TV shows and movies really stink.
Not because I don’t enjoy either form of media. Trust me, I’m a serial binge-watcher. I get attached to new series faster than commercial breaks on Hulu. But I feel a little lonely, on occasion, consuming all this media. This was especially true when I was younger. I loved my Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street, but as a Gujarati girl born in California, I was always searching for a character that looked like me but was never able to find one.
Presently, as I’m exposing myself to stuff that isn’t just children’s programming, I’ve come to realize the Western media does feature South Asian characters (hurrah!). But I’ve made two observations about them. The first: they’re rare. Like, extremely rare. Sure, you’ve got your occasional main protagonist in a sitcom, like Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project or Raj Koothrapalli in The Big Bang Theory. But for the most part, we’re more or less an endangered species on television and in films. The second observation is this: in those rare instances South Asian characters do feature in a television or movie role, their characterization is generally skewed silly by stereotypes and tropes. Just fantastic. Here are three of the most common ones I’ve seen in the portrayal of South Asians.
1. The Ambiguous Brown Character
This isn’t a trope exclusive to South Asians, but it’s definitely one our ethnicities are more susceptible to. We’ve all seen this one in action; a person with skin that’s definitely too dark to be European will show up onscreen. The problem is this: it’s not explicitly stated what ethnicity the character is of. Black? Latino/a? Asian Indian? Who knows! This ambiguously brown individual has no distinct features that clue audiences into what ethnicity that person is supposed to represent.
Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was a groundbreaking film, the first from the franchise to feature an African American princess. However, while Princess Tiana’s ethnicity was made very clear, that of her love interest, Prince Naveen, remains without specificity. His facial features aren’t indicative of being from any certain part of the world, for one. His name is traditionally an Asian Indian one and Brazilian actor Bruno Campos voices his character. The fictional country he’s from is called Maldonia, which sounds like a combination of Malta and Macedonia, a country and region both respectively located in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, Naveen is shown to speak a little French (a brief exclamation of ‘Enchante!’ right before the song “Friends on the Other Side”) and another unknown language indigenous to where he comes from.
What’s the point of all this trivia about arguably one of the most handsome Disney men ever?
We still don’t know where he’s from. All the indicators the film provides us with are vague; the evidence points to more than one different ethnicity, and these ethnicities are common in many diverse parts of the world, no less. Naveen is the archetypal ambiguous brown character.
The problem with this particular trope is that casting directors and others in charge of overseeing the actors and actresses in the media seem to assume that, by casting one brown person in one role, the need to define where that brown person is from is unnecessary. But that’s not diversity; a single individual with skin that’s not quite white as snow isn’t going to make me happy, especially if I don’t even know where that character is from. Putting all people of darker skin under one umbrella and using one face to represent a literal world of different ethnicities does not even scratch the surface of media representation. Naveen is just another character who has become a poster child for the huge demographic of underrepresented individuals in the media who are expected to make do with his ambiguous brown-ness. Typical.
2. The Incredibly Nerdy Character
Nearly seventy percent of all Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That must mean they’re all nerds, yes?
Apparently so, according to the way Western media and American media in particular choose to portray them. South Asian nerds are the most popular kind, especially when matched with a thick accent, sweater vest, and no social skills. These characters are often depicted with their friends who make fun of the aforementioned characters’ ethnicity and habits. Take Raj Koothrapalli from Fox’s sitcom The Big Bang Theory, for example. Raj is a young Indian astrophysicist at Caltech. In the history of the show, he’s credited with discovering an asteroid belt and is named one of People Magazine’s “Top 30 (Visionaries) Under 30 (Years of Age) to Watch.” An incredible couple of feats, yeah? You’d think it’d be totally great to have a South Asian character who’s so intelligent so positively represented on mainstream television.
Except he isn’t quite allowed that. Raj is the typical South Asian nerd. And, look. He’s even got a sweater vest.
In the show, Raj is shown to be selectively mute; he’s unable to speak to women, making him the butt of many jokes and reinforcing the idea that nerds can’t talk to girls. His group of friends consistently mock everything about India, whether it’s Raj’s accent (which perpetuates the idea that South Asians can not be assimilated into Western cultures and that they’re not really a part of them) or the apparent ‘famine’ in the country (even though malnutrition-related deaths have decreased considerably in recent years). Raj’s character was originally intended to be an Indian-American named ‘Dave,’ but casting directors hired actor Kunal Nayyar to play him because Nayyar was “just so Indian!” If that’s not demonstrative of this trope and the stereotype that all nerds who are Indian are incredibly unassimilated into Western cultures, I don’t know what is.
All these factors melded together create the quintessential South Asian nerd. Raj has got mean friends, a social disorder, a thick accent, and above-average intelligence. Why is this combination problematic? Because it reinforces the idea that all Indian people are nerdy, and stereotypically so. This certainly is not the case in real life; an entire ethnicity’s people can’t be described by one hyper-specific and super prevalent trope.
3. Poor, Spiritual India
We’ve all seen this one before. A white protagonist trying to ‘find’ himself or herself in a Western film travels all the way to an exotic South Asian country, is shocked by the destitution, and is inspired by the simplicity and beauty of the people who live there. The film concludes with a religious awakening and sense of self-fulfillment in our sprightly protagonist.
Eat Pray Love is a 2010 romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts. The film is about the real-life experiences of a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert (Robert) who travels to different European and Asian countries on a mission of self-discovery. Gilbert makes a stop in India to ‘learn the power of prayer.’ In the memoir the film was based on, Gilbert provides the following description of India: “Outside the walls of the Ashram, it is all dust and poverty.” In the film itself, audiences are treated to scenes of Gilbert meditating in an Ashram and discovering the power of faith because, apparently, India is run on religion.
And then there’s Slumdog Millionaire. The film, a British drama directed by Danny Boyle, is famous in part for its portrayal of poverty in India.
While India is certainly rife with poverty, and it’d be silly to deny the fact, the truth is there are other parts of the country that aren’t as destitute that are rarely ever shown on screen. India is rarely ever depicted as a good place to live in order to contrast sharply with the first-world country the protagonist came from and because Western movies always choose to show these two particular aspects of the country and its people. The outcome of this portrayal? American sociologist Yvette Rosser found that sensationalist news stories paired with similarly sensationalist media have painted a very negative picture of South Asian cultures in the United States. Rosser interviewed numerous South Asian students and asked them what misrepresentations, stereotypes, and ideas they’d seen of India in the classroom and media. An American-born Asian Indian student from Houston responded that she’d seen India connoted with “wars, disease…Gandhi, Mother Theresa, female infanticide, flooding, and starvation; India [is] only thought of as a third world country—considered inferior and totally ignorant of world events. The economic backwardness of India [is] blamed on the superstitious and polytheistic nature of Hinduism.”
The media is, in part, to blame for this because of its portraying South Asian people as impoverished and simple-minded. This is a trope and stereotype that needs to be broken. South Asian cultures aren’t supposed to be the backgrounds for WASP journeys of self-discovery. South Asian cultures are so much more than what the camera lens makes them out to be.
It’s important to remember that not all Western media is in the wrong, and that a lot of the films and TV shows mentioned have done so much for the South Asian population in terms of increasing diversity in the media and tearing down stereotypes. But there’s still a really, really long way to go, in terms of accurate and equal representation. These tropes have become a sort of norm, and that’s not okay. Give us South Asian characters and films that aren’t deeply rooted in Western prejudices, please? I’m still a Gujarati, and I’m still a young girl, and I can only hope that when I’ve got a kid of my own, the Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street of their days will be a little kinder to brown people than they were in mine.