When I took an intro to comedy class, my very experienced comedy teacher had a strict rule: you can make fun of your own race, gender, or ethnicity but nobody else’s. When a Korean classmate made fun of her long-time Jewish boyfriend? Not allowed. When a white classmate with a series of Dominican boyfriends made snarky observations about them? Not allowed. We see this play out in everyday life: communication among people of the same race, gender or ethnicity can push the envelope in a way that people communicating with races, genders or ethnicities outside of their own cannot.
It might not be such a horrible thing to insist that only those of the same race, gender or ethnicity be allowed free rein on jokes or snark. Do I really want to encourage what might devolve into a slur-fest? I’m of Filipino descent, but, if I’m looking for more representation in media and advertising of Filipinos (or Asians in general), then I either need to lift my only-Filipinos-can-talk-about-Filipinos rule or hope and pray that there is a Filipino writer on Louie or a Filipino creative director for The Gap. How many Filipino executives are calling the shots for media programming or advertising campaigns?
Therein lies the conundrum. I don’t like it when non-Filipinos comment about Filipinos. At the same time, I’d love to see more of us in mainstream media, and I don’t want to wait unitl we fix the diversity in hiring behind-the-scenes before we can fix the diversity in front of the camera. Who knows how long true parity in hiring for all positions will take?
Furthermore, I don’t want to suggest that one Filipino can speak for all. I certainly couldn’t fill that role, as I was born in the U.S., don’t speak Tagalog, and haven’t visited the Philippines for over 20 years. I have a blended family of my own, so my kids are even further removed. How much pull does a fractional Filipino have? Then again, we’re talking about entertainment, not an academic dissertation. Do we really have to be the thing we make observations about (comedy class notwithstanding)? Do we need statistically significant sampling for every cross-cultural reference?
Does lack of representation behind the scenes lead to stereotyping in the content? I don’t want Filipinos to only play the nurse in a hospital show or the straight-A student in the high school show. Yet, I was giddy with excitement at the casting of Sandra Oh on Grey’s Anatomy and Harry Shum, Jr. on Glee.
My kids are growing up with The Wonder Girls, Phineas and Ferb and Suite Life, all with active Asian characters. When I was growing up, there were no Filipina nurses on ER or Asians at all in Head of the Class. So my kids feel more included. Asians aren’t invisible anymore. Of course, the Wonder Girls are trying to assimilate, Baljeet in Phineas and Ferb is super-smart with a thick Indian accent that borders on caricature, and London Tipton of Suite Life has her riches from her white dad (her mom’s side is Asian and of course they work in the fields). So my kids are included, but stereotyped. Is that good enough?
When I was younger and fawning over my movie, TV, and magazine idols, I would have loved to see Asians in mainstream media, even stereotypes. So I’ll take Baljeet and Mike Chang’s Asian F (as in getting an A- instead of an A) as a sign of progress. But we’ve still got a long way to go.