A New Mindset Towards Race and Television
by Aeshna Chandra on Friday, May 16th, 2014
Growing up, I never had a South Asian look-alike role model in Hollywood. There was Padma Lakshmi, best known as the host of Top Chef, but her incredible, almost surreal beauty was almost impossible to relate with on any given level. Mindy Kaling was present on The Office; she was slightly more relatable, both in looks and in personality, but she seemed to shun her South Asian roots. So, as a kid, I was left with Jess from Bend it Like Beckham and Kevin Gnapoor from Mean Girls, both of whom were alien in character to me. Even today, I still have not found a realistic role model in Hollywood who looks like me, faces similar problems as I do, and embraces, rather than shuns, her South Asian roots. While finding South Asians on the business side of Hollywood is common, people of South Asian descent are rare on the silver screen. In today’s day and age, where our country represents such a wide variety of ethnicities, the entertainment industry needs to change in order to accommodate the actual demographics of our country.
While many shows have South Asian characters, only a few of the characters actually emphasize their roots, such as Hannah Simone from New Girl, Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory, Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife, and many other Indian characters. However, TV shows’ representation of Indians is steeped in stereotypes, as seen in Kunal Nayyar’s performances and those of the characters from Outsourced. Outsourced, a failed NBC venture, depicted Indians as technically-savvy, simple minded people, a misrepresentation that reduced the rich culture of South Asia to a pile of jokes for the NBC writers. As Bob Strauss of the Daily News said, “US audiences [are] very willing to accept South Asian characters,” not just those who exemplify stereotypical Indian traits and ideas. The success of Bend it Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire show how popular fleshed-out, thoughtful Indian characters can be among American audiences.
So why is it that so many South Asians reject their cultures on television? Rutgers University student Rashmee Kumar argues that “[Kaling] blatantly distances herself from any conception of ‘Indianness’,” feeling that, having surrounded herself by white characters, Kaling contributes to the concept that a South Asian character cannot feel comfortable with his or her heritage. In addition, Kumar says that South Asians “must abandon their cultural roots and blend into whiteness” in order to assimilate into the casts of today’s TV shows.
South Asians are a growing demographic in the United States. According to the Asian American Federation, the South Asian population grew 81% over the past decade, jumping to 3.4 million people of South Asian descent in the United States as of 2010. With the influx of South Asians into our lives, we need to focus on realistically portraying their culture in our media. South Asians are only one of many minority groups that are underrepresented in today’s media. In today’s changing population, media executives must approach these various cultures and their depiction with care. All the nuances, traditions, and characteristics of these cultures must be shown to the masses, in order to make media as much a tool for education as a tool for integration. I applaud the efforts of Mindy Kaling, who is the only Indian-American female to lead a show, but I would like for her to do more: to further diversify the cast of her show, to represent a realistic background of her character, and to push other South Asian actors to act in the same manner. As we move forward and become more diverse with every passing day, if we are truly to be called a melting pot, we must learn to shine a positive light on all the cultures that this country contains.
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