Last Wednesday, Deadline announced that the half-hour comedy Mail Order Family had been purchased and was in development at NBCUniversal. Thanks to the immediate and outraged social media response to the show’s premise—a white man buying a 25-year-old mail order bride from the Philippines to help raise his two daughters—the project was cancelled just two days later.
Releasing the show’s concept to the general public revealed its obvious sexist, racist, and overall offensive undertones. Apparently, the show's problematic nature wasn't detected in the many months of pitching and pre-production required for a show purchased by a major network like NBC. "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," said a spokesperson from NBCUniversal.
Jackie Clarke, the show’s creator and writer, is the producer of the current NBC comedy Superstore. Having been raised by a Filipina woman herself, it is surprising that Clarke would present a pitch so seemingly insensitive to the very real, very current issue of human trafficking, especially among Southeast Asian women.
Many opponents of the show voiced their disapproval that NBC would even consider airing something that makes light of such a serious issue. Gabriela USA, a conglomeration of over 200 organizations dedicated to protecting Filipina women, started a petition online (which currently has over 13,000 signatures) to convince the network to cancel the show.
“Exploitation and violence against Filipino women is not entertainment!” protested Gabriela USA representative Irma Salvatierra Bajar in the description of the petition. “The mail order bride industry exploits and trafficks women who are economically disadvantaged … The reason why Filipina women are sought after is because they are seen as subservient and domesticated.”
This controversy adds to an ongoing conversation about the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood. Actors including Daniel Dae Kim of Hawaii Five-O and Constance Wu of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat have been speaking out against the marginalization of the Asian American community in entertainment. The movement mostly focuses on Hollywood’s habit of “whitewashing” roles—that is, casting white actors in Asian roles. Emma Stone, a white actress, plays a character meant to be one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian in the movie Aloha. Mackenzie Davis plays the Korean American NASA employee Mindy Park in The Martian. And most obscurely, Tilda Swinton takes on a role written for a Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange.
When Asians are represented in the entertainment industry, it’s often with a heaping side of stereotypes. “The mainstream Hollywood thinking still seems to be that movies and stories about straight white people are universal, and that anyone else is more niche,” Indian comedian and actor Aziz Ansari writes. For Asian Americans, these “niche” roles usually paint the damaging picture of Asian people as submissive and quiet. So while some may say that Mail Order Family presents a great opportunity for a Filipina woman to play the lead in a major network show, in reality this role would have been a step in the wrong direction—that is, back towards the perception of Asian women as people that can be bought and controlled.
Even after news broke that the show had been cancelled, the conversation continued. NBC’s formal statement on the issue was perceived as apathetic by many who call for more decisive and apologetic action on the network’s part.
“While it’s good that NBC is stepping away from the show, we should still be troubled by how close Mail Order Family came to [airing]; our anger was the only real obstacle,” said Kelly Kanayama, a writer at The Frisky, an online women’s publication. “Will the network listen from now on? Or will we have to go through this over and over again?”