South asian

Why Representation Matters: South Asian Characters in Western Media

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Little Brown Feminist

Little brown feminist with a big voice.

Pop culture indescribably shapes our lives and the way we treat everything within it. TV theme tunes, funny catchphrases and fashion are exposed to us through this type of culture, which helps us to understand our surroundings. This is one of the many reasons representation matters. I have to admit that representation of South Asian characters has become (slightly) better in the last five years. This was not the case for the longest time though. Growing up in the UK (watching countless different Western shows and films, both British and American) I found it difficult to identify well rounded characters from South Asian backgrounds, that weren’t simply a racist stereotype. To have had various examples of South Asian girls or women as lead roles of TV shows or major Hollywood films when I was young, portraying three dimensional characters with dreams and flaws, would have been magical. With characters such as Mindy, Cece and Alex, this may be the case for young girls growing up in 2017. However, while representation may not be as bad as it was two decades ago, that doesn’t mean we’ve come as far enough.

For every show such as ‘Masters of None’; it is revolutionary for its nuanced, dynamic portrayals of Asian immigrants and their first generation children, there are copious examples of stereotypical, one dimensional characters. These include characters such as Raj in ‘Big Bang Theory’, whose many jokes revolve around being Indian; Ravi Ross in Disney Channel’s ‘Jessie’; Apu in ‘The Simpsons’ (voiced by the Caucasian Hank Azaria); Principal Figgins in ‘Glee’ and the list goes on.

One common factor is that these characters have a distinct Indian accent. It’s a way to highlight differences in race, which is problematic since many South Asian people are born and raised in the Western world. This diminishes the way we relate to these characters, by making them different and ‘othered’. By making these characters different, it creates a non-threatening image for audience consumption. For male characters, accents are used as a comedic device, while this is not always the case for female South Asian characters, who instead face the issue of being sexualised and exoticised. This can be sourced to when the Indian subcontinent was a colony, and that history still resonates in our modern understanding. Female characters are depicted as sexually intriguing while male characters are not necessarily as desirable. This is evidenced through Raj in TBBT, who is unable for the longest time to speak to women unless he’s drunk, and even then he fails in his attempt to seduce them; while Cece in ‘New Girl’ is a former model with impeccable style and comedic timing, but not always portrayed as the smartest character partly because of her career decisions.

Careers and jobs are ethnically charged as well, with many characters shown as cab drivers, shop keepers, computer geniuses or ambiguous ethnic minority extra. While this is not entirely replaced from the truth, it is still avoiding the reality that many South Asians work in countless other professions too. Another Aziz Ansari character, Tom in ‘Parks and Recreation’ is an example of breaking away from this stereotype. Jessminder or ‘Jess’ in ‘Bend it like Beckham’ also portrays another anti-stereotypical character of a British Indian girl who loves football (or soccer), who dreams of becoming a professional football player like her idol, David Beckham. However, these examples are important because they are distinct to the norm; there is not enough diversity in our understanding of South Asian identity within mass media.

Not all Indians are geeks, with thick accents, zero social etiquette or here to teach you a profound lesson. While many South Asian women are beautiful, they are not always models; they are smart, resourceful and complicated. Until Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra and Aziz Ansari, there were barely any leading South Asian leads. Where are the popular Indian girls in high schools? The male South Asian romantic leads in Hollywood films? While I advocate for shows with more leads that are Asian, this doesn’t mean it becomes an ‘Indian’ show. It’s why the creative background to characters such as Alex Parish are significant, since the creators of the show changed the identity of the character based on their casting of Priyanka Chopra but her character’s whole reason for being is not just about her being ‘Indian’. While this is a step in the right direction, many people minimize the importance of representation. Yes, media is becoming better in representation, but it’s still not there yet. Thanks to social media it’s impossible to ignore.

When Hollywood is happy to erase representation and continue whitewashing in their films, it is vital for people to be exposed to characters that are not Anglo Saxon, middle class, thin and billionaires by the age of twenty four. When only 6% of main characters on TV are Asian, Hollywood needs to rid their aversion to minorities and help to remove racial stereotypes. All it takes is some thinking out of the box. It’s encouraging to see the ‘Asian invasion’ currently happening in Western media, with all the news on how lacking our representation is, we still have a long way to go.