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The evolution of Filipino representation in Australian media 

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By Ana Marginson

For decades Filipinos have been woefully underrepresented on Australian screens. Most young Filipinos would have first seen themselves reflected on television as musical performers, and representation rarely extended beyond that. 

Cyrus Villanueva, X Factor winner 2016 PHOTO: Rappler
Cyrus Villanueva, X Factor winner 2016 | PHOTO: Rappler
Marlisa Punzalan, X Factor winner 2015
Marlisa Punzalan, X Factor winner 2015

Kathleen de Leon Jones starred as an original member of the children’s musical group Hi-5 between 1999 and 2006, while several Filipino-Australians competed in reality singing competitions (notably Marlisa Punzalan and Cyrus Villanueva, who each won their seasons of The X Factor Australia in 2014 and 2015). 

FAFQ_25th_Anniversary
FAFQ_25th_Anniversary

But where fictional narratives are concerned, the Australian film and television industry has long failed to showcase the huge Filipino population of this country.

Michelle Vergara Moore was born in Australia to Filipino migrants who came to Australia in 1975. | Photo: SBS
Michelle Vergara Moore was born in Australia to Filipino migrants who came to Australia in 1975. | Photo: SBS
Melanie Vallejo portrayed Sophie Wong on Winners and Losers
Melanie Vallejo portrayed Sophie Wong on Winners and Losers

Although many Filipinos are working in the Australian film and television industry, few have portrayed Filipino characters. Most Filipino-Australian actors are asked to play characters from a different Asian background or whose race is ambiguous. 

Melanie Vallejo’s portrayal of Sophie Wong on Seven’s Winners and Losers (2011-2016) and Michelle Vergara Moore’s role as Chai Li Tivoli on ABC’s The Time of Our Lives (2013-2014) were both groundbreaking examples of complex and prominent Asian characters on Australian television. Still, neither played Filipinos (being of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, respectively). 

Actress Charlotte Nicdao has spoken previously about being asked to use a Chinese accent during auditions despite not being of Chinese heritage. Although having more Asian characters has been a positive trend in the last few years, treating all Asian people as interchangeable is problematic.

The few Filipinos seen on Australian screens in the past have invariably been subjected to the racism of the time. During the height of migration from the Philippines in the 1980s-1990s, the image of Filipinos was moulded by news and current affairs rather than fictional narratives. 

Most people were exposed to Filipinas through news stories that sensationalised their abuse and murder at the hands of white Australian men. The word most frequently used was ‘mail-order bride’, which came with a bevy of racist and misogynistic stereotypes attached. 

The few times a Filipino actor appeared on film or television, they were typecast to reflect these prejudices, such as Cynthia (played by Julia Cortez) in the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. While groundbreaking in its portrayal of LGBTQ+ culture, the film heavily relied on demeaning stereotypes to portray Cynthia as a hyper-sexual and undignified gold-digger. Worst yet, it did so at a time when Filipinas were fighting to have their struggle recognised despite the racist culture around them. For many years Cynthia remained one of the few explicitly-Filipino characters on Australian screens, and only so that the film could exploit these stereotypes. 

Finally, after almost three decades since Priscilla, Filipino-Australian actors have been able to play loudly and proudly Filipino characters. The SBS comedy-drama series The Unusual Suspects, which premiered in June 2021, has provided us with a positive and complex representation. 

The series is filled with Filipino roles where their ethnic identity is crucial to understanding them as characters. Both Aina Dumlao and Michelle Vergara Moore portray characters who seem to fulfil Filipino stereotypes on the surface, but the series quickly flips all preconceptions on their head. Although occasionally unsubtle in their challenge of traditional Filipino roles, the creators (including Filipinos Melvin Montalban and Vonne Patiag) made it clear that such stereotypes are no longer acceptable. Filipinos will not be relegated to racist minor roles or generic Asian characters. 

There is space on Australian screens for unapologetically Filipino characters, and there are plenty of actors ready and waiting to play them.


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