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'Desperate Housewives' in diplomatic row over Filipino doctors 'slur'

Desperate Housewives may be a comedy about bored suburbanites and the outrageous things they say and do, but some things are clearly too outrageous for prime-time American television.

A throw-away line in the hit show's season premiere, aired last Sunday, has provoked outrage among Filipino Americans and triggered a minor diplomatic incident involving the government in Manila and the executives who run ABC, the network that has played host to the show for the past three years.

The offending moment came when Susan Mayer, played by Teri Hatcher, throws a fit at her gynaecologist and questions his credentials because he suggests she is going through the early stages of menopause. "Can I check those diplomas," she says, "because I want to make sure they're not from some med school in the Philippines."

Almost instantly, Filipinos started objecting because they are very proud of their medical schools. The day after the broadcast, a Filipino American performance artist and college lecturer called Kevin Nadal started an online petition describing the line as "unnecessary and hurtful, but... also unfounded, considering the presence of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the health care industry". More than 50,000 people signed it.

The day after that, a spokesman for Gloria Arroyo, president of the Philippines, described the line as a "racial slur". Several Filipino politicians demanded an apology from ABC. The Foreign Ministry in Manila pointed out that many Americans went to the Philippines for medical services they cannot afford at home.

The Filipino consul in Los Angeles, Mary Jo Bernardo Aragon, wrote a letter to ABC further defending her country's honour. "The US recognises the students of Philippine medical and nursing schools and in general, does not require additional schooling in the US for Filipino healthcare professionals."

The reaction clearly took ABC by surprise because the network did something networks almost never do. Rather than say it was the prejudiced opinion of a character, not the show's producers – the obvious line of counter-attack – it apologised.

"The producers of Desperate Housewives and ABC Studios offer our sincere apologies for any offence caused by the brief reference in the season premiere," a statement said. "There was no intent to disparage the integrity of any aspect of the medical community in the Philippines. As leaders in broadcast diversity, we are committed to presenting sensitive and respectful images of all communities featured in our programmes."

Even that was not enough to satisfy some Filipino politicians. "It is not commensurate to the damage created by the derogatory remark ...," Senator Ramon Revilla said. "The makers of Desperate Housewives should formally and publicly express their apology in their next episode to signify sincerity." Others urged Filipino viewers to stop watching the show altogether.

This is not the first time that countries have taken offence at the way they are fictionalised and, often, sent up by Western writers and entertainers. It is, however, the first time one of them has struck such a nerve.

Jonathan Franzen caused similar outrage with his celebrated novel The Corrections, in which he depicted Lithuania as a country of gangsters, chronic electricity shortages and desperate citizens forced to subsist on horsemeat. His publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, brushed off the ensuing squeals of indignation by suggesting Franzen had picked an eastern European country "at random" and created a Lithuania "largely in his imagination".