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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.

Getty/Jonas Gratzer

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.”

As for telling Pura’s side of the story, Clarke didn’t exactly inspire much confidence. Culture writer E. Alex Jung pointed out cached blog posts by Clarke that included gems such as, “The Asian obsessive is a cousin of gay for obvious reasons. An Asian woman is as close as you can get to a boy without a weiner.” In the same post, she refers to Pura as her “court-happy bitchy stepmom.” While some might hesitate to judge Clarke on her past commentary, the show card for Mail Order Family did not appear any more promising. In the illustration, the character of the Filipina mother is portrayed angrily filing her nails while three wide-eyed children grin from a corner.

And while Clarke’s experience might make for a compelling story, it is primarily the tale of an abandoned child, centered on her experience. In the This American Life episode, she is unable to offer much sympathy for Pura, and mostly focuses on her disappointment that Pura would never love her as a mother would. This mirrors her father’s attitude, and reinforces the delusional belief that his money could somehow purchase love and affection. Ultimately, in Clarke’s eyes, Pura is a symptom of her father’s bad behavior, a bizarre and sad circumstance that complicated Clarke’s family dynamic, but not much more than this.

While some are happy to claim victory in the show’s rapid cancellation, it does not entirely undo the bitter impression left in its wake. Once again, people of color had to jump onto the hamster wheel of pedagogy to educate writers and studio executives. So much ink has been spilled, so many thousands of signatures gathered. Again, we send up a flare into the atmosphere: “Don’t you have even one Asian friend?” Again, we rehash the lack of diversity in writers’ rooms and network boardrooms. But the issue at hand is not just our exclusion from the room where it happens, but having to live with the perpetual reminder that we are never the audience under consideration.

Of course, comedy is not a tender-hearted art form. In the best comedy, taboos are broken and boundaries punctured. When we watch Richard Pryor melt down on stage or Dave Chappelle’s blind white supremacist routine, we see that comedy is also about fashioning pain into even sharper barbs. But if comedy has a sense of ethics at all, it might be centered on the cliché that one should never punch down. Or to put it another way, what’s often funniest about difference and identity is not rehashing tired stereotypes, but exploding them. This is one reason why Eddie Murphy’s homophobic jokes age so badly, or why this year’s Oscars’ gag involving Asian-American child actors and child labor flopped.

If we are interested in comedic stories of complicated families, there are many acclaimed examples to learn from, in which terrible fathers and awful mothers slide regularly into catastrophe. In shows like Shameless or Arrested Development, the family is mostly a nightmare unit to be endured. There have also been many shows in which domestic workers or nannies are in on the joke, or delivering the bulk of them, like the brash Fran Drescher on The Nanny, or the characters of Lupe on Arrested Development and Rosario on Will & Grace, who often highlight the supreme obliviousness and privilege of their white and wealthy employers. In these shows, moments of delight emerge when Lupe or Rosario outsmart their bosses or highlight their co-dependency.

But how do you make a comedy about a woman who has been purchased to serve as an unpaid, lifelong nanny and mate? When I lived in the Philippines, it wasn’t uncommon to meet people who had spent most of their working years in low-wage jobs abroad, spanning several countries and continents. Women recalled their stints as domestic workers in Hong Kong, Taipei, Dubai, Rome, and Riyadh. Some were only in the Philippines temporarily before leaving for another contract job abroad. Life was, by necessity, transnational; raising children via Skype, making international wire transfers to in-laws, sending gigantic air-mail packages for loved ones back home, all while cleaning the homes and rearing the children of strangers in foreign countries. The Philippines, where the wealthiest families control the majority of the nation’s GDP and the average monthly income is among the lowest in the world, has yet to become a nation where the majority of women can find decent, paid work. And so they leave, constituting one of the largest outflows of women workers in the world.

There are so many untold stories on this end of this migration chain. They stem from a national economic system that is disproportionately dependent on migrant remittances, where the government has encouraged and lionized overseas migrants while reaping exorbitant fees from their hard-earned wages. The Philippines is also one of the top exporters of female “entertainers” or sex workers to the South Korean and Japanese red light districts surrounding U.S. military bases, where they work in zones that serve as buffers between servicemen and the local population. These are some of the choices that make life as a mail-order bride a feasible option.

No one wants to play the role of cultural policeman. We’d all like to laugh and be moved and get lost in a good show. But shows like Mail Order Family demand a response, if only to sustain what progress has been made. As the recent Emmy Awards demonstrated, television programming is, in fact, moving in bold directions. With shows like Transparent, Black-ish, and Master of None, the field is experimenting with form and genre, and not shying away from societal taboos or new cultural norms. Perhaps in an effort to catch up with the shifting tide, NBC thought Mail Order Family fit within this trend—a modern family with a quirky, ethnic twist. But it badly failed to understand the message it was sending.

The backlash also highlighted the one area where television programming can still push further: the family sitcom. When it comes to race, the family sitcom has stayed remarkably the same, with most shows, even those featuring queer, trans, and ethnically mixed characters, still dominated by couples in which both partners are the same race (with the exception of the often cringe-inducing Modern Family). It would be exciting to watch an interracial sitcom couple work out their differences on screen, to witness them struggle through the big decisions and micro-dilemmas of family life, like how to raise their children or what to cook for dinner. Because this is, in fact, the story of many American families.