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Controlling the Filipino narrative in Hollywood

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 23, 2022 5:00 am

It’s hard to say when the shift started taking place. But I definitely remember when things were different.

When I first started writing about Pinoy culture in this column years ago, it struck me, as an American, that all I could find in western movies and TV shows were glib, lazy references to Filipino stereotypes.

Need examples?

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, while Veronica sports a very slutty-looking Madonna outfit.

Take the original Veronica Mars. In one episode, Veronica and her pal are dressing up for an ’80s-themed party. Her pal is dressed as Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, while Veronica sports a very slutty-looking Madonna outfit, circa Desperately Seeking Susan. "What do you think?" asks Veronica’s pal. "I look like… Manila-whore Barbie," concludes Veronica. Ouch! P.C. Alert!

The potshots amounted to throwing shade at a whole culture, and it took a long time for some pushback from Filipinos. People who wanted the world to know that they were about more than just lechon and Imelda’s shoes.

Or what about the Joel Schumacher film 8mm with Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix, investigating a porn industry making subterranean snuff films? The stars watch a grainy film of an Asian woman being tortured to death, and Cage asks in disgust: “Who makes these films?” Phoenix, his sidekick/guide through the porn underbelly, shrugs: "Don't know. Looks like the Filipinos." One of the killers then brandishes a meter-long bolo. "Definitely the Philippines."

Now, one thing the Philippines decidedly does not have is an appetite for snuff films. Underground karaoke TikToks, maybe…

Pierce Brosnan as a volcanologist in Dante's Peak

Another thing the Philippines was constantly being slammed for was natural disasters. Films like Dante’s Peak in the ‘90s showed Pierce Brosnan explaining how he knew so much about deadly volcanoes. “I spent some time in the Philippines,” he says with a knowing squint. “Pinatubo.”

Or take Brian Cox, playing an early version of Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), sounding smug about the destructive “acts of God”:

“God’s a champ. He always stays ahead. He collapsed a Texas church last month with a tornado, and got 140 Filipinos in one plane crash last week!” The Philippines became Hollywood shorthand for “natural disasters.” Now that global warming has caught up with the rest of the world with extreme weather, including Hollywood? Not so smug anymore, it seems.

Elsewhere, you’d find a plethora of references to slinky girlfriends, Filipino mail-order brides (as in the Jake Gyllenhaal film Jarhead) and wacky beliefs (as in the early Charlize Theron film Trial and Error, which references an “expert witness” whose credentials include a degree from the fictional “Macrobiotic Institute of the Philippines,” played strictly for yuks).

The potshots amounted to throwing shade at a whole culture, and it took a long time—too long—for some pushback from Filipinos. People who wanted the world to know that they were about more than just lechon and Imelda’s shoes.

Then, things started to blow up. As Asians and Fil-Ams in general started to seek greater representation beyond stereotypes, casual callouts to the Philippines started to emerge in popular culture.

A lot of the groundbreaking seems to have come from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom’s raunchy, song-filled ode to modern love. In it, the ex-boyfriend in the equation is played by Fil-Am Vincent Rodriguez III, so there are scenes with Filipino families having Thanksgiving dinner (and eating things like arroz caldo and dinuguan), which is a huge deal in cultural representation.

So how do you get accurate representations of Filipinos on the big or small screen that are not the dreaded cultural stereotypes? It turns out it’s easy: you just hire Filipino writers!

The show, incidentally, is set in West Covina, California, which has a large Filipino population. So, you know, it just makes sense.

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca, enjoying a Fil-Am Thanksgiving (note tinfoil-covered glassware of dinuguan) in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

So how do you get accurate representations of Filipinos on the big or small screen that are not the dreaded cultural stereotypes? It turns out it’s easy: you just hire Filipino writers! Crazy Ex-Girlfriend enlisted writer Rene Gube to add extra Pinoy authenticity and flavor. Bingo! Every Asian group should get that kind of inside track in Hollywood writing rooms.

Of course, a running gag of Seth McFarlane’s The Family Guy for years was its Filipino references—as when Brian, the overachieving dog of the Griffin family, takes a job as a drug-sniffing canine at LAX. He sniffs the flight crew, focusing on the pilot: "You’re just back from Manila… (Sniff, sniff…) You had lumpia for dinner. Then you made love to two Filipino women… (Sniff, sniff…) And a man." (We can forgive the constant roasting of Filipino culture and gay stereotypes here a bit, because the references are so specific, they must have come from some Filipino writing input.)

Ricardo, the “skinny, hairless Filipino boy” on Family Guy (traveling with Brian)

Does all this mean Filipino representation in Hollywood is reaching some crucial inflection point? Hard to say. But it’s getting someplace more… interesting.

When Disney/Pixar’s Soul dropped in a brief, casual shout-out from a character hailing from Palawan, it was related, no doubt, to the number of Fil-Am artists now employed over at Pixar Studios—perhaps a little tip of the hat to the “Pixnoys,” as they call themselves.

Or take another recent series, The Cleaning Lady, which injects a cultural stereotype and then flips it on its backside. The Fox series stars Élodie Yung as a Cambodian doctor married to a Filipino, who finds herself an OFW cleaning function halls and toilets in Las Vegas—just to make ends meet and take care of her sickly son. Naturally, she has a Filipino sister-in-law, so there are snatches of Tagalog and cultural references throughout (though not quite enough, so far, to feel fully “represented”).

Élodie Yung’s Vegas-based doctor and Filipino sis-in-law (Martha Millan) clean up in Fox TV’s The Cleaning Lady.

The twist here is that, far from being a simple domestic, Yung is a highly skilled doctor who once ran a Manila hospital wing. When she accidentally witnesses a mob hit, she’s recruited to use her “skills” — both at cleaning crime scenes, and fixing broken bodies — to help get her kid needed medical attention.

What could have been a simple, lazy cliché about Pinoys relegated to domestic status adds an empowering edge. (Full disclosure: my sister-in-law Marie Jamora, based in LA, directed episode six of the series.)

And then, most recently, there was Spider-Man: Far From Home, which has raised the roof by giving its Fil-Am actor Jacob Batalon a bit of non-filtered real talk with his lola—in Tagalog!

This may seem like a small toss-off gesture, but consider that, for Pinoy audiences, the scene in which Ned converses with his rankled lola about the guy hanging from the ceiling and the mess he’s making also features Andrew Garfield returning as Spidey—and yet Pinoys were even more impressed by the few lines of un-subtitled Tagalog dropped into the scene.

Jacob Batalon plays Ned, the proudly Pinoy “guy in the chair” and pal to Spider-Man and MJ.

That goes to show how thirsty people are for accurate representation onscreen.

Of course, there will still be lapses, callbacks to cliché as the Philippines finds its true identity out there. The HBO series The White Lotus recently made brief mention of one character’s tenacious travel agent, described as a “gay Filipino beast” when it comes to client concerns. (At least we can say it’s an empowered stereotype.)

And the Philippines still gets mentioned as a place where shady transactions are always possible, such as the passing nod in Succession to Logan Roy (Brian Cox again!) “buying a Philippine island” to escape legal prosecution in the US.

As with most things, it’s about who’s telling the story. If the Philippines hopes to promote a positive identity, it requires controlling the narrative. This, arguably, is much more difficult in a world where narrative (and truth) is so fractured and selective. But if the Philippines hopes to escape the specter of “Imelda’s shoes” as its lingering cultural landmark, Filipinos might want to think about how to control that narrative.

Maybe start with elections next May.