Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

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Overrated or Underrated: Racism on “Desperate Housewives”

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.

PEx screen shotThat 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