Mindy Kaling’s 2012 show for Fox, The Mindy Project, was a fairly unprecedented move in American television as far as brown representation goes. Yet despite greater presence, Indian Americans are still shortchanged. They’re often reduced to fit one-dimensional stereotypes that, in turn, make them palatable to a largely white audience. Either their race is incidental (which it never really is in the US) or the understanding and interpretation of what it means to be brown remains monolithic.
The Mindy Project’s protagonist, played by Kaling herself, is a feisty, self-centred obstetrician-gynaecologist with a very binary, American romantic-comedy (rom-com) idea of finding love. She is portrayed as the fairly stereotypical Indian immigrant, and wants to be highly successful at her career while indulging in casual sex. Given that the show is set in New York City, it’s easy to wonder why the cast doesn’t involve more people of colour or why Mindy predominantly dates white men. For the most part, the show sets out to be a rom-com about a career woman, but without the very real fears of growing up brown in New York or the brutal disappointments of constantly losing out to white men at work. Mindy’s brownness is almost an aside. That can be a dangerous proposition in a world where many in the majority community expect the Southasian immigrant to be a ‘good immigrant’ – that somehow the worth of a person of colour needs to be proven or their space at the table justified. It’s almost as if by erasing the deeper fault lines from the show’s writing, and glossing over the racist and sexist undertones of its white characters as ‘quirks,’ the viewer can embrace the deeply flawed characters with their reprehensible characteristics while ignoring the consequences of the same in the real world.
Yet despite greater presence, Indian Americans are still shortchanged. They’re often reduced to fit one-dimensional stereotypes that, in turn, make them palatable to a largely white audience.
It can be argued that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ version of brownness. However, skirting around the issue of race while exploring identity politics or what it means to be ‘a 30-something Indian-American woman looking for love in The Big Apple’ feels like a deliberate misstep. Mindy seems to have specific audiences in mind she has to cater to – the brown audience and women. It is easy to interpret her narrative as playing to the gallery, especially given her public assertion that she doesn’t feel the need to offer equal representation in her show. That being said, she does make a hard tilt towards women, and briefly skims across body-positivity, ideology and divorce – making the protagonist a more globally appealing character.
So, when Mindy Kaling’s project Never Have I Ever was released on Netflix in 2020, I wanted to see if the on-screen portrayal of the typical Indian American woman had progressed.
Never Have I Ever captures the journey of an Indian American teenager, Devi, who wants to be the most popular girl in high school and occasionally has crushes on and is romantically involved with men that fit Western, white standards of attractiveness. Sure, the portrayal of Indian Americans on the show is a long way from the days of the infamous Apu from The Simpsons or all the times a brown actor is cast as the grocery-store owner or the taxi driver or the doctor. Sure, Devi dresses and talks like any other teenager growing up in Silicon Valley, but similar to The Mindy Project, Devi’s race happens to be largely incidental. The show’s writing finds itself relying on a broader point: the rift she has with her mother, which is a direct play on the tensions between modern and traditional outlooks. The portrayal of her older cousin who is secretly dating an East Asian man but is arranged to be married to an Indian-American plays into stereotypes. Her token Asian American and Black best friends comes across as posturing when not motivated by a more nuanced reality of what it means to be a person of colour. Sometimes, the show appears to have a scorecard for ‘wokeness’, like when a kurta-clad friend of Devi’s, at a party organised by the Silicon Valley’s Hindu community to mark Ganesh Chaturthi, talks to her about how he’s embracing his Indian values in a way that seems trite and scripted. Then, there’s the Indian uncle who feels he’s entitled to comment on the lives of the women whose home he visits, or the parents who talk in an affected Indian accent where the consonants are exaggerated. Such tropes result in perpetuating stereotypes even further, feeding into confirmation bias and enforcing an intractable idea of brownness.
Being an immigrant in a culture predominantly determined by its whiteness means a constant negotiation with one’s own identity as an ‘acceptable’ immigrant.
Who’s the audience these characters are meant to be speaking to? As Indian culture, cuisine, yoga practices, mindfulness and Ayurveda healing practices populate American imagination, simultaneously, being exposed to reductive stereotypes in pop culture creates a very singular, binary idea of Indian Americanism – one that doesn’t seek to incorporate any contradictions within it. It can be argued that Indians in popular culture don’t need to be confined to their ‘Indianness’ or be compelled to discuss it, but if the central premise of the show is about coming to terms with both identity and culture as an Indian American, the writers have a responsibility to transcend token brown representation. At a time where shows like Sex Education, Big Mouth and On My Block are already making progress in starting some difficult conversations in pop culture regarding topics such as sex, identity, coming of age, disability and consent, when these same issues are viewed through the lens of an Indian American, they have their own intricacies.
Addressing implicit bias
Analysing race representation on-screen would be incomplete without considering gender. Historically, media, advertising and entertainment have portrayed women as intrinsically less valuable than men – stereotypically cast as wives, love interests or girlfriends of the male lead. When I write the words CEO, football coach, film director, hero, or cardiologist, it’s likely that you picture a man and not a woman – a human tendency called implicit bias that has only been abetted by cliches portrayed and enforced in popular media and other platforms of consumption. In movies, male characters have twice as much screen time and speak twice as much as female characters, according to research compiled in 2015 through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; the gap in speaking time is even wider in films led by men (33.1 percent compared to 9.8 percent).
When a film is helmed by a female lead, it’s often termed a ‘chick flick’, confined to genre mechanics or given its own subset. It’s rare to find a female lead in historically male-dominated genre films like horror, action, even family dramas. When this is subverted, the idea of an ‘all female’ cast is used as a calling card for marketing. Viewers would be hard-pressed to find adequate Latino, Black, Brown or Asian representation on-screen within the female subset. When a brown woman is represented on-screen by the likes of Padma Lakshmi in Top Chef, Priyanka Chopra in Quantico, Jameela Jamil in The Good Place, the portrayal remains largely globalised, polished and possessing the right amount of melanin. Compare that to the representation of brown men on-screen, from the real estate agent in Schitt’s Creek with his affected accent to Raj Koothrappali played by Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory where humour is intricately tied to the perceived attributes of Koothrappali’s Southasian heritage – son of a wealthy doctor, an astrophysicist and the inability to speak to women unless drunk. His ethnicity is often used as a catalyst for humour which feeds into dated and one-dimensional ideas of what the typical Indian American male is purported to be. For men, that is knowledge; for women, it’s their exotic beauty.
Sans affectation, sans nuance
Aziz Ansari’s 2015 show, Master of None, heralded a new culture of brown representation on-screen with its well-assimilated brown male lead – sans accent, sans exaggerated affectations. The show inhabits the slice of life, rom-com genre while traversing topics of religion, dating and gender politics. The episode ‘Parents’ which features sepia-toned flashbacks, explores the idea of racial exclusion in public spaces in the 1980s through the memories of Dev’s Indian and Brian’s East-Asian parents. The episode ‘Race’ which features Dev and his Indian American friend, Ravi, navigating TV auditions in New York City, touches upon the expectations of a brown guy having an Indian accent while auditioning for the roles of a cab driver, grocery store owner or IT executive, or how mainstream US television categorises a show as an Indian show if it has two brown actors on its poster. Master of None captures the multiculturalism of what it means to be a second-generation Indian American in New York with levity and insight. It paints a picture of a leading brown male who can reflect on the larger struggles of the millennials. But as the show progresses and Dev’s character traverses the world of dating, it’s obvious that his character sidelines women of colour to romantically pursue white women. The women he ends up dating, sleeping with or having a relationship with in the first season happen to be conventionally attractive white women.
From being singled out at the security line at an airport, to being called in for the role of yet another Southasian doctor/engineer – the threat of being reduced to labels remains very real.
The second season opens with Dev’s dreamy meet-cute with a British woman in an Italian café, shot in monochrome. The viewer expects this to bloom into something beautiful, but Aziz’s phone is stolen and he loses any chance to connect with Sara again. Instead, the season dedicates five episodes or more in Aziz’s pursuit of an engaged Italian woman, whose main feature is her ostensible Europeanness. In the episode ‘First Date’, Dev cycles through dates with various women where the brown women get neatly stacked into stereotypes: the perennially busy lawyer who works in the tech industry; the awkward, geeky Indian girl with an unhealthy obsession with the WWE; and the brown girl who drops Dev at the first hint of attention from a white man. Dev attempts to have sex with all his dates but is only successful in sleeping with the white woman who isn’t aware of an object in her house with problematic racial undertones. Dev is quick to point it out to her but after he’s had sex with her. While he gets called out for his hypocrisy, I’m compelled to think of how the brown women on the same episode aren’t afforded that sort of dignified complexity.
where does the line between reflecting that reality and stereotyping lie?
In one exchange on his date with a black woman, Dev chats about how dating apps are unfairly skewed towards Asian men and black women, and they both ironically clink their glasses to the advantages of white people everywhere, including the app. The larger irony seems to miss Aziz Ansari altogether: cementing his character as the awkward, gently self-deprecating romantic brown hero in pursuit of white women comes at the cost of sidelining and presenting brown women as comic relief, as an afterthought. By casting two conventionally attractive, white women as his romantic interests, Aziz Ansari seems to be giving into the very trend he denounces. Again, it may be argued that Dev’s character can have an identity outside of politics. But that doesn’t matter, because the viewer will politicise his character and the message here seems to be: Dev is the right kind of immigrant, fitting into a neat category, validated by his white romantic interests. It may also be argued that somewhere, Dev’s experience with women in New York reflects a certain reality. But where does the line between reflecting that reality and stereotyping lie? Michel Mourlet, French writer, film critic and playwright says, “the cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.” I’m compelled to wonder why exactly Dev desires only a certain sort of white woman.
Reduced to reductive labels
From being singled out at the security line at an airport, to being called in for the role of yet another Southasian doctor/engineer – the threat of being reduced to labels remains very real. The constant streaming of this information on our television screens takes on a dangerous dimension in Donald Trump’s America. To date, Trump has made an attempt to woo Indian Americans to vote for him, reserving more direct racist attacks for the black community, among other minorities. Some Indian Americans even see themselves as being helped by his economic policies – for the latter, Narendra Modi’s support of Trump may have played a role. There are often contradictory truths when it comes to matters like race, religion, gender and nationality. The brutal extra-judicial murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona when he was mistaken for Muslim because of his beard and turban, the arson of an Indian-owned convenience store “to run the Arabs out of this country” are all proof that reducing people into stereotypes plays a direct role in hate crimes and violence against ethnic minorities. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in America is a heartening display of people demanding their rights to be recognised as individuals, a community demanding equality. The Southasian community could stand to check their biases and correct blindspots when it comes to other historically oppressed communities.
Maybe there isn’t ideal representation, but in the meantime, we can hope for one that’s as distinctive and varied as the immigrant experience itself.
Nationalistic rhetoric, scapegoating of the ‘other’ and a sharp rise in citizen vigilantism have become a cornerstone of majoritarian politics. Being an immigrant in a culture predominantly determined by its whiteness means a constant negotiation with one’s own identity as an ‘acceptable’ immigrant. It means learning to toe the line decided by somebody else, to learn to not wear your identity on your sleeve for the fear of offending the ostensible majority.
The American Political Science Association has warned that the United States “ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government” may be under growing threat in an era of persistent and rising inequalities. This prompted academics to dive deeper into the question of how race affects political influence and representation. According to a report by the PEW Research Centre, 56 percent of Americans believe that race relations have significantly worsened since Trump’s election. The frequency of expression of racially-insensitive comments has increased. In an atmosphere where reported news has never been more open to interpretation, pop culture wields great ability to mould public perception, and the idea of being an immigrant is again subject to scrutiny and interrogation. A more true on-screen representation of minorities might not have an influence on Trump’s toxic politics, but it certainly provides a framework in which minorities may be viewed by the majority.
That being said, times have changed. It’s always heartening to see the likes of Hasan Minhaj, Kumail Nanjiani, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and more on-screen. But it is also the time when conversations about the kind of brown heroes we see in leading dramatic roles in American television need to go beyond the singularities of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ immigrant.
The Southasian community could stand to check their biases and correct blindspots when it comes to other historically oppressed communities.
There are some shows that lead by example, Brown Girls and High Maintenance for example. For reasons that vary from casting choices to an inventive narrative style, these shows haven’t garnered as much hype as the ones I speak about above. Brown Girls, a low-budget, mumblecore-inspired series written by Fatima Asghar that premiered on Elle.com and was later picked up by HBO, is an excellent example of what intersectional, inclusive brown representation could possibly look like in American television. It features a multicultural cast whose defining feature isn’t the tone of their skin, and who can inhabit the various paradoxes of being a young, brown millennial in America without focusing only on race or ignoring it completely. High Maintenance’s ‘Museebat’ episode features a hyper-realistic characterisation of a young, Bangladeshi Muslim girl living with her aunt’s family in New York while studying medicine and trying to score weed. The authenticity of her character works since her ethnicity weaves itself delicately into the plot without being brandished as a central theme; it successfully manages to evoke thoughts about being a young adult, solitude, and the idea of privacy in a bustling city. Maybe there isn’t ideal representation, but in the meantime, we can hope for one that’s as distinctive and varied as the immigrant experience itself.