. . . annnnnd, hot on the heels of the Desperate Housewives controversy comes more outrage regarding a skit on the popular satirical news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This time, the Filipino community is angered over a Daily Show skit called “Is America Ready for A Woman President?” During one of Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee’s monologues, a photo of former Philippine president Cory Aquino is inscribed with the word “Slut!”
The skit in its entirety can be seen here:
While the response has not been as large as the one that met Desperate Housewives, many Filipino bloggers have expressed anger about having its first female president be labeled with such a sexist and untrue label. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has put in a request to the Department of Foreign Affairs to forward a complaint to the creators of TDS. Feminist NGO Gabriela has spoken out and condemned the use of comedy that demeans all women. I have read in a few places that Jon Stewart has issued a statement, but have yet to find a reliable news source to link to.
Unlike Desperate Housewives, I am a huge fan of TDS. When I was still living in the U.S., I watched it very religiously almost every night, along with its partner show, The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. I watch the delayed telecast here in the Philippines (at least until Jack TV changed the broadcast schedule unannounced), as well as sometimes catching the condensed Global Edition on CNN International. As a result, I am very familiar with its style and sense of humor, and I usually find it side-splitting hilarious.
I would encourage the Filipino community to please view the skit in its entirety, rather than focus on the three seconds it takes to show the photo in question and thereby stripping it of any context whatsoever. First, even if you are a first-time viewer of TDS, I think it’s quite plain that Samantha Bee doesn’t mean to take herself seriously. The whole segment is a parody of Sex and the City, for crying out loud. Samantha Bee gets splashed with a bucket of water while wearing a TUTU, and we see her trying to sip the remnants of her spilled Cosmo off of her laptop. The scene with President Aquino’s photo has Samantha Bee at the gynecologist’s office, with her legs spread open. Come on. If that doesn’t scream exaggeration or comedy to you, then I don’t know what will. Second, the gynecologist’s scene had photos of leaders other than President Aquino, including a “photo” of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a panty-less shot very much in the style of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Both photos were also a parody of popular gossip blog Perez Hilton, who is popular for defacing paparazzi photos with crudely drawn penises and sarcastic comments. Ultimately, parody does not reflect any malicious intent, but instead has a purpose or statement. In this case, like many TDS skits, many people’s irrational fears and beliefs are skewered and even debunked. By mentioning Cory Aquino and saying that she “faced down dictators” as one of the world’s first “girl leaders”, TDS is paying the Philippines a compliment by saying that we are actually more progressive than the U.S. because we have had female leaders while many Americans still have a problem even thinking about electing one. I believe that thinking critically about this skit is actually much more revealing than paying attention to one line that was delivered with irony.
I will add, however, that there is something to be said about differences in context. I will concede that the greater Filipino community has a much more logical basis for complaining about this skit, simply because there is no way that all Filipinos are going to pick up the references in what would otherwise be an obscure TV show.
For one, in the Philippines, TDS is only shown on cable TV channels, already limiting the viewership to a privileged handul. Furthermore, within the demographic of cable TV subscribers, those who don’t have Jack TV will have to catch the heavily edited, weekly TDS Global Edition on CNN International, which only shows highlights of the week’s shows and edits out any profanity or otherwise controversial segments and skits. That already dilutes the TDS style and can understandably cause confusion for those who may have been stunned by the nature of the Samantha Bee skit. This is just in the Philippines alone. I can’t even speak for the rest of the global Filipino community, who may not have even heard of the show or have access to channels that show it. All I know is that the show does not have the kind of impact on the larger community the way that, say, the movie A Walk To Remember did. Already, we have a community who, as a whole, would not understand where Jon Stewart and the rest of TDS are coming from. This is also exacerbated by the numerous U.S. pop culture-specific references, such as Sex and the City (also a cable show) and Perez Hilton’s blog, that would also fly over the heads of those who have never been exposed to it. So, it makes sense that many people would not get the humor and would consequently react with outrage.
In the movie Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks’ character asks [paraphrased], “Can’t we find anything that we can all laugh about?” Personally, I don’t know if there is an answer to that. What I do know is that there are some things that some people will find funny, while others will not. That is a social fact. Context can be summed up by saying, “You had to have been there to get it.” It can be as small as an inside joke between two friends, to a TV show that sets up a joke that only their devoted audience will understand, while casual listeners may not. The greater Filipino community may get outraged by a couple of U.S. TV shows, but has it ever thought about how its own comedic works are affecting other groups of people? Why does no one feel any anger or outrage towards Michael V.’s song “DJ Bumbay“, whose video is of a hyper-cartoonish Indian merchant?
If the same people who condemn Jon Stewart are the same ones who patronize these videos, then it would be safe to say that the outrage over TDS is self-serving and hypocritical. I think it is also safe to say that some comedy is not meant to be understood by everyone, and that part of what makes it so funny is because it is a reflection of contexts that only insiders may understand. The only time it should matter is if there are concrete repercussions to comedic performances, such as Blackface and the exclusion and ostracization of Blacks and Black performers in the U.S. And I highly doubt that the majority of Americans are suddenly going to go around believing that Filipino leaders and, by extension, all Filipinos are slutty just because some comedy skit said so.
In the wake of the Desperate Housewives controversy, it is getting more ridiculous and, quite frankly, embarrassing how much the Filipino community is ready to go to battle over a few TV shows. Again, I wish we would re-focus our priorities and show the same kind of anger and proactive-ness towards helping the poor, the unemployed, or the exploited find justice in an increasingly unstable environment. If we are going to continue nitpicking overseas entertainment for every mention of the Philippines or Filipinos, we are never going to be satisfied. So, we might as well focus our energies towards something that can actually be productive.
Final verdict: OVERRATED
For those of you not connected to the global Filipino community, what tends to happen is that any piece of international news that is even remotely about the Philippines, Filipinos, or any human being with Filipino ancestry, will be passed around and talked about, to the point that even the government feels the need to speak out about it. How can we forget the city of Manila branding Claire Danes as a persona non grata because she told Vogue and Premiere magazines that Manila “smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over and that there is no sewage system and the people do not have anything — no arms, no legs, no eyes”?
Not all of these much-debated news items deserve the kind of attention it has been receiving, though. The latest source of outrage is a recent episode of Desperate Housewives, where Teri Hatcher’s character visits her doctor, only to have him tell her that she is going through menopause. She then reacts by saying [paraphrased], “Okay, before we go any further, can I just check those diplomas? I want to make sure they’re not from some med school in the Philippines.”
Check it out:
As expected, the Filipino community has been up in arms about this and has called on everyone from Teri Hatcher, to the writers of “Desperate Housewives” and ABC Studios, to issue an apology to the Filipino people. Predictably, the Philippine government has also taken the lead in demanding an apology from the popular TV show. The comment hit particularly close to home, with millions of Filipino nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals migrating and practicing globally. As a result, ABC Studios has issued a statement, apologizing for “any offense caused by the brief reference in the season premiere.”
I have never seen an episode of Desperate Housewives, so I can’t really vouch for the show’s style or sense of humor. However, it is very obvious to me that, given the context, Teri Hatcher’s character was meant to overreact to the news of her menopause by implying that her doctor got his credentials at some far away, obscure place. Of course, it is unfortunate that that far away, obscure place happened to be the Philippines. But, the way the line was said, any country’s name could have been picked out of a hat and inserted in the line, and the message would have been the same. In my opinion, the Filipino community needs to tone down its response to this particular situation. Don’t get me wrong; anyone who knows me personally knows that I am among the first to react to prejudice or injustice against Filipinos. Nonetheless, this piece of news does not warrant the attention it is getting. There are far worse things happening to Filipinos to be angry about, like poverty or exploitation of Overseas Filipino Workers. People will forget about this episode and move on.
I acknowledge that anything in the genre of “ethnic comedy” must be handled responsibly, since there will always be the band of idiots out there who will conflate comedy with the truth. However, that is the risk anyone must take in using free speech. We can only hope that our audience has enough common sense to be able to tell the difference.
That said, I find what Filipinos have been saying about this episode kind of interesting. In general, there are those who are offended because they feel the statement provides a disservice to the reputation of Filipino health care professionals and then there are those who believe that the statement is a reflection of the perceived deterioration of Philippine health care education (particularly with regards to the recent nurse exam scandal). In both cases, it seems to me that many Filipinos are still very insecure about their global image and tend to use any mention in the global consciousness to gauge their worth as a people. Any visitor to the popular message board PinoyExchange.com will see countless threads discussing why foreigners like Thailand better than the Philippines, why Filipina women marry White men, why whitening soaps are so popular, and why the Philippines will one day fail as a country. Many participants will blame anything from the government to colonial mentality. While external causes certainly play their roles, at the same time, many will rarely or never own up to personal responsibility in the way things are. I was appalled to read several threads blaming and bashing the Chinese-Filipino community for causing poverty in the Philippines. If people really believe that is true, why can’t they get off of the damn Internet and do something to change the way things are? Filipinos need to stop playing the victim and start being proactive. Things here will never change if people keep placing the responsibility on everyone else but themselves.
So, really, this whole debacle has very little to do with racism and much more to do with a prevailing sense of inadequacy. If the Filipino community cared a little more about its own, then, in the end, it won’t matter what other people say (whether in jest or not). Of course, people should not stop standing up for what they believe in, even if some of us find it a little ridiculous and unnecessary. Let’s just try to re-evaluate our priorities a little, OK?
Final verdict: OVERRATED