Well, that was fast: NBC will not be moving forward with Mail Order Family, a sitcom by three white creators about a widowed white man who buys a Filipina mail order bride to help raise his daughters. The show lasted about three days after it’s announcement before it was shelved amidst concerns that the premise made light of the trafficking of Asian women. The project marks yet another instance of social media highlighting how out of touch Hollywood is with Asian American viewers.
Mail Order Family sitcom from NBC. I see nothing that could go wrong.
— John Cho (@JohnTheCho) September 30, 2016
Mail Order Family reads like a sitcom arriving about twenty years too late to the scene. A show with a title and premise like that would’ve undoubtedly fit well among retrograde comedies like Seinfeld or The Nanny, or, let’s be real, the 1970s M*A*S*H series. But among newer fare like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and Master of None–shows made by people of color that deal in sharp insights about what it’s like to be marginalized–Mail Order Family feels like it would’ve been the elephant in the room.
And it’s difficult to find humor in the origin story. The show would’ve been loosely based on writer and producer Jackie Clarke’s life, whose own father bought a Filipina mail order bride named Pora. Clarke talks about the experience in the podcast This American Life. The piece is pensive and sad, with Clarke noting Pora and her father’s relationship was full of fights and deception. Clarke says her father eventually abandoned their family for another in the Philippines, and Clarke and her siblings ended up paying for his divorce settlement with Pora. She ends the piece by saying she hasn’t spoken to her father in seven years.
There’s something to be said about using fiction to work through pain. Undoubtedly, Clarke’s father sounds awful, and as a writer, I can sympathize with using storytelling as a way to make sense of past events.
But it’s difficult to understand how anybody thought a sitcom format was the best way to tell this story. It sounds like Pora was unhappy. And the mail order bride industry certainly isn’t funny or something that can be solved in quirky thirty minute segments. Marivi Soliven, an activist and author whose most recent novel The Mango Bride shines light on the exploitation of Filipina mail order brides, called the Mail Order Family idea “sickening.” According to the book The Role of Consent in Human Trafficking by Jessica Elliott, mail order brides fall under the category of human trafficking, as they’re marketed and transported as products. They’re often abused (and sometimes even killed), with language barriers and economic dependence usually preventing them from leaving. The men who buy them skew older and openly express disdain for feminism.
The situation is so bad that the Philippines passed the Anti Mail-Order-Bride Law in 1990–with a bill being added in 2013 to include internet services–because of the overwhelming number of reports of Filipina women being abused by their foreign husbands. When actor Alec Baldwin joked on The Late Show in 2009 that he would buy a Filipina mail order bride to have more children with, Filipino senators were so unamused that the Philippine Bureau of Immigration literally banned Baldwin from ever setting foot in the country.
So it’s probably a good thing that NBC shut down the project before it ever got off the ground. It’s hard to imagine what good would’ve come out of a humorous take on a human rights violation, no matter how “family oriented” the show was planning on being. As a Filipina, I can tell you we don’t need any more shows that validate and normalize older white men fetishizing Asian women and their perceived subservience. I was just thirteen years old when middle-aged men started saying ma-gan-da (“beautiful” in Tagalog) to me. An old landlord told me he was happy to learn I was Filipina, because it meant I “knew how to clean,” and then he told me two of his friends had Filipina mail order brides. Trust me, the world did not need Mail Order Family and what surely would’ve been a running commentary on how the dad’s racist, but also a good guy deep down, ya know?
[pullquote]When actor Alec Baldwin joked on The Late Show in 2009 that he would buy a Filipina mail order bride to have more children with, Filipino senators were so unamused that the Philippine Bureau of Immigration literally banned Baldwin from ever setting foot in the country.[/pullquote]Just as an aside, while the This American Life excerpt was poignant, people online have pointed out that Clarke’s Mail Order Family webseries on Vimeo–which the sitcom would’ve apparently expanded upon–was exactly as degrading and reductive as you’d expect it to be. Others have also pointed out that old posts on Clarke’s Blogspot paint rather unflattering pictures of how she viewed Asian women. The webseries, along with her Blogspot and Tumblr, have all been deleted in these past three days. Take from that what you will, but it’s probably for the best that Clarke and her team were not signed off for this project.
And there’s a conversation to be had here about the effect social media had on the studio’s decision to not move forward. A few weeks ago I wrote an article where I pondered whether hashtag movements and online activism matter at all to studio heads. In this instance it’s a yes, with NBC stating that it was the community outcry that led them to realize the show was offensive. And this isn’t the first time a studio has shelved a potentially stereotypical project. In 2014, ABC canceled the pilot for Alice in Arabia, a drama where an American girl gets kidnapped by her extended Saudi Arabian family, after Muslim and Arab American organizations spoke out that the concept was insulting and potentially harmful.
Of course, these decisions are likely less about the studios actually feeling bad and more about the fact that they know it’s not financially sound to invest in a project that’s already been soured to the public. And in the wake of the #whitewashedOUT conversations, it’s also a little disheartening to know the studio greenlit the project to begin with. In NBC’s statement they claim they purchased it because they believed it would highlight “the creator’s experience of being raised by a strong Filipina stepmother,” which feels a little like NBC wanting to cash in on having more diversity without actually hiring a diverse creator. Diverse creators are the ones best suited to tell diverse stories. Until the studios start changing their hiring practices from the top down, it does feel like we’ll keep needing to have these conversations.
There’s probably a story out there that’s waiting to be told about Filipina mail order brides. But it should be told by a Filipina woman, point blank.