New Filipino TV show under fire for casting part-white actors in brownface

Photo from Bagani Facebook page.
Photo from Bagani Facebook page.

The Philippines has long had a problem with putting light skin on a pedestal, something that is very apparent in its pop culture. This was brought to light again this month after a trailer for an upcoming teleserye (TV series) was released showing part-white actors playing roles inspired by Filipino mythological figures.

The show, titled Bagani, is a drama fantasy set in a fictional world that borrows elements from Philippine mythology and pre-colonial Philippines.

From a marketing point of view, casting Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano in the lead roles make sense because they are two of the most popular young actors today, but many found this problematic because both of them are part white.

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Gil is part Spanish, German, and Filipino, while Soberano is half Filpino and half American. Even the show’s supporting characters are played by light-skinned actors, like Matteo Guidicelli who is half Italian.

Based on the trailer, it looks like the cast used a whole lot of bronzer to darken their skin, which some consider  brownface.

Local pop culture is not only a reflection of the country’s obsession with white skin but is also one of the reasons why the notion that “white is better” continues today. Filipino celebrities are usually light skinned or mestizo (mixed race) and shows and movies still portray racial stereotypes.

“Popular media — film and television and magazines — have a huge role in perpetuating the idea that lighter skin is more desirable than dark skin. Right from the get-go, from childhood, Filipinos are already bombarded and inculcated with these ideas,” PhD scholar E.J.R. David, author of Brown Skin, White Minds, told Coconuts Manila.

And Bagani is just the latest example of this phenomenon. In 2011, the show Nita Negrita was under fire for casting a light-skinned actress to play a half black Filipino and painting her skin black. The story also revolved around how the lead character is teased for her looks.

READ: Life on the drip: Tapping into a country’s color obsession

Still, Bagani‘s creators don’t see anything wrong with the casting. In a statement posted on Facebook, the show’s writer Mark Duane Angos explained that it should not be described as pre-colonial or historical because it is set in a fictional world.

Bagani is set in a fictional world called Sanisinukob — an alternative world with elements from Philippine mythology. It is not pre-colonial. It is not historical. Hence it is not a portrayal of pre-colonial people or a particular historical period or event,” he wrote in English and Filipino.

Soberano also took to Twitter to defend her role in the project. In a reply to a now-deleted tweet by user @deeCrz, she challenged those saying that she is not Filipino enough.

“And who says were not pinoy? My Father is full Filipino. I was raised by two Filipinos since the age of 4. I looooove sinigang (sour soup) I think thats as pinoy as pinoy can get,” she posted on Friday.

But some people are still not having it and said that the issue wasn’t whether she was Filipino enough, but that her looks don’t match the character.

Others even compared the show to the latest Marvel film Black Panther, which was inspired by African culture and has a predominantly black cast.

David understands that film and television is a business but also thinks that the show is a missed opportunity to change how Filipinos see dark skin.

“I wish they were in the business of social justice, and I wish they would use their immense power and influence over the masses to change the dominant narrative and make brown skin cool,” he said. “They had yet another chance to be revolutionary here, another chance to challenge the dominant ‘white is better’ narrative, but instead they are simply propagating and reinforcing it again. Nothing new.”

But others also came to Soberano and the show’s defense.

But for David, what’s problematic is that producers could have simply hired darker-skinned actors instead.

“…it is problematic because there is an abundance of talented and naturally brown-skinned actors in the Philippines,” he said. “So to finally have major lead roles for brown-skinned characters, which is rare, and yet naturally brown-skinned actors are still passed over for such roles and such roles still end up going to light-skinned actors, simply reinforces the light-skin bias in society and does nothing to empower and lift up brown-skinned actors – and brown-skinned Filipinos more generally.”

Bagani is set to premiere on the ABS-CBN channel in March.

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