Stop Saying ‘Mail Order Bride’

Last week NBC’s media department announced a plan to develop a culturally edgy sitcom that would follow ‘a widowed single father who orders a mail-order bride from the Philippines to help raise his two preteen daughters.’

Presumably NBC was trying to surf the zeitgeist of smash hit sitcom Fresh off the Boat, based on comedian Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up Chinese-American in 90s suburban Orlando.

Mail Order Family meanwhile, is grounded in female comedian Jackie Clarke’s memoir of growing up with a Filipino stepmother, whom she didn’t like.  Clarke had previously drawn on this material for a segment on the NPR podcast ‘This American Life.’

Jackie Clarke volunteered to shine a light on the Filipino migrant experience.

In the podcast, Clarke describes her stepmother Pora as an opportunistic, emotionally unhinged woman who has zero interest in being a mother. The illustration from the press kit for the show pretty much reflects the picture Clarke paints in her segment.

Whilst valid content for a personal, if somewhat exploitative podcast, giving Clarke authority to speak for the Filipino spouse migrant experience is problematic. People are free to share their experiences, but when they also deal with other culturally sensitive topics, how they tell their story matters.

And given the way Clarke tells the story…well let’s put it this way, no one wants to see a little freckled redhead running around with tape on her nose to look more Asian, while her self-involved stepmother looks on in disinterested disgust.  The portrayal of the Columbian hot-head wife from Modern Family is positively progressive in comparison.

Needless to say the Twittersphere went nuts and within three days of releasing its media kit for the show, NBC promptly and wisely announced its decision to cancel the show.

I was relieved as hell, but also somewhat bemused by the basis on which my fellow Twitterers-in-arms had objected to the show.  The focus was human trafficking, rather than the negative stereotypes about female Asian migrants that would be propagated by the show.

To be clear, human trafficking is defined as ‘the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.’

Human trafficking comes in many forms and is a grave worldwide problem.  I agree 100% with the sentiment that human trafficking is not funny. I just don’t think it applies here.

To say that a woman who meets and marries a man from a more financially developed country through a dating agency is likely to be a ‘trafficked woman,’ perpetuates stereotypes of migrant women labelled ‘Mail Order Brides’ as desperate victims with no agency.

The term ‘Mail Order Bride’ is used to describe women who publish their interest in marrying abroad on an international dating website.  While they may eventually decide to become prospective spouses in a foreign country, these women do not sell themselves for sex or marriage, they merely sell their image and profile to the service provider.

The functionality of these sites is similar to OKCupid or Tinder.  That is, foreign suitors can message women, but are not given private contact details. What happens from there is up to the individuals themselves. If the relationship evolves to the point where marriage is on the table, they are free to apply for a Partner visa.

Australia has a high number of Partner visa applications every year. They constitute around 25% of our migrant intake, and for the most part applicants are from low-income countries. As a result we have extensive provisions to ensure that this visa is not exploited by human traffickers.

For starters, in order to be eligible for Partner visa, extensive evidence of a genuine relationship between the applicant and the sponsor must be shown. We’re talking photos, emails, interviews and third party statements. I’d also like to highlight that, duh, the Australian sponsor must have met the visa applicant in person.

(This highlights the first fallacy of the term ‘Mail Order Bride.’ If you had to travel to the country of origin to be able to bring an Amazon kindle into the country you’d hardly call that a ‘Mail Order Kindle’ would you?)

Critically, Partner visa holders who experience family violence are able to apply for Permanent Residency.  This ensures that visa holders cannot be coerced to stay in abusive relationships through the threat of deportation.  They are not ‘trapped women.’

The top 10 countries of origin for Partner visas in the decade from 2001-02 to 2010-11 show the high level of migration from low-income countries.

As I have a lot of family members from developing countries – particularly Bangladesh and the Philippines – I have known a number of women who have come to Australia via Partner visas.  A constant source of angst for me has been the negative racial stereotyping of these women in the West.  The controversy over Mail Order Family showed that these stereotypes are alive and well. Many people still cling to the somewhat racist and sexist notion that if you met your partner through an international dating web site, you are either a desperate woman or a gold digger.

There are many reasons why a woman from a low-income country would consider looking abroad for a life partner, as the preferred choice, without any sinister incentive.

A common reason women choose to list with agencies to marry abroad is that they have ‘aged out’ of the conventional marriage pool in their own country.  For example, much has been written about the phenomenon of Chinese ‘leftover women.’ These are women over the critical age of 27 who have embraced education and urban living, but are considered too old for marriage. It should come as no surprise that many of them set their sights abroad in their search for a spouse.

Divorced women and women with children out of wedlock, particularly in very religious countries, are another group that may have difficulty finding a partner at home.  This is certainly the case in the staunchly Catholic Philippines, where a divorce can only be obtained via an annulment.

Economic drivers play a big part of course. But they are more economically complex than simply wanting a grey-haired sugar daddy.

Over the past few decades many developing countries have followed India’s lead and invested heavily in education. Unfortunately professional opportunities in these countries have not caught up with the rich skill base of the population.

An unmarried cousin of mine in Bangladesh with postgraduate qualifications in pharmacy once lamented:

“It is very hard for us women, there are about 800 applicants for every professional job.”

By emigrating with a foreign spouse, these women can fulfil their dreams of career and family with far more agency than they would have at home.

I’m particularly frustrated by the fact that a racial double standard seems to apply when women improve their economic situation through marriage.  We see this double standard throughout Western literature and popular culture. From Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming, any number of Jane Austen heroines, to Carrie Bradshaw getting a big fuck-off-walk-in-closet care of Mr Big, we celebrate these protagonists.

Big promptly proposes to Carrie Bradshaw upon presenting her with the shoe-closet of her dreams.

But when an Asian woman improves her situation through marriage, and there is a visa involved, our views are very different. Why?

My theory: racial stereotypes about Asian women as sex objects run deep. I could not even begin to guesstimate the number of times I have heard the now infamous line: “Me so horny. Me love you long time”, quoted in popular culture or by idiot coworkers.

Hypersexualised stereotypes about Asian females such as in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket run deep in Western culture.

Asian women are casually fetishised to the extent that week long bucks cruises in Thailand are a thing.  We got a solid reinforcement of these stereotypes in The Hangover II, which in the credits, featured the (sadly) iconic image of a woman launching a ping pong ball from her vagina.

Let’s be real.  We would never define women at home by invoking some sexist reference as to how they met their husbands. How about Nightclub Hookup Bride? OKCupid Bride? Blind Date Bride? Used-To-Date-His-Friend Bride? Or Victorious Other-Woman Bride?

(one of these could be used to describe my relationship, please take our poll below)

Many people express doubt that there can be a real and equal partnership that is based around structural inequality.  That is, the economic inequality between a suitor in a high income country, and a prospective spouse from a low income country.  This is of course nonsense. There is some level of inequality, be it financial, social or emotional, in the life of most relationships. This is something that does not remain static and changes as people go through different phases of their lives.

Despite what Phil Collins momma said, you can hurry love. To do so inevitably exposes one to the potential risks of scammers, play-ahs and a broken heart. Nevertheless, for most of us, companionship is a fundamental human drive. For many people an international dating agency has proven a sensible way to seek out a partner and resulted in a happy marriage.  Increasingly, women are also seeking out male partners on agency listings.

I would like to submit some alternative adjectives to describe women who meet their partners through international dating agencies, for your consideration:

  • Brave: they are willing to travel and make a home in a new place away from their support networks and culture.
  • Headstrong: they often confront disapproval from their families for being willing to marry a ‘foreigner.’
  • Resilient: many face down judgement and suspicion from in-laws who see them as gold diggers from a backwards culture.

Ultimately, their stories are not mine to tell, but if any of these women ever write of their experiences, I would watch that sitcom.

4 thoughts on “Stop Saying ‘Mail Order Bride’

  1. I am struggling with this blog post, mainly because of the women I have legally represented when such arrangements have not gone according to plan. And yes, it does fall under human trafficking because of the concept of ‘slavery’, particularly if the women are held to complete certain tasks only. With that said, where I live there are many Filipino women whom are happily married to white Australian men. And after having my own Filipino nannies – who have become my sisters – I can see how the Filipino women hold families together: gentle, committed, hard working and devoted to children. They are truly devoted to family. Shan xo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Shan, Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my article. A few things I guess. I’d like to clarify that the immigration destinations that are the focus of this article are Australia, Canada and US.

    Admittedly, drawing on my own personal experiences and those of family members is highly limiting. The data on partner visa migration into Australia facilitated through international introduction agencies is sparse to non-existent. For a few reasons. One is that women on this visa do not identify by their ”introduction’ status. Probably largely due to the associated stigma.

    What I really did want to make a point of was the tendency to frame women on this visa as either predatory or exploited. I read an interesting article by Lisa Constable that discussed in some detail the problems that arise when we treat Filipino maids, nannies, sex workers and prospective spouses on various visas in ‘Western’ countries as all falling under the heading of trafficked women and facing relatively homogenous problems. I do believe that it can lead to damaging racist and sexist stereotyping. It also can obfuscate a tailored approach to the different faces each group faces.

    I used to advise women in situations of family breakdown and violence at Women’s Legal Service, and prior to the family violence provisions in the current visa laws some of the women I advised were in situations where the level of coercion would have justified categorising their situation as trafficking. However I don’t think that justifies extrapolating the notion that all, or even a large percentage of women on these visas are trafficked women.

    I think this can be harmful and undermine the way we view these women and/or respect them as a whole. I would like to see a world where saying that you met through an international dating agency is not something people need to be ashamed of, or that kids of parents who met that way are ashamed of admitting.

    Finally, it is a horrific fact that many visas can be abused for human trafficking purposes, and I think constant inquiries, and revisions to ensure that we minimise the risk for this abuse as human traffickers in turn change their behaviour is critical. For the partner visa the family violence provisions, banning of repeat sponsors etc has reduced this risk. There are areas where I think the laws could be further tightened up. But that is an article for another time 🙂


  3. Very interesting! 🙂 I wonder how much of the mail order stereotype comes from old fashioned fear and mistrust of inter-racial marriage. Particularly, where one type of relationship appears overrepresented (eg white man, Asian or Eastern European woman) . As you said, there might be real reasons, political, geographic etc why some types of international partnerships appear or indeed are more common than others. However, in the west, I think we tie any observation of inter-racial couples to our fears. We start speculating : Why do western men prefer Asian women? Why do African American men prefer white women? And this feeds into a broader fear around outsiders somehow bringing down our culture. Will Western men reject the feminist project of the West and instead opt out by partnering with a seemingly subservient, exotic Eastern woman? And this seems all the more threatening because its like a takeover, from the inside. ( A woman’s power over men thru sex is also an age old fear). Of course, in reality, every relationship is unique, and every couple have their own power dynamics. This is regardless of the couples racial makeup. But, my point is, I think stereotyping of the mail-order bride is somehow a particular example of a more general fear.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for putting into words something that, as child of an inter-racial marriage, is a theme that ran through my childhood. I think that anxiety about inter-racial marriages, the notion of undermining a culture, or alternatively trading in the West’s gender politics for one that has women on uneven footing, drives a lot of the stereotyping.

    The idea that a hyper-feminine ditsy female in a tight leopard-print dress is going to steal our men away is definitely something that seems embedded in the West – not helped through representations in television shows like ‘Modern Family.’

    As many women in the Western seek to move away from a more ‘hyper-feminine’ constructs in the choices they make about appearance and career, it feeds into the fear of undermining-feminism-from-within for sure.

    Any relationship happens in a social and political context, this is highly visible in an inter-racial pairing. And I am quite interested in why pairings often tend to go one way and not the other. It’s when the questions escalate into widespread fear and wholesale labelling that this can be damaging. Agree 100% that the Mail Order Bride stereotype is a particular instance of this broader problem.


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