Around 5.3% of England and Wales were of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian ethnicity in 2011. This number has only grown. Growing up, many South Asians never saw themselves on screen, and if we did, it was usually a one dimensional, stereotypical portrayal. In the media, South Asians are generally nerdy, have to do what their strict parents say and often a doctor or a shopkeeper. The podcast Brownsplain explains how the movie ‘The Party’ (1968) set the first impression of what South Asians are in the media. This movie contained brownface, painful stereotypes and of course, the exaggerated accent. Hank Azaria, the white actor who voiced Apu in ‘The Simpsons’, got his inspiration from Peter Sellers’ performance in this movie. While Azaria has since stepped back from this role, a lot of damage had already occurred. Even though ‘The Simpsons’ spared no one from their stereotypes, South Asian representation at the time was little to none. Apu cemented all South Asian stereotypes into one character and personifies how many people view the community. Raj in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is nerdy and awkward. The hosts of Brownsplaining suggest people want to see South Asians portrayed like this.
As a kid, seeing characters like Ravi in ‘Jessie’ and Baljeet in ‘Phinneas and Ferb’, even though I love those shows, was destructive to my self-esteem. Both these roles are voiced by actors of South Asian ethnicity, but they also both put on the stereotypical Indian accent. Ravi’s culture was often the punchline of many jokes, and his character perpetuated many stereotypes. He is a nerdy, one-dimensional, flat character who has a pet lizard from an egg he found and says things like ‘Great Ganesh! I am a human samosa!’
Another issue with this stereotype is that it lumps all South Asians into one box. South Asia is more than India. We have different accents, skin tones and cultures. We are not a monolith.
Why does representation matter? The community being represented wants to be seen. When I was younger, I would get so excited to see a South Asian person on TV. When you don’t see characters that look like you have depth, it can make you feel alone and ashamed for your culture. When I can identify elements of my life and myself in a character, I feel ecstatic. I feel represented. Viewers who are not part of the community also need to see an accurate portrayal of the community they are watching. ‘Blinded by the Light’ (directed by Gurinder Chadha) is an example of a great movie that accurately portrays the struggles many South Asian families go through. Seeing actors and comedians like Hasan Minaj, Mindy Kaling, Riz Ahmed and Aziz Ansari make a name for themselves in the industry without having to reduce themselves to stereotypes makes me incredibly happy.
So what needs to be done? We need to consume media made by the people who are being represented. We need more South Asian people behind the scenes and more South Asian main characters. We are not just a shallow side character.
Originally published at https://intersectnews.wixsite.com on August 15, 2020.