Jumping Down the Pop Culture Rabbit Hole

Illustration by Kailee Vanderwoerd

When I first moved  to Canada, immigration pamphlets would boast about the diversity of culture. It was exciting to meet people from different walks of life but after a while I noticed that the diversity of people didn’t reflect the diversity of stories. The stereotypes often revolved around our immigrant parents’ “funny” accents, strict parenting, or the immense poverty in our countries of origin.

Maybe I had moved too early. Maybe I needed to look harder, maybe things would get better.

But the singular narrative felt limiting, sometimes even depreciating. It didn’t do justice to the vibrant, dynamic culture and multitude of lives lived by many of us.

I found some comfort in Filipino food but unlike my sister, who perused culinary books to deepen her cultural understanding, I was on the snoopier side. The proverbial “chismosa” (gossiper). I didn’t quite realize this until a family friend sold me CDs of Filipino films that were hard to come by in the 2010s (this was before a lot of digital streaming sites came to be).

The Rabbit Hole into Filipino Pop Culture

One movie, Beauty in a Bottle (2014) was about a famous actress who was slowly being phased out by a younger slimmer rising star. Struggling to find relevance, she takes on a big commercial project for a plastic surgery company. The film pokes fun at showbusiness’ beauty standards and the insecurities women from different walks of life face.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking, but it was one of the few films that had started to change the narrative in mainstream Filipino romcoms. The more I consumed, the snoopier I got. I watched more shows, clicked more gossip links, and read more news. Other films and TV shows soon followed. These days we have shows like Manilennials( 2019), Call Me Tita (2019), The Boy Foretold by the Stars (2020), and the Kangks Show (2021).

Manilennials is a dark comedy that centers on the social challenges a group of friends (barkada) encounters while living in a big city. The barkada is composed of different characters ranging from a woke, privileged pansexual artist to an ambitious transwoman who runs a catering business, a perennially underemployed gay man and the other two, a rapper wannabe call center agent, and a smart but insecure bougie pre-law student.

Call Me Tita is a series about five women having the grandest time in their 40s where aging is the least of their concerns. The Boy Foretold by the Stars is a boy’s love genre set in an all-boy’s Catholic school where an openly gay straight A student befriends the school’s star athlete. The two rely on tarot cards to predict their fate. The Kangks Show is about a sex therapist losing her TV ratings to a much younger, rambunctious TikTok influencer.

These shows reflect the signs of the time and shifts in culture. Conversations about beauty standards, insecurities, gender roles, misogyny and sexuality became increasingly discussed on social media. Gossip site columns reflected many diverse opinions, with people being more open about once taboo topics. It felt like a cumulative effort of people who kept pushing the envelope bit by bit.

But in the Canadian diaspora, the pervading stories about my culture were still rooted in ideas that we were held captive by Spanish and American colonial beliefs. Yes, the struggle to confront and release ourselves still continues but the stories of resistance never made it, or were otherwise ignored.

As a result of excessively consuming pop culture, not only was I able to get a more nuanced picture of my own culture, it also gave me a nudge of confidence, a reminder that while my countrymen were often put down by other cultures (and sometimes even by our very own), my culture is a gift that keeps on giving. The diverse stories about us reminded me that I wasn’t just an adobo and lumpia loving immigrant woman who mixes her f’s and p’s up from a country of typhoons and mosquitoes. There were many other characters I could identify with.

Admittedly, I had the privilege of understanding the Filipino language. But while language barriers and accessibility previously posed as an issue, it’s now easier to access much of Filipino pop culture. Most sources are often available in English, as are digital magazines, news, and gossip sites.

Going International, The Wonders of Many Stories

Of course, each culture will still have its staple of formulaic shows- the Filipino teleseryes, Korean makjangs, and American soap operas. Even Hollywood films have an American ideology that’s harder to spot if immersed in it too long—the story of the white saviour.

But as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once pointed out, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

A friend once dismissed Korean Dramas, trashing the stories as formulaic, with leads being corporate heirs (chaebol), lovers dying of cancer, characters getting into accidents, and developing amnesia. But unlike him, I didn’t just watch one show and called it a day. I had been watching Korean TV shows since 2001, when South Korea was just starting to export their entertainment into the Asian market. That whole premise was called a makjang, makjangs are a genre. There were so many other genres he had missed out on.  

One of the more common chaebol tropes was a 2012 series called Cheongdam-dong Alice. It was about a struggling fashion designer, the “Alice”, and a department store heir who fell in love with her. We could leave it at that, but the story turned out to be a commentary on social mobility and class struggle.

Alice was exhausted, she had always been hard working and bright, getting scholarships and winning awards yet her life was falling apart. Her father’s business is under threat due to a chain bakery opening next door, her boyfriend is forced into hiding because of mounting hospital bills, and her resume is always overlooked in favour of wealthy applicants with international experience.

Alice plans to seduce a rich man, persuading a middleman, her “white rabbit” to show her the ropes. In one of Alice’s lines, she questions why she was the only one being subjected to taunts when her love rival had similar goals. Was it because her love rival was well-off? What made the two of them different? Was it easier to demonize the poor for wanting the same things?

This K-drama series was just one of the many series that had started to tackle social mobility, housing crisis, underemployment, and workplace sexism. I found a common thread with these stories even if I was of a different country.

Evolving Stories, Discovering More

Consuming pop culture from other countries also opened doors for me to discover the lives of those outside my own. It may not be the complete picture but it’s a journey to witness the evolution and complexity of stories.

Content streaming sites now make it easier for us to discover media from different cultures. Gone were the days when I had to fight for cable TV so I could switch to international channels with subtitles like Channel V Asia, Star Mandarin, and Arirang TV. A simple Google search can now pave the way to a rabbit hole of content.

Many people have also ventured into watching international shows outside of Hollywood. People have raved about the Spanish crime drama Money Heist or the Turkish epic series Resurrection: Ertuğrul. For romcom, there’s a fun one i watch, Ghana’s answer to Sex and The City- the web series An African City. Reality TV shows like Terrace House and Single’s Inferno have also built a cult following. These shows spill into online forums, podcasts, Youtube commentaries where exchanges of ideas happen, and people give context to cultures.

As we consume more varied and diverse content, our perspectives broaden and deepen, helping us step out of our ethnocentrism. If I think about it, subtitles were never barriers, they’ve always been an invitation to watch.