Vanessa Hudgens and my Filipina-Canadian hoopster dream
The Filipin* diaspora, biracialism and gender seen through basketball
I must confess that I was never a basketball player of proficient skill, but played with fervor. I balled into early high school, sauntering into gyms entrenched with white mothers (see my mom on the side lines) Scotch taping our earrings to our lobes and dolloping out Styrofoam chalices of piss-yellow Gatorade. At this time, my experiences with gender, race and basketball were in the earliest of stages of a jarring cultural interrogation. I no longer play basketball in a formal setting- I dabble in pick-up at Christie Pitts and swing in sporadically for an intermural team. This physical and emotional distance from balling allowed me to uncover unsavoury limitations to a virtuous sportier period of my life.
In regards to the Filipin* diaspora, for me there is some kind of dream. I like to call them, my hoopster dreams. My hoopster dreams are aspirational, personal and sometimes dysphoric. It is a fabrication to describe my experience as a woman, as a Filipin* and as a descendant of immigrants playing basketball in Canada. I say dream because it is largely imaginative to me, maybe verging on toxically fictional. I’m absorbed in attempting to envision it in various capacities. If my immigrant grandparents choose to pass down Tagalog, if my skin was darker like my dad’s, my eyes grey like my mother are just a few examples. I am always dissatisfied with my personal racial narrative, as it is always recontextualizing itself whether I like it or not. My hoopster dreams revolve around falsehoods but it works for me to understand the diaspora.
The concepts of femininity and racial identity are in everything I do, these signifiers residing in my own personal hoopster career. It is to my own dismay that my understanding of race and gender in sport has been largely guided by a western dominated media infused with faults. I am affected by post-colonial life and erasure within South-East Asian basketball that was facilitated by western media.
The media supplies a slew of information that determines the anti-Asian attitudes and tension within a Canadian nativism. South-East Asians have been playing basketball since the Americans colonized. Even though the Philippines Basketball Association (PBA) is almost the same in age as the NBA, it isn’t well-known in Western culture. The PBA allows one Western basketball player for each team to come to play within the league. These “import players” are often Westerners that are glorified. By playing basketball, there is potential for an inversion of stereotypes for Asian peoples in sports and integrate into the fabric of a post-colonial environment. This notion however is structured on the troublesome premise of the “model minority” and western imperialism.
The people of the Philippines have a complex history. Colonization in the Philippines by Spain, Japan and the United States has sculpted the nation and its people immensely. Filipin* are able to float in and between ethnic groups because of the typically darker complexion, the adoption of Spanish derived names and geographical location. Filipin* are subjected to colourism and racism because of their darker complexion relatively to other Asian ethnicities. These clashing markers of identity create a multitude of different Filipin* voices and stories, creating a unique narrative that does not necessarily fit the vagueness of Asianess or within categorizable Canadian racial landscape. Basketball and its wide popularity in the Philippines is a product of colonization, and its affects adds to Filipin* peoples intricate social history.
My father is full Filipino. His family moved to eastern Canada, curiously clashing pancit and cod tongues, ensamada and touton with molasses. Growing up, my father played hockey in St. John’s, Newfoundland, unenthusiastically attended an all-boys Catholic school, and played the piano for a local CBC program. His musicality was never tried but my dad was often told he was a good hockey player for a brown boy. What does this mean for South-East Asian tropes of masculinity? Why is my cisgendered Asian father deemed inept to play this classically Canadian sport at an exceptional level? When I started playing basketball, was I disenfranchised because of my race? My hoopster dreams have been created in reference to the supposed contradictions that Asian descendants cannot excel at certain sports.
I was the only Filipina on the team. In fact, the only other Filipino person in the league was my older brother who played a few divisions above me. South-East Asian players have been displaced and lost as a confusing racialized body of players.
I probably shouldn’t give this movie this much attention, but this low-hanging fruit of a film has had a profound influence on my perspective of gender, biracialism and basketball. In the mid-late 2000s was the cultural peak of Disney’s highly lucrative High School Musical. The musical television film follows the love affair of supposed opposites, dorky Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) and basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron). Because of the prevailing success of the movie, I learned Vanessa Hudgens was a biracial Filipin* too at the impressionable age of ten. Even though Gabriella is hopelessly desired by the hunky generic jock archetype Troy, I felt underwhelmed when people compared my likeness to Gabriella’s because all the girls I knew looked like Sharpay.
Gabriella is in a blossoming, vanilla relationship with emotionally conflicted heartthrob but humdrum Troy. Troy is fraught trying to balance the demanding extracurriculars of his life as the high school’s masculine basketball hotshot and his newly discovered knack for singing, unearthed by the musical passions of his love interest. There is comicality that the plot is driven by Troy’s physical worth – the focal struggle depends on the idea that both the team and the musical cannot function without his presence. This white male narrative runs its exhausting course – Troy obtaining lots of power within the relationship and ultimately achieving to get both trophies of the girl, the lead, and winning the championship.
Basketball is the epitome of masculinity in the movie. I am referencing a performative masculinity; their physical appearance and cultural expectations within a male-dominated collective. This combined mass of men create the conventional male high school sport team: tall, muscular and agile. The team consists of cismen in mesh shorts (no playful homoerotic sporty ass-slapping unfortunately) parading their school pride through the hallways of school. Troy’s opposing musical passion consists of mostly women. The divide is made apparent in the film that one cannot be interested in both sport and musical. This extends to gender, in which the women are the artistic ones and the men are the athletic – it doesn’t appear that either gender is capable of fulfilling both skillsets. In terms of masculinity and femininity I question what would happen if Gabriella was to be in the role of Troy. What if Gabriella was the basketball MVP who was in control? Is this control? In a fictitious role reversal, I envision myself, a biracial woman, through Gabriella as the baller all-star.
As if it hasn’t gotten enough coverage over the past decade, it is important to mention “Linsanity”. This cultural phenomena was a major contributor to my own hoopster dreams. Jeremy Lin is not from the Philippines, but his representation in the NBA inspired many Asians to shoot hoops in his peak fame. In 2012, during the later years of my basketball career, Lin was playing phenomenally for the New York Knicks. At the time, I was reluctant to see that Lin’s outstanding performance was situated in racist and ethnocentric ideologies. I didn’t understand that Lin's athletic triumphs were undermined with the absurd cultural disbelief that a person of Asian descent could excel in sport. Lin was no longer an individual, but a stereotype, which evoked a disturbing humour that meekly veiled racism in sports, media outlets and within society. I think that is what interests me in the superstardom of people like Jeremy Lin, a racial underdog story of America. The narrative is concrete in the sense that there was a climax, one that I think I have been searching for in my hoopster dreams. As a woman, female basketball was never taken as seriously as men’s. Additionally, by being an Asian individual, there are prejudices associated with Asians within sports – that we are not adequate to excel athletically. I think of Lin as a disturbing example of society’s racism towards Asians in basketball.
Filipino basketball team, Mangoes. 1945-1960, courtesy of Peter Jamero
I’ve been playing basketball for half of my life. All those screens set and free throws I’ve made or missed, I don’t get tired of this sport. If it isn’t blatantly apparent by this point, it is a constant struggle to find comfort in my gender and racial identity. I try and express my vulnerability through a veil of humour, but also sincerity. Each time I step within the paint, I consider Filipin* history and hold its weight. I appreciate the game, my mom for keeping me laced, and all those Filipin* out there who have drove the ball forward. For those hooping right now, continuing to give and go, I got your back, and I am open.
Note: the article uses Filipin/a/o/*. My potentially contradictory usage of the terms interchangeably is to acknowledge the work our peoples are doing to decolonize and dismantle the white-centric gender binary associated with these Filipina and Filipino. I do not wish to undermine a multivocality of those who are oppressed through a gendered experience and will also use Filipin/a/o in reference individuals in my family who wish to associate with what they please.
Marissa Sean Cruz is a Canadian interdisciplinary artist. Cruz's practice is based in Montreal, Canada where she focuses on video and sculpture. As a biracial Filipina, much of Cruz's work acts as a rapprochement into the complexities of racial identity and reconciliation of sexual and social absurdities of daily "feminine" rituals. Find more of her work at: www.marissaseancruz.com