Wednesday, November 22

On Indian Representation in Television

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Lack of representation for South Asians in television and the media is a persistent problem. The Mindy Project and New Girl, two popular comedy shows on Fox, show us how Indian characters are treated.

The Mindy Project is about an Indian doctor named Mindy Lahiri, played by Mindy Kaling, who is an OB-GYN and her adventures with her primarily male co-workers. It’s the first show with a Desi, Indian, and South Asian lead female character on network television. Kaling is not your typical lead character among the line-up of pretty white women who have been the face of female-led sitcoms in the past. It is a relief to have some diversity for Indian women, who are either dour aunties or petite sirens.

New Girl is a show that centers on Jessica Day, played by Zooey Deschanel, and her adventures with her three male roommates. Her best friend, Cecilia Parekh, played by Hannah Simone, is an Indian model. Simone is half Indian/half German, Italian, Greek Cypriot.

In the Mindy Project, Mindy Lahiri rarely acknowledges her background, other than a casual throwaway joke every few episodes like when she informs another South Asian woman looking to find solidarity in their shared background “There are literally billions of us.” Mindy’s developing friendship with Neepa, another Indian doctor, or a brief glimpse of Mindy in a sari are the closest we get to Indian culture. But there has never been dialogue on Mindy’s experiences as a dark-skinned Indian or a second-generation immigrant.

This oversight is both intentional and accidental. Kaling has acknowledged before how her Indian identity puts the burden of representation on her more unfairly than other leads, particularly since she is not well-versed with Indian culture or religions. At PaleyFest, Kaling says, “I get really jealous of the Steve Carells and the Danny McBrides because when they play a character, you’re not like What are you saying about white men with this portrayal of Michael Scott? They just get to play Michael Scott. And so when I play this character, and I wanna play, like, a fun character who makes big flaws and things like that, I sometimes think that I’m speaking for all Indian-American women. So I’m kind of like, damn, why wasn’t this 75 years in the future?”

This burden on people of color, and particularly women of color, to be more partial in their casting and writing choices has a long history. They are held responsible more often than white people for offensive jokes and harmful stereotyping. Shonda Rhimes, a hugely successful Black showrunner and founder of Shondaland, notes, “When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as I’m a Black man blah, blah, blah.”

It is, perhaps, this kind of explicit framing Kaling attempts to avoid on her show. Similarly, Kaling also admits the issue is frustrating to her, “No one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things…It is a little insulting because, I’m like, God, what can I do — oh, I’m sitting in it. I have 75 percent of the lines on the show.”

It is important to note that Kaling has been making strides in the third season to correct the show’s criticisms, including more guest stars of color, such as Vanessa Williams, Laverne Cox, John Cho, and giving Tamra, played by Xosha Roquemore, more screen-time and subplots revolving around her. There is speculation that the fourth season may delve more into her Indian identity.

In New Girl, Cece Parekh gets to the fifth episode before she reveals her parents are from India. This all happens in a scene that focuses on a white man attempting to flirt with her. It seems a nice way to introduce Cece’s heritage without making it her defining feature. After all, isn’t that the goal? For Indians and other South Asians to not be “othered” in the process of embracing their heritage?

But the further in New Girl gets with Cece’s Indian storyline, the more the jokes about her background fall woefully short. When Cece attempts speed-dating, the event starts off with splitting the men and women into groups determined by their academic success. A harmless enough joke poking fun of traditional Indian diaspora communities where education is disproportionately emphasized. But when a man turns down Cece because of her career as a model, suddenly the joke turns more malicious.

The episode ends with Schmidt dressed in an extravagant sherwani making a grand speech condemning Indian men for their lack of interest in Cece — charming enough that Cece decides to sleep with him. It feels like the intent of the writers to showcase Indian diaspora became a patronizing generalization throwing Indian men under the bus. In another instance, Cece attempts to speak Hindi so poorly, native speakers have to struggle just to understand what she is saying.

To an Indian viewer, it seems like Cece’s Indian identity is an accessory — something she can easily slip out of when inconvenient, a mask of sorts that’s discarded when it’s no longer useful.

For example, after Cece’s hunt to find a “good Indian man” ends when her fiancé runs off with Taylor Swift, Cece’s Indian background is rarely mentioned again, leaving us to wonder if it was ever truly a part of her identity, or something shoehorned into the show in an attempt to be more diverse.

It’s easy to find fault in Cece’s accessorizing Indian culture but it’s also important to note that many of us in the diaspora frequently feel the same way. After all, we rarely behave in Western environments the same way we do within Desi communities. Everything about us changes according to our atmosphere, like our outfits, language, and mannerisms. When our friends single us out for being Indian, it is something we feel self-conscious about. This portrayal is realistic enough.

But it is the sudden lack of anything Indian in Cece’s life that should raise eyebrows. Yes, the second season focused on Cece in Indian clothes or interacting with other Indian people, but the seasons afterwards seem to entirely forget all about her background. There is no longer any part of her characterization that an Indian would be able to connect with. She could just as easily be replaced with another ethnicity and the dialogue would be replicable. After all, Simone is light-skinned, conventionally attractive, and petite — she has no fear of being typecast in stereotypical Indian roles.

It’s interesting to see how much each character can get away with in terms of flaunting their Indian identity, and how the actresses themselves affect their performance. Kaling finds her Indianness something she can’t run from while Simone uses her ambiguous appearance to her advantage.

Kaling doesn’t think she can escape being Indian. She mentions, “When you turn on the show, you’ll know that I’m Indian. I can’t hide that.”

But Simone revels in her lack of concrete status as an Indian, as she says, “I just stopped trying to fit in and realized the power in being ethnically ambiguous. I focused on what I loved and my cultural background gave me a unique perspective that opened a lot of doors.”

As completely assimilated characters, Mindy and Cece are both great at getting along with their non-Indian friends and coworkers. But it is an undeniable part of being Indian that we are treated differently, even when we don’t act differently. That is the misfortune of being minorities within Western cultures.

But it is rare in both New Girl and the Mindy Project for those incidents to come up or be critically examined when they do. When someone makes an offensive off-hand remark about their Indian identity, something that I know from personal experience would be hurtful and would need to be addressed within a healthy relationship, the characters instead brush it off. Surely it happens in society for us to pick our battles, but it sets an unfortunate precedent for non-Desi viewers to normalize such comments.

Certainly both shows have room for improvements when portraying Indian women, including the hiring of at least one Indian writer regarding racially-sensitive material. The two shows are often incomparable since New Girl does not have to depend on Cece’s characterization to attract audiences, but the Mindy Project, which has been on the verge of cancellation since the first season, had to be more careful in not alienating their non-Indian viewers.

Ultimately, Indian characters have a fine line to walk between sensitively portraying a subcontinent of 1.2 billion people, while still remaining unique and interesting. Women become grouped into two lazy stereotypes that overlap: those who are fetishized like Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife, and those who have their race erased like Rekha Sharma’s Tory Foster on Battlestar Galactica. In this regards, both The Mindy Project and New Girl share their laziness when it comes to acknowledging Indian culture — or not acknowledging it at all, as is more frequently the case.

However, the criticism aimed at these characters and their actresses can be just as lazy, particularly about issues out of their control. In the attempt to demand better representation, critics fail to appreciate what they’re already getting.

The best we can hope for is getting more Indian characters on screen so we won’t have to look for ourselves in what meager representation we are currently getting. Whether it is Mindy Kaling’s inescapable identity or Hannah Simone’s convenient resumé filler, being Indian will never be one-size-fits-all.

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