Ethnicity, Political Correctness and Desperate Housewives

I come to this controversy rather late, but I just listened to a dimwitted debate (MP3) about it on the CBC’s Q and wanted to comment. Okay, here’s the situation (my parents went away for…):

The Philippine government is seeking an apology from the producers of “Desperate Housewives” for a perceived racial slur against Filipino medics, the Philippine Daily Inquirer said on its Web site Wednesday, according to

The officials cited a recent episode in which actress Teri Hatcher, who plays Susan Mayer, said to the person attending to her during a medical consultation, “Can I check those diplomas because I want to make sure that they’re not from some med school in the Philippines?”

You can watch an excerpt from the episode. It’s an unfunny, throw-away line in a show I’ve never watched.

As you may know, the tae subsequently hit the fan. There’s an online petition with over 125,000 signatures, the Philippine government got involved and a media circus ensued. ABC, the company that produces Desperate Housewives, eventually issued an apology.

Why Must Political Correctness Extend to Works of Fiction?

This is an enormous mountain made out of an inconsequential mole hill. It’s political correctness run amok. ABC, Desperate Housewives and Teri Hatcher are all being flayed and braised by the Philippine community, when advocates for Fillipino immigrants ought to be focusing their efforts elsewhere. Here’s why:

Desperate Housewives is a work of fiction.

The Philippine community and government should have been rightfully offended and indignant if the racist comment was broadcast as part of a news show or made by a politician. Has our culture gotten so hyper-sensitive that we cannot portray racists (or, even, somebody who makes an occasional off-colour remark) in works of fiction?

I will almost always support an ethnic group in their battle for equality and against racism. This, however, is a bunch of misdirected anger and frustration. People might argue that this comment is just a symbol, a stand-in for all racist epithets pointed at Filipino immigrants around the world. That’s not a bad notion, but it’s a lousy point to rally around. Why? Not only because it occurred during a television show, but also because once ABC issued an apology, the issue went away.

Imagine if all that energy had been spent more positively. For example, getting more Filipino-American leaders elected to office. Instead, all that happened was that a TV studio issued a press release.

Beware the Chilling Effect

Here’s what I really object to: the chilling effect such actions have. Did this fracas make it harder to talk about racism on television? Absolutely. Will TV studios be reluctant to broadcast shows that include racist characters in the future? Yes.

And that lessens the medium. It tightens yet another stricture on TV and film writers, who (on those rare occasions when they’re great) hold up telling, provocative mirrors to our society, and show us to ourselves.

As our culture gets more and more wary of offending anyone, those mirrors get fewer, smaller and blurrier. And that’s bad news for us all.


  1. Great post, Darren. I am an immigrant myself, and I do hate that my ethnic group is portrayed on TV in the wrong way. But hey, it’s TV! I mean, in the same show, latinos are portrayed as cheaters (Carlos and Gaby). But really, it’s all part of the same running joke.

    And it raises again the McLuhan debate (“the medium is the message”) that I discussed a couple of weeks ago regarding IPCC, Al Gore and climate change (see my post here: … in this case, the way I interpret your last paragraph, we’ve lost the possibility to discuss racism (the message) thanks to some wrongfully transmitted message (the medium).

  2. Raul has the right of it. I’d have been much more concerned had this remark originated with Limbaugh or some other wadio wingnut.

  3. Hard to call it racist when what the actually line does is disparage the quality of the Philippines’ medical training system, not of any people from the country.

    The line would have been better mentioning someplace with diploma farms like those ones in the Caribbean. Also, if she’s said “med school in Romania,” I doubt it would have been perceived as racist either.

    And it’s not as if the characters on “Desperate Housewives” are paragons of virtue either. In fact, that’s the whole point of the show. I wonder how that particular line got latched onto?

  4. First, the line is spoken by a character and not by a person. One of a number of characters on a TV show that are vacuous, spiteful, inane, vain and back-stabbing. Add to that racist… perhaps. Archie Bunker was racist and human. Legit scripting of a character as I see it.

    Second. The Philippines Nursing community had a major scandal regarding diplomas. Hundreds of students were given the test questions to final exams casting into doubt the validity of a nursing degree from the Philippine. The stretch isn’t far for the mind of a twit like the character Susan in the fictional world of Desperate Housewives.

  5. What makes you think electing Filipino-American leaders will improve the status Phillipines has in the minds of mundane American women (such as Teri hatcher in DH)? If political correctness doesn’t extend to works of fiction, the latter will become the place of expression of racism – and don’t yiou think more people watch DH than congress debates any day? Your post is stupid and unthinking.

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