PBS Kids animated short Jelly, Ben & Pogo and Disney Junior series Firebuds bring on mainstream Filipino representation for young audiences to learn about other cultures and embrace their own.
My childhood was spent doing my best to relate to any remotely Asian character due to a lack of Southeast Asian representation in Western media, which meant often believing I was not “Asian enough” due to my skin color being many shades darker than all of those characters. If I wanted anything remotely Filipino, I would have to turn on TFC (The Filipino Channel) that my family fortunately paid for in addition to our DirecTV subscription. I was able to learn a bit about my culture through the channels I had, yet they were mostly non-animated teleseryes, considered to be Filipino telenovelas or dramas, and variety shows I could not really relate to. As a kid, that was not the most appealing to watch so I turned to whatever shows were popular regardless of lack of representation, such as Phineas and Ferb and Avatar the Last Airbender, until I began to enjoy those teleseryes later on.
I envied shows like Ni Hao, Kai-Lan since other kids could dress like her for Halloween and learn about their culture in an easier way. The only show I related to, of that genre, was Dora the Explorer because she looked like me enough for me to accept her as my childhood icon. I even had a bob haircut so Dora and I were kind of twinning. On the bright side, I did learn some basic Mandarin and Spanish that I may refresh with Duolingo someday…if I ever remember to do it daily and have the will to suffer from the harassment of notifications that will appear on my phone.
I yearned for a show for young Filipino-Americans who wished to learn about their culture and a show that would spread awareness of other cultures to non-Filipinos as cultural appreciation should be taught at a young age. However, these shows did not exist to the quantity they do today so I grew up with people questioning if I was even Asian since the characters they saw were East Asian. I was even once told to “Go back to China” since I briefly mentioned I was Asian. If you’re going to be racist, I would at least be very slightly less upset if you got the country right (this does not mean I would tolerate anything anti-immigrant or racist). This treatment was not only specific to me as other children of color also had similar experiences with the blatant ignorance of their classmates towards their heritage. Thus, the fact that new shows are being created with the goal of diversifying animated characters and showing children the beauty of other cultures is something that could change how children treat others who may not have the same background as them.
I did not know any Filipino-centered animated shows existed until I opened TikTok to start my day as many do. My “For you” page was filled with videos about a PBS Kids short called Jelly, Ben & Pogo, created by Filipino-American Jalysa Leva, which centers around Jelly and Ben, a sister and brother duo, and a sea monster named Pogo. Jelly and Ben’s tan skin were the first feature to stand out to me in their character design as they were a great representation for how countless Filipinos look. It felt as if my inner child was healed seeing a character that resembled me so much, and I think it would feel the same for many Filipino kids as well. Through their use of simple words and the episodic plots, Jelly and Ben are able to teach Pogo and, in turn, their audience about being Filipino.
For instance, Jelly, Ben, and Pogo attempt to make halo-halo, a popular cold dessert, for Jelly and Ben’s Lola (grandma). They struggle to create the famed dish, yet their Lola cheers them up by saying it is supposed to be mixed anyway, hence its name. This moment is symbolic of how Filipino-Americans are able to reconnect with their culture in how, despite their hesitance in making the dessert, the characters are able to embrace their culture even with the few bumps they have along the way. Being a Filipino-American isn’t a clear cut method, as I have stressed in my own CommonApp essay, but I think the show demonstrates how we can all take time to learn about our cultures, imperfect looking like halo-halo with a great result when mixed together.
Additionally, the show’s simple way of introducing cultural appreciation to a young audience aids in their understanding of other cultures and embracing their own which is why more shows like Jelly, Ben & Pogo should become more common for all other cultures present within the United States. The shorts can be found on youtube when simply searching the title Jelly, Ben & Pogo on the PBS Kids channel or on the PBS Kids website!
As aforementioned, TikTok is how I find out about a lot of “news” within the Filipino/Fil-Am community as another show featuring Filipino culture was created by mainstream media with a team of Filipino storyboard artists. Disney Junior’s Firebuds has a POC main cast with Bo, a Filipino-American aspiring firefighter, Violet, an Asian-American aspiring paramedic, and Jayden, an African-American aspiring cop.
In an Inquirer interview, Banzon, a staff writer for the show, and the many voices behind Bo’s Filipino family echo praise for the show’s existence as well. Banzon also notes how she drew from her own experiences as a Filipina-American, making Bo an authentic character whose actions echo those of other Filipino-Americans. Bo also is close to his family in his intergenerational friendships, which is common in Filipino culture as many of us grew up living with our grandparents. Furthermore, the show enables a Filipino character to be seen for both his background and personality since the show centers on the children wanting to be like their parents in helping their community.
Firebuds also has endearing moments for all Filipino kids like me who teared up watching a kid’s show at two in the morning since the father refers to Bo lovingly as “Anak”, meaning child (generally). I swear every time my parents say “I love you, Anak” I cry, so this was a fun time in my dorm with my sleeping roommate. I am so happy I have my Disney+ subscription for this show, but if you don’t, you can watch it on cable, Hulu, Fubo, and YoutubeTV!
Through the introduction of these shows, Filipino/Filipino-American kids can dress up as these characters for Halloween and for fun at home, celebrating that they have characters who were created for them for a change. They would be able to embrace their identity beyond playing dress-up as well with these positive influences. This was something I wished for growing up, settling for any remotely tan character to feel an ounce of representation. Thus, I hope for more Filipino representation in animation, and beyond in Western media, so that the newer generation of Filipino-Americans will be able to see themselves on screen as a normalcy that I never got to experience as a kid.: Animated Filipino Representation in Jelly, Ben & Pogo and Firebuds: Teaching Cultural Appreciation to a New Generation