Mindy Kaling played an OB-GYN in The Mindy Project. Kal Penn plays the White House Press Secretary in Designated Survivor. Priyanka Chopra plays an FBI agent in ABC’s Quantico and Kumail Nanjiani is a software engineer in HBO’s Silicon Valley. It’s easy to notice that all these actors have brown skin and heritage hailing from the South Asian diaspora. While physical characteristics make their heritage obvious, renderings of these characters on screen rarely ever reflect the same.
From Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit to Apu in The Simpsons brown characters have often been played or voiced by white actors in brown face with overly thick accents. These portrayals were not characters but caricatures and while their portrayers might be in on the joke, the characters were the butt of them. While no one will see Mindy Kaling or Priyanka Chopra as the punchline of any joke, representation of characters of South Asian heritage is far from perfect.
Cheap laughs sponsored by offensive stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past, but lately it seems television has gone too far in the other direction. While culture is not the joke anymore, often it is not at all relevant to the characters that have made it to broadcast television today. Not presenting any aspect of how the unique cultures of different countries and how these practices and traditions influence the lives of people of South Asian descent seems inauthentic, harmful even, to the general perception of brown people to a larger audience, some of who may have never personally interacted with a diverse community.
“There is nothing wrong with creating characters that have personalities, hobbies and quirks that do not have their identity plastered on their foreheads like that episode of The Office. Of course, there must always be nuance, because identity is incredibly important. White characters (and people, in general), are afforded the unique privilege of being considered, well, unique. Their identity is an essential part of them, but it is not all of them. I would love to see PoC characters (and people, in general) afforded that privilege,” explained Pragya Gianani, a junior studying Politics, Rights, and Development at New York University.
Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico is half-Indian courtesy of her mother and spends ten years in Mumbai after the death of her father. It seems impossible that she can spend this kind of time in another country and not be influenced by it, yet there is not a mention of her experiences there, beyond a trip that raised suspicions when she was accused of terrorism by the FBI because that serviced the plot. It must have been a huge adjustment to relocate after growing up in the U.S. What was it like to change schools? Speak a different language? Be fully immersed in a culture her mother might have introduced her to but that she lived distance from for so long?
These are experiences many in the diaspora can relate to and representing them could give others an insight to their experiences. While this is not the central premise of the show, it seems like a missed opportunity to normalise real experiences rather than just pretend they don’t exist. When her backstory is discussed, it’s mostly just in relation to her life in the U.S. and her conflict with her abusive father. If that experience has repercussions in her life, so should her experiences abroad. It seems unlikely that Parrish’s white identity is the more dominant one since she grew up with her Indian mother and spent so much time in that country. Depicting a more balanced backstory would make her a more nuanced and multifaceted character, beyond her singular mission of righting the wrongs of her relationship with her father.
“I think that the ideal would be to have multiple narratives- some of which really center around the character's South Asian identity and some of which don't tokenize it and just accept that identity,” said Vrinda Trivedi, a Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major at The College of Wooster.
Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project seems to hit this subtle balance, leading to a character that is cognisant of her roots and uses the platform of network television to address how it affects her life in episodes such as, “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man,” where her identity is the central subject. This addressing of identity happens without any hint of offensive stereotypes, yes, Lahiri is a doctor, but she is also a pop culture obsessed single mom with an Italian American baby daddy.
Clearly, it is possible to have a character that is subtle and balanced when it comes to discussing their heritage, but maybe it takes a South Asian person behind the camera to lead to such a portrayal. Increased visibility on network television for characters of South Asian descent should be praised, but visibility should not come at a surrendering of quality depiction of an authentic portrayal of the South Asian experience in America.