Update on ABC’s ‘Desperate’ Faux Pas

An AP article which ran in Friday’s SF Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News included a transcript of the offensive joke:

“In the season premiere that aired Sunday on ABC, Teri Hatcher’s character, Susan, goes in for a medical checkup and is shocked when the doctor suggests she may be going through menopause.”Listen, Susan, I know for a lot of women the word ‘menopause'” has negative connotations. You hear ‘aging,’ ‘brittle bones,’ ‘loss of sexual desire,'” the gynecologist tells her.

“OK, before we go any further, can I check these diplomas? Just to make sure they aren’t, like, from some med school in the Philippines?” Susan fires back.

ABC’s agreement to edit out the controversial scene has done little to stifle the uproar on both sides of the Pacific. As of this morning, over 98,000 signatures have been attached to an online petition demanding an apology from the network, not to mention calls to ban the show in the Philippines and to boycott ABC and Disney, the network’s parent company.

But let’s try to rise above the din here and use this incident as a point of entry into a larger discussion. The INQUIRER.net has used this opportunity to discuss the serious underrepresentation of Filipinos on television by posing the question, “Why are there no Filipino characters in hospital drama TV shows?” An interesting question indeed.

On an even broader level—and appropriately from the context of our theme “Legal”—it’s important to think about the structural and institutional processes underlying an insensitive comment like the one made on “Desperate Housewives.” First of all, ABC’s blatantly unfunny punchline brings to the forefront the fact that the medical education system in the Philippines is undeniably devalued and looked down upon in this country. The show brings to light a very real, very tangible process of discrimination. I have heard countless anecdotes about Filipino doctors who come to the United States to become nurses because they’re credentials aren’t recognized as adequate—or at least adequate enough to secure a job equivalent to the ones they hold the Philippines. Undoubtedly, there is a legal and institutionalized process going on here, a barrier to entry that is upholding one particular value (in this case American medical credentials) and necessarily holding others as inferior. Whether or not Filipino medical schools are in actuality worse than those in the U.S. isn’t what is in question here. The point is that they are viewed as such, and that the disparaging assertion is a culturally created perception which has permeated deeply enough into the social consciousness to make it onto a Primetime television show.

If it is, in fact, the case that Filipino medical schools are inferior to those in America—I make no claims as to whether or not they are—then we need to think about how and why that is the case. The present state of the medical schools in the Philippines is a historical product of many socioeconomic and political legacies that are both endemic to the country itself and tied to the global world, particularly the United States. It is important to keep in mind the fact that much of the educational system in the Philippines was developed under the United States during the country’s time as a colony and protectorate. We also need to think about the great economic hardships of being a developing country in a global age. These thinking points aren’t about blame, they are about beginning to look at the complex web of factors and processes that are at work.

-Sofia

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