Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Growing up, the idea of proper Filipino representation in Western media was perhaps not as important to us as it is now. We didn't care about representation, because we weren't even aware that it was possible. It was always just a pleasant surprise when someone onscreen turned out to be Filipino, even if they were being made fun of or perpetuating harmful stereotypes, objects of otherist and exoticist ideas.
The characters listed below have challenged the norm and defied expectations simply by existing. They have names and lines, and some of them are the leads. Their Filipino backgrounds are explicitly stated, they're played by actual Filipinos, and their portrayals show care and attention to detail that tells other Filipinos who might be watching that they matter.
Representation is important because it proves that our stories our valid, that we are valid. It's always nice to see someone on T.V. who might know what you've been through, who can share your story and be a familiar piece of home to cling to, who can embody your culture in ways that actually, for once, make so much sense. It allows us to say: “This is who we are.”
“How to Get Away with Murder”
The Actor: Conrad Ricamora
The Character: Oliver Hampton
Initially planned to be a one-off character in the pilot of the Viola Davis-led law drama “How to Get Away with Murder,” Oliver Hampton is an HIV-positive IT employee and hacking whiz who turns from one of Connor’s (played by actor Jack Falahee) one night stands to a sixth ranger of sorts for the gang — a decision executive producer Peter Nowalk came to after seeing what actor Ricamora (who, like Oliver, is openly gay) brought to the character. In season five, Oliver marries Connor, and it is at this wedding that he is able to pave the way for major representation: He wears a barong, and as his mother, played by Manila-born actress Mia Katigbak, walks him down the aisle, she affectionately says, “Ang aking anak.”
The Actor: Reggie Lee
The Character: Drew Wu
Played by Reggie Lee as a regular in the fantasy crime procedural “Grimm,” Drew Wu is a police sergeant who helps the lead detectives solve murders and other mysteries with a tinge of the strange and the supernatural. Season three confirms that he is Filipino, in an episode where one of his childhood friends is attacked in her home and he recalls his grandmother’s stories about aswang lore. The use of the monster in the episode — which came complete with creepy ticking noises — was reportedly suggested by Lee himself, who also mentioned the manananggal and duwende to producers.
The Actor: Vanessa Hudgens
The Character: Emily Locke
Set in the same universe as the DC Universe, which includes “The Flash” and “Supergirl,” the short-lived series “Powerless” was unique in that it centered on ordinary, non-superpowered people — and that it was essentially a workplace comedy. Vanessa Hudgens starred as Emily Locke, who heads Research & Development at Wayne Security and at one point utters the line, “I’m half-Filipino.” While Hudgens has often played ethnically ambiguous characters or Latin-Americans, Emily became the first role that actually acknowledges her Filipino heritage.
The Character: Lars Barriga
In this Cartoon Network series about magical beings who guard earth from less friendly magical beings, Lars Barriga is a snarky slacker who works at a donut shop, goes on an adventure of his own, becomes more true to himself, and also gains magical abilities in the process. Former “Steven Universe” supervising director Ian Jones-Quartey first mentioned Lars’ Filipino heritage, in an episode titled “The Good Lars.” This is further fleshed out when Lars uses his family’s ube roll recipe to whip something up for a potluck, prompted by Steven to “make something that represents [him].” The cake-baking sequence was positively ASMR-worthy, and made plenty of Filipinos this side of the world and otherwise — and even people who had never even heard of ube — crave the nationally adored dessert.
The Actor: Vincent Rodriguez III
The Character: Josh Chan
Rachel Bloom’s musical romantic comedy series was a pioneer in a lot of ways, including introducing a male lead whose Filipino-ness went beyond simply being told or shown to the audience — it was experienced. Josh Chan, played by Vincent Rodriguez III, is Rebecca’s hunky ex from 10 years ago for whom she upends her life and moves to another city so she could pursue him. Bloom hired Fil-Am writer Rene Gube to ensure the portrayal of Josh’s culture would be authentic and relatable to audiences of the same background: from the strong Catholic faith, to holidays spent eating dinuguan and adobo with a massive extended Filipino family, to a singing aunt (Lea Salonga, who else?) at his sister’s wedding.
The Actor: Nico Santos
The Character: Mateo Liwanag
When Nico Santos was cast in “Superstore” as Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag, writers ended up molding his character around him, which led to their shared background of being gay and born and raised in the Philippines. It’s something that’s been referenced on the show multiple times, in ways that are both funny and relevant, and through scenes that actually contribute to the plot. Mateo learns that he’s undocumented when he mentions going to the “green card store” with his grandmother, and in another episode, he gets an interesting makeover so he could use someone else’s passport to fly to the Philippines and attend a wedding. A character even suggests that he become an outspoken critic of the President (who is name-dropped) to help with his application for asylum in America.
“The Good Place”
The Actors: Manny Jacinto and Eugene Cordero
The Characters: Jason Mendoza and Pillboi
One of the characters introduced in the afterlife comedy “The Good Place” is Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who’s taken a vow of silence — except he’s actually Jason Mendoza, an amateur DJ and fraudulent drug dealer. Actor Manny Jacinto is fantastic as he gripes, “Everyone here thinks I’m Taiwanese. I’m Filipino… Heaven is so racist.” Jacinto is joined by another Filipino actor, Eugene Cordero, who plays Jason’s best friend Pillboi. All Jason and Pillboi talk about is pretty much DJing, and if there were a Bechdel Test equivalent for two characters of the same ethnicity conversing without once being stereotyped or using their race as a punchline, they’ve definitely passed it. Sure, as far as representation goes, Jason is dumb and maybe not the best person, but then again, so are the rest of his companions. If there are any harmful generalizations at play here, the only victim is Florida.
The Actor: Bob Morley
The Character: Bellamy Blake
Post-apocalyptic teen series “The 100” takes place years after humanity is thought to have gone extinct on earth, with the only surviving people living on a space station that orbits the planet. Constantly toeing the line between anti-hero and anti-villain, broody anarchist Bellamy quickly becomes co-leader of the titular hundred — a group of juvenile delinquents sent to earth to see if it’s safe to inhabit once more. A debate continues to rage between fans as to whether Bellamy is actually Filipino, but his actor, Filipino-Australian Bob Morley, is certainly not shy about proclaiming and promoting his heritage.
The Actor: Lourdes Faberes
The Character: Pollution (“Good Omens”)
Based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, “Good Omens” follows a demon and an angel on a quest to prevent the coming end of the world. Working against them are the harbingers: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of which is Pollution. In this adaptation, Pollution is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and they’re played by Filipino actress Lourdes Faberes. As their name suggests, Pollution leaves trash, decay, and corrosion wherever they walk. It’s an important instance of casting, not only to see another Filipino face on mainstream television, but also because it could be seen as an allusion to the Philippine’s own struggles with pollution.