Carmina Ravanera. 16.01.2016
A lot of memories come up when I think of my childhood: summer vacations canoeing on Ontario lakes, being really proud of the mural I painted in sixth grade, endless hours spent with Play-Doh, and watching TV and wondering why everyone was white, and why I wasn’t. I am the daughter of Indian and Filipino immigrants, and I always felt a little out of place in my very white neighbourhood in suburban Canada. Other than my mom, there were no South or Southeast Asian girls or women in my day-to-day life. There certainly weren’t any on TV, either. For a long time, Apu from The Simpsons was the only South Asian to ever grace my television.
That’s why it was a remarkable moment when I first watched Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project. The TV show portrays a hopeless romantic Indian-American OB-GYN, Mindy Lahiri, who grew up in Boston, has no idea how to speak Hindi, and whose love life is a mess. I regarded her in a state of shock. Was there really a woman who looked like me on mainstream American television, being hilarious, irreverent, and not at all typecast? It’s not that I had thought this was impossible. In fact, I had not given a thought to the possibility at all. It was like someone had opened a curtain to a window I hadn’t known was there.
Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari wrote a piece for the New York Times on “Acting, Race, and Hollywood”, describing how there are hardly any roles in western media for Indians that do not use mocking accents or stereotypes of convenience-store workers and cab drivers. Larger roles are often played by white people in “brownface”. He has also brought up how Hollywood honchos will not cast more than one Indian lead on TV for fear of turning it into an “Indian show” that will not appeal to audiences, even though nobody would ever say the same about a show with all white leads.
In 2013, Asian-American writer Rachel Rostad exposed the personal effects of racial misrepresentation in her spoken-word poem, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang”. Rostad criticized Rowling for writing the Harry Potter character of Cho Chang as yet another Asian girl weeping for her white man, akin to the fetishized Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon. What struck me most about Rostad’s poem was not her takedown of Rowling per se, but of her final, striking lines:
I met a boy who spoke like rain against windows —
He had his father’s blue eyes.
He’d press his wrist against mine and say he was too pale
That my skin was so much more beautiful.
To him, I was Pacific sunset,
almond milk, a porcelain cup.
When he left me, I told myself I should have seen it coming.
I wasn’t sure I was sad but I cried anyway.
Girls who look like me are supposed to cry over boys who look like him.
I’d seen all the movies and read all the books.
We were just following the plot.
When writers, producers, and directors base their minority characters on reductive conceptions, they add to discourse that not only limits how others perceive minorities, but also how minorities feel about themselves, and how they think they are supposed to be, live, exist. As a child I didn’t wish I were white because I hated my skin colour. I just knew white to be more normal. Onscreen, white was what was permitted to be admired, interesting, complicated, beautiful, imperfect, and worthy. Where does that leave the rest of us?
Fortunately, artists like Kaling and Ansari are flipping the script. The Mindy Project and Ansari’s new Netflix show, Master of None, both demonstrate how it needs to become normal for minority characters to have the same depth that white characters are automatically given. Indeed, a show with more than one Indian lead will not appeal to audiences only if its characters comprise the same old stereotypes that the media often affords them. Ansari’s character on Master of None grapples with many relatable issues that have nothing to do with his race, including internet culture, gender discrimination, and modern dating life, while Kaling’s occupies the space of a yearning romantic-comedy lead who gets into all sorts of hijinks that are both funny and ridiculous.
At the same time, minority characters also offer a rich foundation for unique storytelling because of their differences — presuming those differences are portrayed in a respectable and truthful way. For example, Master of None presents fantastic stories that relate to Ansari’s being an Indian-American: it has an episode devoted to immigrant parents and another to Indians on TV, and they are full of fresh observations on modern culture from a non-white point of view. Master of None exemplifies that experiences of diverse characters can offer a lot to tired media tropes. It also shows that writers who resort to washed-up stereotypes are not only harmful, but also lazy.
In a sense, this is where The Mindy Project falters. Unlike Ansari’s show, Kaling does not touch on race or ethnicity in more than a cursory manner. Her Indianness is usually relegated to the background, which is fine, considering the show’s light tone. However, The Mindy Project has also been critiqued for anti-blackness undertones, and for failing to include other minority characters. That is, it often falls into the same traps as other media. As one of the few minority female showrunners in Hollywood right now, Kaling shoulders responsibility as a leader for those who are marginalized in the media, while the rest of the industry often evades the same critiques. As Kaling herself has brought up, this is unfair, but the responsibility exists because racial discrimination exists, and for every stride made, we should always strive to do better and go further.
We are all products of intersecting experiences, histories, and relationships. Those who remain invisibilized – whether through their race, gender, class, sexuality, or disability – deserve to tell real stories with depth and dimension. This representation matters because it widens the possibilities for those whose perceptions of what they can be are based on how they look and where they come from. It matters for justice and equality for those who are constantly lesser heard and seen. And it matters in ways that are deeply personal for those like Rostad and me, who were molded by the shallow caricatures of Asians in the media even as we knew how untrue they were.
Image from: http://www.uptowngirlsnyc.com/ugnyc/tag/aziz-ansari/