01/29/2016

From the sidelines

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There’s been a lot of buzz lately surrounding Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a CW comedy about a successful Manhattan lawyer who drops everything to follow her high school boyfriend to West Covina, California. For starters, our very own Lea Salonga will be appearing in the show’s season finale. Also, our culture is at last being represented on American television via the protagonist’s ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan.

Not that this is the first time we’re encountering Filipinos on American TV, seeing as that you can occasionally see snippets of supportive Pinoy families, adobo and/or sinigang whenever there is a Filipino contender on Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance, or American Idol. But this is actually the first time our culture is being depicted fictionally, and authentically at that — a conscious effort on the part of the show’s creators. Makes me realize we’ve come a long way from those cheap racial slurs occasionally thrown at us by the writers of Ugly Betty and Friends (always an innuendo about a Filipino child laborer, domestic helper, sex worker).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is good-natured at best, mixing comedy, light drama and musical, skewing more towards camp than thespian. Each episode swings between straight narrative and magical realism. The show’s protagonist Rebecca is on the side of cuckoo (hence the title) so some exaggeration was deemed necessary. Lead star and creator Rachel Bloom’s recent showing at the Golden Globes reveals that like Empire’s Taraji P. Henson to her character Cookie, she’s not far from her fictional counterpart.

What effectively places Crazy Ex-Girlfriend within our radar is not so much its groundbreaking-ness but its keen exploration of Filipino-American culture shown in the penultimate Thanksgiving episode. Here, Rebecca Bunch decides to cook a traditional dinuguan dish for Josh’s family, a custom shared by approximately 3.5 million Filipino-Americans living abroad. Bloom, a Caucasian, admits to experiencing this one way or another while growing up. (Everyone is bound to know a Filipino or two outside of Manny Pacquiao.)

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Bloom spoke about the importance of fostering diversification on American television. “When we realized no one else had even made the effort to show a Filipino family on an American comedy, it taught me a lot about Filipino culture… and how important diversity is.” She says that America is a melting pot of immigrants (you can see this in shows like Fresh Off The Boat, which peeks into the domestic life of Chinese-Americans, or even the Latino-driven Jane the Virgin). She also says that it’s only acknowledged half as much as it should be. But with the CW earning its second Golden Globe through the show, following Gina Rodriguez’ Best Actress win for Jane the Virgin, it is likely that even networks like CW known for their fluff and “comedy lite” are realizing the power of inclusivity. It seems times are changing — at least on the forefront of American TV.

Meanwhile, in film, minorities are once again relegated to the sidelines as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released this year’s list of Oscar nominees. Like last year, 2016 features no actors of color in the top categories, further strengthening the claim that the award-giving body is awash with white supremacy #OscarsSoWhite. The likes of Michael B. Jordan for Creed, Idris Elba for Beast of No Nation, Will Smith for Concussion, and even the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton were all snubbed despite being top contenders in their categories (Not to say that those nominated aren’t deserving. I’m praying for you, Leo!)

Celebrities like Mark Ruffalo, George Clooney, Lupita Nyong’o, Jada Pinkett Smith and Snoop Dogg all weighed in on the issue — from unconscious prejudice, what merits prestige in culture, to the American system being rife with white privilege. “What the f*** am I going to watch that bulls*** for?” said Snoop on Instagram. “They ain’t got no n****** nominated. Ya’ll keep stealing from us. F*** you!”

Academy president Chery Boone Isaacs, an African-American, responded by saying, “While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.” The Academy has since taken measures in shifting the DNA of its membership to bring about much-needed diversity. However, filmmaker Spike Lee says that the real battle is in the film studios. “This is where the gatekeepers decide what gets made and what gets jettisoned to ‘turnaround’ or scrap heap.” As Idris Elba says, he can only play so many gangster roles.

Anyway, all this talk about diversity, equality and representation has made me reflect on inclusivity and issues happening on our own soil. I can’t help but think of our Muslim brothers and the highly controversial BBL or the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which purports to establish a new Bangsamoro political entity and provide for its basic structure of government, in recognition of the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people. With issues surrounding the Mamasapano massacre and the Filipino’s real or imaginary fear of the unknown (are we ever going to be like German chancellor Angela Merkel who opened the borders of Germany to immigrants?), it seems that the window for its passage is fast diminishing despite encouragement from our chief executive, peace negotiators, foreign dignitaries, and the business community. They are saying the country will benefit from this economically, not to mention alleviate the peace-and-order situation in Mindanao. Though it’s not to say the BBL would be the end-all, be-all of this discussion. The proposed bill has both pros and cons, as I gather from the papers. But like the Paris summit, it would be a start.

Politics aside, what bothers me more is the lack of representation in the south with regard to the creation of any sort of national policy. Somehow, there is always bias towards the imperialist north or the “center.” You see this too in the komedya, the closest thing we have to a national theater, which favors Christians over Muslims. What bothers me even more is that youths like myself are more wont to engage when conversations concern the west — when it involves Hollywood celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner or even J. Law who spoke about wage equality for women. We can be severely affected by #OscarsSoWhite, share the posts on social media, and yet turn a blind eye towards issues happening in our own backyard. Because it simply ain’t sexy. Maybe it’s too parochial. Or maybe it doesn’t “concern” us if it ain’t about traffic or Pia Wurtzbach.

Why does everything western merit inclusion on our cultural radar, while everything local outside of our immediate sphere of influence earns our dismissal? I can’t help but feel like most people have somehow disengaged from their communities because of a general hopelessness. Or it could be that this is the order of the world we live in. It starts in the west, then imperialist Manila follows suit, and then it trickles down to the regions that are always lowest in the priority list.

At the end of the day, the question stands: If Rachel Bloom and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can make the conscious effort to choose us, get to know us, represent us, why can’t we make the conscious effort to choose us, get to know us, and represent ourselves?

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