In recent years, network television has made some great strides in recent years in catching up with cable, who, in turn is catching up with audiences in terms of both the quality and wider representation we’ve always wanted. Shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat have been huge steps toward accepting that we won’t just watch, but actively clamor for sitcoms that aren’t the typical white patriarch cookie cutter formula we’re used to seeing.
And then NBC went ahead and announced Mail Order Family, and now we need to prepare ourselves for one giant step backward.
Mail Order Family is loosely based on a true story (documented on This American Life) from Jackie Clarke, and actress/writer/producer who’s worked on Happy Endings, Marry Me, and Superstore. According to Deadline, the show will follow a widowed single father who orders a new bride from the Philippines via a catalogue to help raise his two preteen daughters.
It’s not exactly cable bias because some of my best friends are network TV shows, but this is the kind of “comedy” that you could argue might justify reserving our skepticism if it were being made for, say, HBO, or maybe Netflix at this point. Some very delicate subjects have been turned into dark comedies for cable, subscription, or premium networks. (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, Edgar’s PTSD on You’re the Worst, to name a few.) But the basic networks are beholden to a whole other set of rules. Their standards and practices, audience demographics, and advertising demands leave little room for the kind of dark, nuanced exploration a show with this premise would demand.
Because while the term “mail order bride” may not elicit an immediate horrified reaction, that’s an outdated term designed to make light of what it really means: sex trafficking. Unless you truly believe (in which case, I’m not even going to bother talking to you, just go… I don’t know, Google stuff) that every single woman in these “catalogues” is in a place of financial, social, and sexual security, and placed herself on the market of her own eager will, let’s just call it trafficking.
Add to that the fact that if the show casts the family to match Clarke’s (apparent) white heritage, this is automatically playing into the fetishization and exploitation of the stereotypes of the submissive, sexualized Asian female.
As the spot-on NerdsofColor puts it,
This is not a step up for diversity and inclusion for people of color. 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.
…Clarke and the writers may try to create the stepmother in this loving and funny situation, but in the end, they are disregarding the real life feelings and problems of mail order brides.
UPDATE: Well, that didn’t take long.