“I Am Not Your Mail-Order Bride:” Filipinas Online and the Search for Authenticity

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When I first started “Sampaguita Girl,” I had a vision of creating an online resource for Pinays. I wanted to create a site with critical articles that interrogated what it meant to be Pinay, that would tackle topics that were unspoken and taboo in our communities. I wanted to celebrate being Filipina/American, and to highlight the many contributions Filipino women have made for our liberation. But since starting graduate school, I have ceased blogging. Part of it is because of my workload—I had a difficult time balancing my academic assignments with my personal writing, and I found I needed to prioritize my schoolwork over maintaining my online presence. Another reason was because I began to think critically about the impact of blogging, and what I myself as a Filipina/American was attempting to build by sharing my story and writing posts that attempted to define what it meant to be a Pinay. That’s the thing: what does it mean to be a Pinay? Why was I working so hard to construct a definition? Why am I and countless other Pinays so preoccupied with this question?

As a Filipina/American online, you learn to search for authenticity. And it is completely understandable: we grew up bombarded with not-so-positive images, whether it was advertisements of paper white Filipinas with thin limbs or typing “Filipina” on Google and seeing websites dedicated to sex work and mail-order brides, you begin to realize that being “Filipina” is fraught with negative representations and the wounds of (neo)colonialism. I myself internalized these representations, to the point where I began to feel horrible about my identity, my body, and how others might perceive me. In many ways, I began this blog to fight for more positive representations of Pinays, to show others that there was more to being Filipina/American than beauty queens or being marketed as the passive ideal wife.

But by doing so, I was producing universal truth claims. Albus Dumbledore once said, “The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” My blogging experience has shown me how limited my “truths” have been, and why it is necessary for me to contest them, challenge them, and extract far more productive tensions from them. I blogged because I wanted to find and create more “authentic” and “true” representations of myself. I blogged because I wanted to exclaim, “THIS IS WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE A PINAY. I am NOT that mail-order bride and I refuse to succumb to colonial beauty standards and become as white as a ghost!” I wanted to denounce those previous representations but by doing so, I was not acknowledging how the search for authenticity and truth is fraught with struggles over power and meaning. I am not here to create a universal definition of what it means to be a Pinay. By doing so, I am unknowingly creating similar hierarchies and exclusions that have been instituted by multiple colonialisms. I’ve learned that negative representations should not just be tackled down, but should also have their historical and structural contexts deconstructed. With this, how can blogging become a more critical platform for Pinays? How can we use blogging to further contest (neo)colonialism?

The search for authenticity is also inextricably tied to identity politics, and identity politics is tied to erasure and (in)visibility. It’s not just negative representations that are an issue in our community. I did not read my first Pinay novel until I was in college, and I had no idea there was such a thing as Filipino/American history until I took my first Asian American Studies class. But even within Filipino/American history and Filipino/American literary studies, there are events, issues, and narratives that remain shrouded, ignored, and unacknowledged. Despite the formation of a Filipino/American identity, there are still various tensions within our community.

In his essay “Identity in Action: A Filipino American’s Perspective,” Steven De Castro explores identity politics amongst Filipino/Americans, and the ways finding identity should lead to social change. He states, “We always say: Paghahanap, pagtuklas, at pagbawi: search, discover, and reclaim. We search for our true story, our collective story, and our story teaches us our duty. Our identity leads us to action” (295).

Our identity should lead us to action. But who decides what our identity is? Who decides which stories are “true,” that are representative of us as a collective? Who gets to decide our all-encompassing Filipino/American story?

Whoever has power decides. Those in power decided to print the Philippine-American War as “the Philippine Insurrection” in our high school textbooks. Those in power decided that Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart are the most representative texts of Filipino/Americans. And it was those in power who decided that (in)visibility was a main issue in our community, that we Filipino/Americans need to work hard to make ourselves visible and viable to the rest of society.

Thus, we can see that power takes the shape of many forms and circulates through many hands. Filipino/American-ness is not so much the search for identity and visibility, but to make sense of these significant struggles over power. The term “Filipino/American” is fraught with this power struggle. In his book Beyond the Nation, Martin Joseph Ponce explores the usage of “Filipino American,” “Filipino-American,” “Filipino/American,” etc., stating that the emergence of these different terms “is an effect of multiple colonialisms…and the manifold differences produced by migration, gender, generationality, class, and political disposition” (12). With this, we can see the only thing that can surely encompass a Filipino/American identity are the “manifold differences” informing our community. Our community is brimming with difference, so why are we so invested in finding sameness?

Angela Davis once articulated that our politics should not be defined by our identities, but our identities should be defined by our politics. As a Pinay blogger, how can my writing be defined not by my Pinay-ness, but by unraveling the hierarchal structures of power that are inflected in the Pinay experience? I am no longer interested in reclaiming the image of the Filipina. Instead, I want to contest the Filipina image: what were the conditions of possibility that led to its construction? What does the formation of the “Pinay” say about our history of multiple colonialisms? How can blogging move from producing dichotomous recovery projects?

By dichotomous recovery projects, I am referring to my attempt at reclaiming the image of the Pinay. By denouncing the image of the Pinay as a mail-order bride and producing universal truth claims of what a Pinay really is, I am not truly interrogating the conditions of possibility that led to the formation of mail-order brides. In addition, I am also excluding the mail-order bride from the definition of “Pinay.” Although I believe no one wants to be a mail-order bride, there’s no denying that various Pinays seek the profession* because poverty and globalization have composed it into a viable option. By stating that a mail-order bride is “not what it means to be a Pinay,” I am not sufficiently addressing the violence of U.S. empire. By excluding the mail-order bride from “Pinay,” I deny the legibility of these workers and the complex space they embody in the building of U.S. empire. I also reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy by locating the mail-order bride as a “whore,” and unconsciously placing my authentic definition of the Pinay as the “virgin,” the truthful, modest image. Thus, moving from these dichotomous formations and examining these conditions of possibility are important, because they can point to the ways (neo)colonialism has not only exploited the Philippine economy, but has inextricably tied Filipina bodies and sexualities to the global market. Through this, we can acknowledge the role of the mail-order bride in the formation of “Pinay,” in contributing to the creation of a feminist identity and movement intent on liberation and revolutionary action.

A performance group called the Mail Order Brides (M.O.B.) further interrogates these conditions of possibility in their work. In her essay, “Performing the Filipina ‘Mail-Order Bride:’ Queer Neoliberalism, Affective Labor, and Homonationalism,” Gina Velasco explores M.O.B.’s performance work and the ways M.O.B. “use[s] humor to address the broader racialized and gendered discourses through which Filipina bodies are constituted and made visible under global capitalism” (3). In their video “Mail Order Bride of Frankenstein,” M.O.B. uses the terrain of visual culture to demonstrate that a critical analysis of U.S. neoliberalism can be made by not rejecting the mail-order bride. By using feminist camp and ethnic drag, M.O.B. is able to “make visible the role of affective labor” and “critique the forms of gendered and racialized labor performed by third-world women” (3).

In many ways, the mail-order bride points us to the ways neoliberalism has commoditized affective and reproductive labor. Although it is important to show how Filipinas are more than mail-order brides, we must not forget to examine why the mail-order bride emerged, and why her existence continues to be demanded in the global market. We must not only acknowledge U.S. (neo)colonialism, but critically contest it and make moves to take action.

With this, I will be taking new directions in my blogging and writing. My work is still heavily informed by Pinayism, but I now wish to locate the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc. in these struggles over power, in the material and discursive ways power circulates and is facilitated by U.S. imperialism. Although there are many bloggers, as Denise Cruz explores in Transpacific Femininities, who “‘use the online image to affirm the authentic presence of the Filipina,’” these “cycles of representation” are also “a call to address” on how “globalized economic flows and inequities…rely on the labor of Filipina bodies” (233). However, we cannot stop there. I believe blogging can do more than present an “authentic” feminist imaginary. By moving beyond the search for authenticity, I believe we can redirect these hierarchal circuits of power and show how “Pinay” functions more than a formation of identity. It is, as Denise Cruz puts it, “the rupture of imperial forgetting…the ongoing search for untraveled routes and unmapped connections in our archives, theories, critical practices, and pedagogies” (235).

*In his essay “Bodies, Letters, and Catalogs,” Rolando Tolentino argues how mail order brides are connected to affective, care, and service labor, such as maids, nurses, and hospitality girls. By thinking of the mail-order bride as a laboring body, we can further contest how Filipina bodies, sexualities, and femininities are crucial to the expansion of U.S. empire.

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2 thoughts on ““I Am Not Your Mail-Order Bride:” Filipinas Online and the Search for Authenticity

  1. Glad you are back and look forward to hearing more of what you have to say. really appreciated the exploration you speak to in this post and your conflicts that have arisen to make your points. It’s a nuanced layered task for sure and I appreciate how sensitive you are to it all and love your writing and what you have to say.

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