail-Order Family.”) Correspondingly, a new petition has begun circulating. It asks NBC executives to meet with Filipino activists, so they might grasp the seriousness of what a special subcommittee of the U.S. Senate called “a form of slavery.” That this not patently obvious is precisely why stereotyping is harmful.
An episode of TLC’s reality show, “90 Day Fiancé,” showcases a 58-year-old father of four engaged to a 19-year-old Filipina. His family is disturbed by the age difference, saying it’s “not normal” for a man his age to marry a teenager. She doesn’t engage in conversation. Head down and visibly drooping, she says nothing when her fiancé declares he doesn’t want any more children. Neither they nor his family seem to grasp the irony of that statement.
From “Sex in the City” to “Girls,” dominant pop-cultural narratives affirm that it’s every woman’s dream to find a husband who can afford her. But there’s a nightmare lurking behind that fantasy. Mail-order brides come from many different countries, but the women themselves invariably come from disadvantaged circumstances. Brokered international marriages exploit economic, social, political, legal, and gendered asymmetries in the name of love and romance. But white weddings generate $58 billion in annual domestic revenues, and the divorce industry is just as lucrative. Only one is a goal. The other is an unfortunate side effect. Someone is getting rich, and that someone is neither the bride nor the groom.
Mail-order marriages complicate cultural fairytales because the dynamic is inherently exploitative. Of course there are exceptions. My friend knew this one guy, he had a cousin who got himself a wife off the internet and they’ve been happily married for ages. But there are good reasons why lawmakers in the Philippines made marriage-brokering illegal. Try searching “mail-order bride” + “Philippines.” Here’s a 2012 report about a man who not only killed his Filipina wife, but may have killed his first wife too. Here’s a 2016 report about a man who (allegedly) killed his Filipina wife and is back on trial for her murder. Here’s a guy whose crimes made the annals of “Murderpedia.” He ended up killing not one, not two, but three Asian wives, the last one being Filipina. And so on. But if men are serially murdering their mail-order brides, the culturally revealing bit is the incoherence of their guilt.
That incoherence is what makes it possible for studio executives to think a family comedy about human trafficking is the stuff of laugh-track TV, because the framing of “Mail-Order Family” invokes Cinderella tropes: tragically, the rightful wife and mother has died, leaving a void to be filled by a Filipina interloper who is the evil stepmother in Clarke’s version of the story. More accurately, however, the stepmother is Cinderella: the impoverished girl who marries through the intervention of magical forces beyond her control, only to discover that her prince is a villain and the kingdom is cursed…and that’s the story that needs to be told. It’s never the bones but the flesh that turns rancid in the sun, and it’s not this story’s ingredients but the recipe that’s all wrong.
21st-century entertainment executives have approved racist stories before. It’s certainly going to happen again. In the end, what online activism managed to stop was the development of a horribly misguided television show. No state or national laws were written to protect exploited women, and Asians are still underrepresented, exoticized, and stereotyped in all aspects of the industry. The exclusionary institutional apparatus is still intact. But, small victories, yes? And perhaps one day there will be great comedy about sex trafficking, because the very idea that it once existed will make future generations laugh out loud…in disbelief.