WAVE1

Marvel’s Wave Isn’t Just Filipino, She’s Bisaya

And we're hoping the MCU remembers this when the superhero makes her onscreen debut

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Words by Julienne Pal Loreto

Note: The author uses the endonym “Bisaya” in this article in reference to the language Cebuano and its native speakers. Interviewees who have requested to remain anonymous are left unnamed.

In July, a panel at San Diego Comic-Con confirmed that Marvel Comics’ Filipino superheroine Pearl Pangan, aka Wave, will make her onscreen debut via Spider-Man: Freshman Year in 2024. Filipinos have been buzzing about her since she was unveiled in 2019, created by Leinil Yu, a Filipino, and Greg Pak. Now, she’s set to be Peter Parker’s new crush.

After all the times Tom Holland and Zendaya made us swoon as Peter and MJ? Big shoes to fill! One of my fondest memories from The Last Pre-Pandemic Summer is watching Spider-Man: Far From Home, like probably every other teenager in 2019. But Filipinos will get over it, considering we’ll finally have a Filipino MCU hero representing us: one nation with one language and one culture. The problem is…we’re really not. As somebody of Pearl’s specific heritage, I’m terrified about the casting.

The Filipino “language” is artificial—much like the idea of the Filipino nation in itself, a Spanish colonial invention. Developed in the 1930s, Filipino is a standardized form of Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in Spanish-era capital Manila (besides Spanish). Filipino officially became the national language in 1946, cementing its prestige. Contrary to popular belief, Filipino is the same language as Tagalog.

“Filipino culture” is a misnomer, too. I’m definitely not saying that the Philippines is devoid of culture. The issue with that phrase lies in its suggestions of homogeneity; the ridiculous notion that nearly 2,000 inhabited islands produced only one singular culture. In reality, the Philippines is home to more than 100 ethnicities, each boasting their own rich history, culture, and language.

The cover of “Atlantis Attacks Vol. 4,” written by Greg Pak.

Art by Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz and Rain Beredo

However, the mainstream invention of “Filipino culture” is heavily indebted to the cultures of Visayas, where Pearl is from. Tinikling, our national dance, for example, originates from my home province, Leyte, in Eastern Visayas. Pearl’s heritage is specific to us. But most people probably don’t understand why, for many Bisaya folks, casting just any Filipino actress won’t be enough.

I’m just a casual MCU fan. Regardless of what you or I feel about the MCU though, its reach is far and wide. Media representation alone won’t be enough to destroy systemic inequalities. But it still has a major impact on the real world. And the MCU is such a powerful, socially saturated franchise that representation within it could transform the lives of people within marginalized and invisible communities. Likewise, the consequences of poor representation for such communities could be disastrous.

A study published by Paramount Insights shows that when people feel like they aren’t represented well on screen, it damages their mental health and self-esteem. Other studies reveal that poor representation in the media promotes public hostility toward other ethnic groups.

Sociolinguistics professor Ruanni Tupas pointed out that regular folks, especially Gen Z kids like me, don’t care for academic jargon. But pop culture helps us really get it. For example, there’s the burgeoning P-Pop (Philippine Pop) idol scene. Last year, Tupas did a Philippine languages comparison video with multilingual, multiethnic boy band ALAMAT.  “Academics would be happy to be watched by a hundred people on YouTube, but this one is [closer to] 500,000 [views],” he noted. Schools now use his boy band video in classrooms, he happily informed me.

Members of Philippine pop groups ALAMAT and BINI sing in seven Philippine languages together during a collaboration performance.

@aroo_fotos Twitter

MCU fans acknowledge how wrong it would be to whitewash Pearl Pangan, yet they don’t have the same respect for Pearl’s heritage, as if Pearl’s Bisaya-ness is simply a bonus feature, or perhaps even something that would derail the efforts to keep her from being whitewashed. They fan-cast actresses who aren’t Bisaya.

What they don’t seem to understand is that prejudices rarely work alone. This is no exception. As Iris April Ramirez, an educator at Bukidnon State University, notes in her 2018 paper, Bisaya discrimination often overlaps with colorism and classism.

Pearl being Bisaya is not a bonus feature. It would be extremely powerful to see a proud brown-skinned Bisaya girl whose skin color and ethnolinguistic identity aren’t treated as flaws, but rather, important parts of who she is, an awesome superheroine.

For many of us Bisaya people, a genuinely good representation of Pearl’s heritage entails casting a Bisaya actress. They could just make any Filipino actress study the Bisaya language and culture for Authenticity™… but why should they? All the Bisaya people I’ve interviewed unanimously agreed that they would be disappointed, though not surprised, if they don’t cast a Bisaya actress as Pearl.

“That raises the question as to why aim for authenticity when we have fully capable Bisaya actresses out there,” said one friend. He’s a young adult from Cebu, the same home province as Pearl’s. “This would be a great opportunity to showcase Bisaya talent.”

A panel from “War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas Vol. 1,” written by Greg Pak—showing Wave, interacting with Tagalog, despite growing up in Central Visayas, where Bisaya is the predominant language.

Art by Gang Hyuk Lim and Federico Blee

“I think it’s unfair to conflate Filipinos,” said Ara Chawdhury, a 33-year-old Bisaya filmmaker best known for co-writing Nocebo, starring Eva Green, Mark Strong, and Bisaya actress Chai Fonacier. She tells me that she has walked out of a script reading before, because the writer “conflated Cebuanos with Tagalogs.” She says, “Visayans are erased enough. [...]To not be able to differentiate is just lazy.”

The Bisaya interviewees, with ages ranging from mid-teens to 30s, shared horrifying accounts of discrimination and violence on the basis of our ethnicity. Most (including myself) were fined in school for speaking Bisaya. (Only Filipino and English are typically allowed or encouraged in Philippine classrooms, despite some efforts from DepEd to promote other languages in more recent years.)

Twenty-four-year-old Konna from Bohol said their teachers physically punished children—five ruler slaps per infraction—whenever they broke the classroom’s no-Bisaya rule. She also shared that her brother racked up a hefty thousand-peso fine for speaking Bisaya in the classroom, causing the family both financial and emotional strain.

Another person said their friend was physically assaulted by their elders whenever they spoke Bisaya. Twenty-six-year-old Minxie Villaver said her teachers forced her to walk around campus with a sash saying “I WILL NOT SPEAK BISAYA” as a penalty for speaking her native tongue, even though it was a school in Cebu, where Bisaya is the predominant language.

Even some of the most celebrated, well-known Bisaya celebs like Pilita Corrales and Sheryn Regis have shared that the industry’s discrimination against their background has affected their careers. Bisaya domestic helpers are commodified and maltreated, as netizen Rachel Amestoso described in 2017.

Again, good representation in a franchise as powerful as the MCU has the potential to change the lives of our community for the better. Casting is just the first step, but it’s an essential one. We need an actress who understands what it’s like to really live as Bisaya, not someone who merely puts it on as a costume.

If the MCU can create CGI aliens from far-flung planets, surely the task of finding Bisaya actresses will be much easier, whether it’s for her animated version in Freshman Year or a live-action depiction someday. Unlike aliens, we actually exist.

In the MCU’s sprawling multiverse, where anything can happen, I hope there is a place for Bisaya people in even just one universe.

Published on November 28, 2022

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Words by Julienne Pal Loreto

Julienne Pal Loreto (she/they) is a university student, freelance writer, and proud Bisaya. This year, their short story “Colony VII” was selected for the anthology Super Societies and Other Stories: The Best Philippine Sci-fi Stories by 8Letters. She is a lifelong Pokémon fan and really hopes to see that #JaneNella rom-com happen. Follow her on Twitter at @yenpal1 and on Medium (@yenpal).