The backlash to “Mail Order Family” was immediate.
Word broke last week that NBC had purchased a half-hour comedy that “follows a widowed single father who orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines to help raise his two preteen daughters,” according to Deadline. The project is from the trio behind “Superstore,” and is “loosely based” on writer-producer Jackie Clarke’s family, Deadline reported.
The alarm bells went off. Media critics and Asian American activists took to social media, started petitions and wrote essays voicing concerns that the show would perpetuate stereotypes, or diminish the seriousness of human trafficking within the mail-order bride industry.
Within days, NBC announced the show wasn’t going anywhere, citing the uproar.
“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,” an NBCUniversal spokesman said in a statement. “The writer and producers have taken the sensitivity to the initial concept to heart and have chosen not to move forward with the project at this time.”
Hollywood has been facing increased scrutiny over how racial minorities are represented on the big and small screen, a conversation bolstered in part by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The entertainment industry has been criticized this year for “whitewashing” characters — having white actors play parts that could or should be played by Asian actors.
Television has received better marks than the movie industry for casting people of color in major roles and varied stories that move beyond stereotypes. Vulture declared 2015 as “The year Asian-Americans finally got a shot on TV.” Netflix’s “Master of None” is among recent projects that include Asian Americans who are not typecast. ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” features the first Asian American sitcom family in 20 years. And “Superstore” (which Clarke produces and writes for), has received praise for portraying diversity in a way that feels authentic rather than dutiful.
But there’s still a dearth of major roles played by Asian Americans, “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang said at this year’s Emmys.
“There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there’s 17 million Italian Americans,” Yang said during his acceptance speech. “They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Rocky,’ ‘The Sopranos.’ We got Long Duk Dong [from 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’], so we got a long way to go. But I know we can get there.”
It’s within that context that “Mail Order Family” met its end. About 13,000 people signed an online petition to stop the show, organized by Gabriela USA, an advocacy group that calls for the “liberation of all oppressed Filipino women.” The petition cites individual cases of mail order brides who were killed, and states the NBC project “is the most recent example of how the exploitation and violence women face is normalized in U.S. mainstream media.”
“The mail order bride industry exploits and trafficks women who are economically disadvantaged and living in poverty,” reads the petition. “Filipino women make up one of the largest segments of mail-order brides in the world.”
The concept endorsed “Asian fetishism” and the show would play on Asian stereotypes, Laura Sirikul declared on Nerds of Color. ” ‘Mail Order Bride’ companies in Asia encourage the stereotypes of the subservient, docile, and exotic Asian woman who are unaware of feminism.”
“This is not a step up for diversity and inclusion for people of color,” Sirikul wrote. “In a society where Asians are constantly whitewashed or placed in stereotypical situations, NBC should really reconsider picking up a comedy where there is human trafficking of an Asian woman into an unwanted marriage.”
A representative for Clarke did not respond to The Post’s inquiry. But before NBC announced the project wouldn’t move ahead, she engaged on Twitter with critics and skeptics. To posts that she and others were “exploiting human trafficking,” Clarke wrote, “that’s not our intent!”
“Hoping to make the stepmom a fully realized strong activated character,” she tweeted.
Clarke has spoken publicly about her family history before. In a 2012 episode of “This American Life,” she described about how her widower father — the kind of guy who would say “You ever notice only ugly people end up on welfare?” — had decided to remarry. He passed around mail-order bride catalogues to his kids, telling them to “pick out the ones you liked.”
A 25-year-old Filipina named Pura arrived, described as uninterested in being a mother to Clarke and her two siblings. “His marriage to Pura was never a good one. It was basically hellish fighting followed by silent treatments,” Clarke said of her father.
Eventually, Clarke’s father confessed he had a second family in the Philippines and he left his kids with having to pull together $200,000 to pay for his divorce, Clarke said. During the trial, the judge told Clarke that her father wasn’t a good man.
“I knew that Pura was never the mom I so badly wanted. But I just couldn’t see that my dad was never really the dad I thought he was,” Clarke said on the show. “I always thought that of the two of them, he was my one real parent. I was wrong. That was almost the worst part, that I had been in such denial about my dad for so long.”
That a major network would so quickly back off a project isn’t unprecedented. In 2014, ABC pulled the plug on “Alice in Arabia,” a show about a teenage American girl kidnapped by her Saudi royal relatives and forced to live with them, after a similar backlash arguing that references to “surviving behind the veil” would lead to bullying of Muslim students.
“We are concerned about the negative impact this program could have on the lives of ordinary Arab-American and American Muslims,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote to ABC’s president.
Four days after picking up the pilot, ABC released a statement: “The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project.”
[A previous version of this story erroneously referred to the show as “Mail Order Bride." It has been corrected.]