I wrote an essay reflecting on the blindness and the backlash after NBC purchased a sitcom show about a family whose father purchases a mail order bride from the Philippines to raise his children. “Mail Order Family” was loosely based on the childhood of one of the writer-producers, Jackie Clarke, but that doesn’t excuse the network from thinking more deeply about the implications of turning this story into a comedy. A comedy! I write about women migrants from the Philippines, the way that comedy succeeds most today, and point to a promising direction for family sitcoms – actually featuring interracial families (minus the exploitative trafficking dynamics). See an excerpt below.
How Could Anyone Think Mail-Order Brides Are Funny?
NBC’s aborted comedy about a purchased Filipina bride exposes the depths of the entertainment industry’s cultural blindness.
When NBC announced last week that it had purchased a new half-hour comedy called Mail Order Family, the news was met with stunned disbelief. Loosely based on writer-producer Jackie Clarke’s life, the show was to feature a family whose widowed father orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines to “help raise his pre-teen daughters.” A depressingly familiar routine was set into motion: outrage on social media (“I didn’t realize #HumanTrafficking was such a laugh riot,” said one Twitter user), followed by online petitions to cancel the show. As the outcry mounted, NBC announced on Friday that it would cancel the series, stating that it had “taken the sensitivity to the initial concept to heart.”
How did it even get to this point? As numerous people pointed out, there is no universe in which the mail-order bride industry can be presented as benign, let alone humorous. Gabriela USA, a feminist Filipina alliance that petitioned for Mail Order Family’s cancellation, noted that it is an industry where women who “are economically disadvantaged and living in poverty” are “forced into sex slavery and domestic servitude.” Others feared that the show would only compound the stereotype of Asian women as subservient, sexualized objects, especially since this is the fantasy that propels many men to choose this route in the first place.
For her part, Clarke insisted that the mail-order bride in the show would be a “fully realized” and “strong activated character.” The show, after all, was inspired by her own childhood, which she recounts in a 2012 episode of This American Life. In Clarke’s telling, her widowed father had given up on dating American women (“all chunky broads looking for a husband”) and decided to purchase a wife instead. After perusing mail-order bride catalogues and even consulting his children in the process, he paid for a 25-year-old woman from the Philippines named Pura. When Pura arrived, she was promptly left alone to raise Clarke and her siblings, while her father, unbeknownst to all, began taking frequent “business trips” to launch and support a second family with another woman in the Philippines. His marriage to Pura was “hellish,” Clarke recalls, but the sting of the story lies in her own long-deferred realization that her father is “not a good man.”
Read more here.