The Mail Order Bride Industry Is Anything But Funny

By Marivi Soliven

In September, NBC announced it had put into development a new half-hour sitcom, Mail Order Family, featuring this “comedic” premise: Lonely American widower buys Filipina mail order bride to raise his preteen daughters. Much laughter ensues.

Barely 72 hours later, amid furious protests from the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, bloggers, and multiple online petitions, NBC announced it was canceling the project.

If there’s one good thing to come from this fiasco, it’s the fostering of a much-needed conversation about the mail order bride industry. While satire can certainly serve as potent social commentary — Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Natural Born Killers spring to mind, for example — due to the sexual and physical violence that can occur in these exchanges, to say nothing of exploitation, it’s hard to imagine making this premise palpable with a patina of guffaws.

In the aftermath of the show’s cancellation, it’s worth asking: What’s the status of the real-life source material for this television controversy? And how was a comedy about human trafficking ever green-lit in the first place?

Inside The Mail Order Bride Industry

Mail order brides have been coming to the United States for over a century. A 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement between The United States and Japan enabled Japanese men already living in this country to bring their picture brides in from Japan without invoking immigration restrictions.

Today, brides picked out of online catalogues continue to arrive in the United States from Russia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Asia. But the Philippines leads the pack. The Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business estimates that 20,000 Filipinas go abroad to marry foreigners each year.

It’s hardly surprising that Filipinas are in such great demand, given that advertisements tout them as being ideal brides for their “traditional values” and their eagerness to serve. A Public Interest Law Reporter paper, “In the Name of ‘Love’: Mail Order Brides-The Dangerous Legitimization of Sex, Human and Labor Trafficking,” notes that websites promoting mail order brides “project the stereotypical image of a Filipino woman being sweet, submissive, traditional, virginal, Christian, and familiar with the English language, making them the most popular ethnic group for mail order brides in the world.”

Filipina mail order brides are also touted for their reluctance to divorce, though this has more to do with circumstance than personal preference — apart from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country in the world without legal divorce.

The women are a tremendously profitable cash crop for marriage brokering agencies. Victoria I. Kusel notes in the Albany Government Law Review that mail order bride agencies earn between $6,000 and $10,000 per client; some agencies claim to service as many as 15,000 clients each year.

Many of the men seeking out this service are considerably older than the women they contract to marry, though some agencies encourage their clients to stay within a 20-year difference in age.

There are those who would argue that these matches are no different from ones contracted through online dating services such as eHarmony or OKCupid. But in fact, they are worlds apart. Set aside for a moment the distasteful notion that mail order brides are an exportable commodity, and consider what happens when a young woman arrives in this country to marry someone she’s met online.

Under current laws, immigrant spouses are issued conditional green cards, which enable them to live and work in this country for two years. If the marriage remains intact at the end of that conditional period, the couple can then file papers and schedule an in-person interview to apply for permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

One would hope that most men are kind to the wives they’ve bought. But those who aren’t have at least two years to wreak havoc in their brides’ lives.

The Public Interest Law Reporter paper noted that “mail order brides are often subject to physical and sexual abuse once they arrive in the U.S., which they are especially vulnerable to due to their immigration status.”

The Albany Government Law Review also emphasizes mail order brides’ vulnerability to abuse, stating:

“Rarely does the concept of a marriage evoke thoughts of a relationship based on power dynamics, sexual gratification, abuse, and isolation; however, these negative factors are often the reality for numerous foreign women who enter into marriages facilitated by International Marriage Brokers.”

The prevalence of abuse against mail order brides prompted Congress to pass the Federal International Marriage Broker Regulation Act in 2005, which requires all marriage visa sponsors to undergo background checks and puts a limit on serial visa applications.

The regulations were passed into law in response to the 1995 murder of 24-year-old Filipina mail order bride Susana Blackwell in Washington State. Susana fled after less than two weeks of marriage, alleging her husband had choked her and pushed her face into a sink. Her 47-year-old husband subsequently applied for a legal annulment, which would have led to her deportation. Susana responded by filing for divorce under the battered wife exception that would have allowed her to remain in the U.S. By the time closing arguments for their complex divorce case were ready, Susana was eight months pregnant.

She and two other Filipina friends sat in the hallway of the King County Courthouse, waiting for the hearing to commence when her estranged husband walked up to the trio and shot each woman point blank in the head and chest. He is currently serving out a life sentence for the 1st degree murder of the three women and the manslaughter of Susana’s unborn child.

While the Federal International Marriage Broker Regulation Act is commendable, it’s worth noting that it took 10 years from the time of Blackwell’s murder for it to pass. And in fact, even since then, Congress has been resistant to provide regulations that would help protect against abuse. A 2012 revision of the Violence Against Women Act that would have helped mail order brides by allowing abused immigrant women to self-petition for protected immigration status was blocked by House Republicans; as The Huffington Post reported, pressure was exerted in part by the president of a mail order bride company.

These days, immigrant spouses who have suffered significant mental or physical abuse can seek protection under the U Visa, which allows them and their children to remain in the United States legally, while law enforcement investigates the crime.

In light of these dire circumstances, what persuaded a major network to develop a sitcom that pokes fun at a victim of human trafficking?

Mail Order Family’s Origin Myth

Mail Order Family was conceived of by Jackie Clarke, whose stepmother was a mail order bride. Throughout her career, Clarke has mined her complicated family history for comedic material. In “Runaway Groom,” a segment she narrates for a 2012 episode of This American Life, Clarke recounts her mother’s death when she was in first grade, and describes her father’s valiant attempts to raise his three young children solo. One actually starts to feel sorry for the motherless little girl.

Until her father goes shopping for another wife.

“Over plates of spaghetti he’d pass out the latest mail order bride catalogue and tell us to ‘pick out the ones you like,’” Clarke recounts in the podcast, adding that she and her sister always chose the ones with the prettiest smiles. One imagines Clarke and her siblings flipping through page after page of pretty women, as though choosing candles or coffee tables in an Ikea catalogue. Shortly after, a 25-year-old Filipina mail order bride named Pura arrives at their suburban Massachusetts home. Pura spends the next 16 years raising Clarke and her siblings, while their father goes on a series of months-long business trips abroad.

Pura, Clarke points out “ . . . had no desire to be a mother to me.” But what newly married 25-year-old wants to mother three stepchildren when she barely knows her husband? It is Clarke’s father who teaches her to shave her legs and takes her shopping for her first bra. When Clarke begins menstruating at the age of 12, Pura leaves an economy size pack of sanitary napkins on her bed, telling her confused stepdaughter “ . . . you got your period, stupid.”

Toward the end of the podcast segment, Clarke recounts her father’s admission that he’s been living a double life, supporting another woman and their family in the Philippines.

The roots of Clarke’s sitcom premise can be traced back to New York in 2002, when Clarke was performing her one-woman show, Big Vagina Monologues, at a theater in Chelsea. The comedian changed the show title to Mail Order Family only after lawyers representing The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler sent Clarke a cease and desist letter.

mail-order
‘Mail Order Family’ promotional material

An excerpt from Clarke’s act reveals the provenance of her show’s original title. She describes how her Filipina stepmother’s gynecological exam goes awry when the doctor is “ . . . kind of mean to her because she was very small and his tools wouldn’t fit.” When Clarke’s father learns of the unpleasant experience he yells, “Well, you shouldn’t be ashamed. American women have enormous vaginas!”

One can’t help wondering — if Mail Order Family had actually been aired, would this scintillating exchange have made it into one of the episodes? Fortunately, we’ll never have to find out.

Fast And Furious Dissent

The announcement that NBC had put Mail Order Family into development raised an immediate storm of protest. Nerds of Color Blogger Laura Sirikul denounced the sitcom’s concept for its endorsement of Asian fetishism, writing “ . . . we don’t need another show objectifying an Asian woman, especially to be married off . . . to a man she does not know. This is not a step up for diversity and inclusion for people of color.” Sirikul acknowledges, of course, that these situations happen, but that doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to depict them any way you like, especially if it actively diminishes real-life oppression.

Meanwhile Asian Pacific American Media Coalition members convened to determine their stance on this issue, which APAMC Co-Chair Daniel Mayeda immediately conveyed to NBCUniversal’s Diversity Committee.

Milton Liu, Director of Programs and Artist Services of Visual Communications (one of the organizations involved with the APAMC), which produces the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, points out that the APA Media Coalition would never stifle anyone who wants to tell their story. “Our goal is not only to see more APIs [Asian Pacific Islanders] on television, but to have them not be ‘tokens’ or ‘props’ or solitary symbols of degradation for comedy.”

Asked if NBC had perhaps envisioned the mail order bride character to be the Filipina version of Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara, Liu replied, “If they said it was about a strong Filipina-American woman who becomes the stepmother of a Caucasian American family — GREAT! We just can’t accept the laissez faire attitude of mail order brides and sweeping under the rug the social . . . and geopolitical human rights issue [as] the premise for a network comedy.”

APA Media Coalition has been advocating for diversity since 1999, when together with the NAACP and Latino and Native American organizations, it negotiated a Memoranda of Understanding with ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. The MOU mandates that each of those networks institute programs aimed at increasing diversity in both TV show casts and among those who worked behind the scenes. In order to hold networks accountable for their prime-time programming, the multi-ethnic coalition began meeting regularly with top network creative executives to discuss shows aired the year before, and those scheduled for release in the next year.

Liu explains that Mail Order Family was not brought up during APA Media Coalition’s annual meeting with NBC back in June, because the show had not yet been greenlit, and was only in development. He surmises that since Clarke also writes and produces for NBC’s Superstore, she had access necessary to sell network executives on her new sitcom idea.

On Thursday afternoon, people were contacting Clarke directly on her Twitter account. (Clarke initially defended herself against questions but later deleted all her responses). Clarke’s web series/proof of concept Mail Order Family posted on Vimeo was quickly taken down after members of the API community, including Jeff Yang, viewed and derided the video.

90-day
Promotional material from TLC’s ’90 Day Fiance’ (Credit: Facebook)

By Friday, several online protests on Change.org had gained nearly 15,000 signatures. The controversial sitcom was among the top stories featured on Balitang America, a nightly Filipino American cable news show that airs in the United States and Canada. The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) set up a Facebook event page to publicize an October 4 demonstration they planned to hold in front of the NBCUniversal offices in Universal City. Behind the scenes, APA Media Coalition continued to press its concerns with NBCUniversal’s diversity committee. Later that afternoon, the network announced it was backing away from the project.

When asked what he thought was the most effective strategy that convinced NBC to cancel development on the show within three days, Liu pointed to the strong communal outcry and APA Media Coalition’s direct line to NBCUniversal.

“Honestly, the network [has to] see us as Americans. And as people . . . If you would never put an African, Latin, or European character [who’s a victim] of human trafficking on a comedic network sitcom, you shouldn’t use anyone else.”

Getting a major network to reverse production plans so quickly is no small feat. But even as protest organizers congratulate themselves on putting out this fire, others continue to burn unnoticed. TLC’s reality show 90-Day Fiancé features a 19-year-old Filipina and her 58-year-old American boyfriend.

Liu explained that APA Media Coalition only has access to the broadcast studios and their affiliates. At this time, the APAMC is pushing into the realm of cable networks such as TLC, which is owned by cable organization Discovery Communications.

In the meantime, we can take cold comfort in the fact that, while 90-Day Fiancé is laden with offensive stereotypes, at least it’s not playing for laughs.

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Lead image: flickr/Jim Purbrick

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