Filipino Representation in American Pop Culture
It’s one thing to watch the Filipino channel on your TV but there’s quite a different sentiment to seeing Filipinos represented in American media. As a society, we have come to realize the importance of representation in media. I can still vividly recall watching Crazy Rich Asians in theaters and being overwhelmed with emotion over the all-Asian featured cast. It’s that feeling that I look for when observing popular culture today.
Just the Beginning . . .
One notable Filipino-American pop culture icon, in particular, is Bretman Rock, the self-proclaimed “singer, songwriter, actor, actress, athlete, activist, a scientist on the motha f***ing side . . .” amongst many other things. Bretman Rock first came into the spotlight in 2015 after going viral on a social media platform called Vine. From there, he became a Youtuber and developed into a social media personality/beauty influencer. Not only does he have an extensive social media presence on multiple platforms, including Youtube and Instagram, but he has also released makeup collections with Wet N’ Wild and Morphe and has even starred in his very own reality show, “MTV Following: Bretman Rock.”
Arguably, he is the first Filipino-American (of full Filipino descent) to “make it big” in American pop culture, and undoubtedly a pioneer when it comes to Filipino representation. This may seem insignificant to those who don’t understand the importance of representation in American media, but to the Asian-American community, especially those of a Pinoy background, it means the world. The lack of representation in media, whether it be film, tv, or whatnot, can make people feel like outcasts in their own country. I can even recall when I was growing up not many people were familiar with my family’s place of origin, the Philippines. Some heard about the country for their very first time through me.
Respectfully, Bretman Rock’s career brought awareness to the Filipino identity. As a Filipino-American myself, I had always noted how the representation of Asian-Americans in popular culture generally grouped together all Asian ethnic groups into an umbrella of one Asian stereotype, dismissing the fact that we all have our own unique cultures. So despite more and more Asian representation on the big screen, I didn’t always feel represented. Once Bretman rose in popularity, I finally felt like there was someone in popular culture that looked like me. Like many others, I was proud to see my kababayan, a fellow countryman, make it big in America.
Part of what makes Bretman so meaningful to the Filipino community is how he represents our culture. Through his videos, he has exposed an entire culture of people to the language, cuisine, and cultural characteristics of the Philippines. With this exposure, he is helping to dismantle the misconception that all Asian Americans are the same.
In a previous article, I explored family values within Filipino culture. Bretman’s relationships on and off-screen exemplify this idea of a mutual support system. Through his success, he has used his platforms to promote the careers of several of his relatives: his sister Princess Mae who follows a similar career path to Bretman, his brother Edmund who owns a food truck company called “MamaMerce’s Kitchen,” his cousin Miss Kay who also maintains a social media presence, and even TikTok star and singer Bella Poarch! It is empowering to see how Bretman has used his power of influence to not only bring opportunities to those in his family but to also amplify the amount of Filipino representation within our culture. In similar ways, Bretman’s cousin Bella Poarch has also used her fame to support Filipino representation in popular culture.
In the Midst of Progress
Prior to her rise in popularity, Bella Poarch actually served in the US Navy for 4 years. 2020 marked Bella’s first viral TikTok video that put her into the public eye. Now, she is listed as the 3rd most-followed individual on the platform. Others may also know her from her debut single that she released in 2021, “Build a B****,” followed by her most recent release, “INFERNO.”
Like Bretman, Bella Poarch has used her platform to bring representation to the Filipino community. I admire those like Bella who choose to use their influence to support the careers of others. In both her music videos, she cameos two fellow Filipinos: Bretman and streamer/gamer Rachel Hofstetter, known to the gaming world as “Valkyrae.” While we are all aware of Bella and Bretman’s relationship, Valkyrae and Bella hadn’t actually met in person until the day of shooting the music video for “Build a B****.”
Some may not think twice about the meaning behind Bella asking Rae to be in her music video but I think it perfectly exemplifies how supportive the Filipino community. Despite not being close personally, their closeness is rooted in their cultural identity as they understand the difficulties in what it means to be underrepresented in popular culture. Their support for each other’s careers symbolize the social responsibility Filipinos feel to help and empower one another. In a behind the scenes video posted by Valkyrae, she acknowledges throughout the video how important their collaboration would be for the Filipino community.
Valkyrae is just one of the many pop culture icons that come from a Filipino background. There’s of course, Saweetie, H.E.R., Olivia Rodrigo, Hailee Steinfeld . . . the list goes on. Some of these girls are often seen as “ethnically ambiguous” or “white-passing,” meaning that it is difficult to recognize their Filipino genes based on their external appearance. Being Filipino, however, does not exclude our mixed-race counterparts. The Filipino community embraces each one of these girls and their successes. In the same regard, these girls acknowledge their Filipino heritage open-heartedly and with a sense of pride. I love watching these girls embrace their Filipino heritage in the public eye because it is empowering to members of the Filipino community to be represented in such artistic industries. Often times, dreams are put aside to reason that financial stability is more realistic than pursuing one’s passions. Representation in the arts dismantles this belief system, inspiring more young talented Filipinos and Filipinas that a career in media is both plausible and attainable.
A Scene to Remember
I can’t speak on the topic of Filipino representation without acknowledging one of the meaningful cinematic moments in Filipino-American history within this decade. If you have yet to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home, you may not know what exactly I’m referring to.
We all know Peter Parker’s best friend Ned in Spider-Man: No Way Home, is played by none other than Filipino-American actor, Jacob Batalon. In the film, there is a scene, not much longer than five minutes, where MJ and Ned are at Ned’s Lola’s house. I’ll refrain from giving any huge spoilers but in there are several cultural references in the scene representative of Filipino culture. The sweet rolls of pandesal bread on the table . . . the way that Ned translates for his Lola . . . or Ned’s Lola herself with her mannerisms and cultural nuances!
So what’s the big deal? Why does this matter? Why should we care?
There was once a moment in American history where a man was launched into space and landed on the moon. As he took his first step he uttered the infamous words, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” In some ways, this scene is a lot like that. It’s one short scene, yes. So it may not seem like such a big deal, just like how one measly step appears insignificant. But if you see the context in where the step takes place, for instance the moon, the step takes on two meanings, one literal and one symbolic. Literally, it’s just a step. Symbolically, it’s about technological advancement, symbolizing how far we have come as humankind to be able to even set foot on the moon.
So, the scene itself is literally just a quick 5 minute scene in a movie. But if you look at it in the context of what film the scene takes place, in one of the most anticipated movie releases of 2021 and being one of the biggest movies of the year globally, it’s symbolic meaning holds so much weight. Symbolically, it represents a step towards social progress through cultural representation in popular culture films much like this Spider-Man movie. Because of this short scene, Filipino culture had been recognized on a global scale. A scene where we finally feel seen.
A thank you is in order for Jacob Batalon. Thank you for representing all of us Filipinos out there on the big screen. In a recent interview for Grumpy Magazine with Tony Revolori, Jacob speaks on new projects where he is moving away from the supporting role of Spider-Man’s best friend Ned and into his leading role as Reginald Baskin in the TV series, Reginald the Vampire. I’m looking forward to seeing our kababayan taking the spotlight in his upcoming project. May he be assured that the Filipino community will be right there supporting him along the way. We’re rooting for you, Jacob!
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Chopsticks Alley Intern
Crystal is a liberal arts student at De Anza College. Her goal is to transfer to a university in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Socio-Political Philosophy. Outside of academia, she likes to explore different forms of artistic expression like painting, ceramics, music, and aerial arts. As a second-generation immigrant, she understands the difficulties of defining one’s cultural identity. She hopes to be a pioneer in defining what it means to be Asian-American.