After four days of refreshing the Los Angeles County COVID-19 vaccine appointment website, I finally secured two slots in late January for my parents, both retired and over 65. My dad’s nerves kept him up the night before, even as my mom, a retired nurse, bombarded him with research data and testimonies from doctors and nurses that the vaccine was safe. He was visibly nervous as I drove them through the large-scale vaccination site, but as we made our way through the different checkpoints, his worry faded. Why? Because at each station, there were nurses there to make small talk and answer his (many, many) questions.
At the last checkpoint, my mom got to talking with another retired nurse, who was volunteering at the site.
“It’s the nurses running the show,” my mom said, half-joking.
“But it’s the doctor’s who always get the attention,” said the nurse.
“Now nurses are getting attention.”
It took a global pandemic, tens of millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths for Americans to start caring about nurses. Besides being front liners, nurses are the ones holding the iPads and iPhones for dying patients saying goodbye to their loved ones. It’s nurses who are raising awareness about the dangers of COVID-19, the importance of masks, and the egregious shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) on social media.
With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, even medical television dramas like
“Grey’s Anatomy has been incorporating COVID-19 into their storylines. To its credit, “Grey’s” has accurately depicted the emotional devastation doctors experience when unable to save patients during the pandemic, and has called attention to the higher rates of death among Black people. But on “Grey’s,” like most medical shows, looking for a nurse with a storyline feels like playing Where’s Waldo? “Nurses, who spend the most time with patients and died of COVID-19 at higher rates than doctors, were largely absent in Grey’s Anatomy,” writes Allana Akhtar in a January Business Insider article.
Nurses are literally dying to save lives, and Filipino American nurses, in particular, are disproportionately affected. Filipino nurses are just 4 percent of the nursing workforce In the United States, but constitute nearly one-third of nursing deaths, according to a research study conducted by National Nurses United last fall. More than anytime in my life, I’ve seen Filipino nurses make the news on The New York Times, CNN, and the big three networks. But why did it take their deaths for people in this country to care about their lives?
“I’ve never liked medical shows,” my mom has often said. “They’re boring. Not realistic.” I wonder if her remarks had more to do with the absence of Filipino nurses than the inaccurate depiction of protocols and procedures. In our home state of California, nearly one in five nurses is Filipino. In the cafeteria at my mom’s hospital, there was a world map with little star stickers showing where every employee was from. The Philippines had more stars than California—the stickers covered the entire landmass and the ocean surrounding it.
And Hollywood knows it erases Filipino nurses. “As we all know, TV has always had a diversity problem,” said “Saturday Night Live” cast member Michael Che in the opening monologue of the 2018 Primetime Emmys. “I mean, can you believe they did fifteen seasons of ‘ER’ without one Filipino nurse? Have you been to a hospital?” The throwaway joke elicited awkward laughter from the mostly white audience, a response we’ve grown accustomed to whenever Hollywood players get called out on their racism.
Being Filipino myself, I can’t even count the number of (mostly non-Filipino) people I know who’ve volunteered a story of how it was a Filipino nurse who shepherded them through the worst moments of their lives, whether it was for a cancer diagnosis, major surgery, kidney dialysis, or during the last breaths of a loved one. It’s funny when I see these same people rave about medical shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.” Please believe, I appreciate what “Grey’s” (and Shonda Rhimes) has done for POC and queer representation, but the part of me who grew up surrounded by Filipino nurses can’t help but feel like something’s missing.
So why aren’t there any Filipino nurses on television medical shows? Racism, obviously. But a deeper dive reveals that from creation to casting, there’s a lack of awareness in the television industry of who Filipinos are and how they fit into the American racial landscape—as well as an unwillingness to reimagine what Filipino American stories can offer. A television show featuring—or better yet, starring—Filipino nurses would teach viewers, and Hollywood, that Asian Americans aren’t a monolith.
A Failure of Imagination
The major decision-makers in the television industry are overwhelmingly white. “The dominance of whites in key creative and decision-making positions (e.g., studio executives, directors, producers, writers) means more all-white casts and fewer stories featuring people of color,” writes sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen in her book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. Yuen notes that within the ethnocentric echo chambers of the television industry, there’s a greater willingness to back white storylines, writers, and casts because executives see them as having more potential for commercial success. Her research revealed that 92 percent of showrunners are white, which is a problem given that they “hire and manage writing staff and oversee scripts” and decide “which types of stories and characters will appear in the final production.” Krystal Banzon, a Filipina American alum of CBS’s emerging writers program and former NBC staff writer, says that she always had to specify that the characters she developed were people of color. Otherwise, her white colleagues almost always defaulted to imagining the characters as white.
Even with public outcry for more diversity and evidence of the commercial possibilities of centering non-white storylines and actors, television executives and creators have remained reticent. One reason is fear of a backlash if they get it wrong. “They don’t do anything at the risk of offending somebody,” Banzon said. A few years before Banzon was hired at NBC, the network had greenlit a comedy about a Filipina mail-order bride, but abruptly canceled it after a fierce social media backlash. She opines that a show about Filipino nurses would be a hard sell to networks for similar reasons, noting that television creators worry they’d be called out for playing on stereotypes (even if being a nurse is a “good” stereotype).
Even if a show on Filipino nurses were greenlit, there are challenges with casting given that casting directors are predominantly white. Casting directors are often confused by Filipino actors. Mitch Narito, who had a recurring role on NBC’s “The Good Place,” said he had to stop using his real last name, Hernandez. “I kept getting sent out for Spanish[-speaking] roles because people will just see the last name,” he said. “And then I’d show up, and I’d be like the only Asian guy and everybody’s like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Narito was able to land “The Good Place” role because he was playing the father of cast member Manny Jacinto, who is Filipino both in the show and in real life. Yet, such opportunities are far and few between.
The rare times Filipinos have been cast on network television is because a white person with creative control made the decision that a Filipino storyline—and actors—could work. This is how Vincent Rodriguez III was cast in the starring role of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (the first American primetime show centering a Filipino family) and Nico Santos was cast in “Superstore” as the queer, undocumented immigrant Mateo, a role originally written for a “straight Latino guy.” Because of Rodriguez’s and Santos’s casting, both “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Superstore” have managed to create opportunities for other Filipino actors, as well as incorporate Filipino content on primetime television. Unfortunately, as producer and documentarian Leslie Alejandro notes, “There are not enough Filipino people who are famous enough” or who “have an opportunity to make [the creation of Filipino television content] their agenda.”
More Than Heroes, They Are Human
Catherine Ceniza Choy, a historian at UC Berkeley, is currently consulting on a television series about Filipino nurses with Maricel Pagulayan, a visual effects producer who’s worked on “Mission Impossible”, “Spider-Man” and “Godzilla”. Choy is also an aspiring screenwriter—her television ambitions are a logical extension of her academic work on Filipino nurses in the United States, which she has spent over two decades researching. “I had always aimed for a broader recognition and appreciation for the work of Filipino nurses in the United States,” Choy told me over the phone. Even before the pandemic, Choy had long “hoped that people would rethink and re-vision what an American nurse means.” Her first book “Empire of Care”, published in 2003, chronicles the story of the first wave of Filipino nurses recruited to United States hospitals right after World War II.
Though we didn’t talk specifically about her television project during our call (Choy wasn’t sure if she was at liberty to share), I suspected she was motivated to show that Filipino nurses have always been more than just support staff or martyrs. Growing up in New York, Filipino nurses weren’t just workers, they were her neighbors and her mother’s friends. During her research for Empire of Care, she learned that Filipino nurses were women who came to this country for adventure, not just to economically provide for their families back home. They told “stories about wanting to see Broadway and wanting to see Rock Hudson,” Choy said. Beyond the work, what struck Choy was how the women “who came in the 1960s and early 1970s have these memories of the nurse uniform, how beautiful and how prestigious it was, and how it commanded a lot of respect.”
Choy spoke about Filipino nurses like Esther Hipol Simpson who were activists, fighting a political dictatorship in the home country while fighting racial discrimination in the adopted one. During our phone call, Choy and I chatted about some of the more lighthearted stories, including that of Juliet Luistro, a Filipino nurse who was sent to the United States because her mother wanted her to break up with her boyfriend. Luistro also happens to be my father’s big sister and the driving force for my family’s migration to this country. All of the stories Choy recounted about Filipino nurses she’d interviewed would be great material for any genre of television, from medical drama to half-hour comedy.
There are some Filipinos I know who ask: How can you even think about representation when Filipino nurses are dying? As Yuen reminds us, representation matters because “on-screen images shape our views on reality,” especially when it comes to race. Plus, television as a medium has the power to show that Filipino nurses are more than heroes, they are humans. Of course, I understand the critique, but I remember what Alejandro told me about the power of television: it has the ability to not only show audiences who Filipinos are, it also reveals who Americans are and what this country is about.
Anthony Ocampo, Ph.D. is the author of “The Latinos of Asia” and the forthcoming “Brown and Gay in L.A.” He is an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona. You can follow him at @anthonyocampo.