I was raised by women. Pakistani women. My mother, my younger sisters, my aunt and my female cousins all played a significant role in my life. They influenced me, provided guidance and are the tough role models that I turn to. They're strong, independent women who have the biggest, kindest hearts imaginable. They're smart, vivacious and complex. They have their own unique identities, ideas and opinions. They all speak several languages, travel the world and are as educated and as capable as any other women. They are beautiful.
These are the kinds of South Asian women I know.
Comedian Aziz Ansari attends the Master Of None Season 2 premiere on May 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Noam Galai/WireImage)
Recently, there has been a lot of enthusiasm about the takeover of Hollywood and popular culture by South Asians. Brown faces are everywhere. There is a feeling that parity in numbers is within reach for minority representation in movies and in TV in America.
South Asians, Indians and Pakistanis are reaching new levels of recognition. They're winning awards and receiving accolades. They're rubbing shoulders with the best of the best in popular culture, and rightly so. The talent, the enthusiasm and the artistic capability for storytelling have been unparalleled. Long gone are the days of typecasts working at 7-Eleven and cab drivers with turbans and heavy accents. Now there are sophisticated characters battling identity issues as first generation immigrants while navigating the criminal justice system; there are individual stories about getting through the complex dating world as a shade between black and white; and there are Pakistani comedians somewhat ironically playing computer geeks.
But let's be honest. This wave is male dominated.
South Asian women, as usual, are on the losing end.
The stories, however compelling, are being told from a male perspective. South Asian women, as usual, are on the losing end. They continue to be depicted in their stereotypes -- as nerdy; as unsexy; as naïve and childlike; as too into wrestling or computer games; as too eager to please; as unable to read a room and respond accordingly; as cattle unable to think for themselves, being paraded around for arranged marriages but never actually being depicted as viable, decent and acceptable partners in life; and even when they're shown to be normal, they're too boring as human beings to warrant interest -- unable to create a spark or generate chemistry.
What's most unnerving is that they're never shown as complex, sophisticated and capable of the range of human passions as their counterparts -- as though they lack the capacity for raw or broken or deep emotionality.
Even the South Asian women playing themselves are perpetuating the clumsy, insecure and un-complex stereotypes of brown women (even if portrayed as successful professionals), and an FBI agent on TV and a lifeguard in a movie (played by the same person) or an online celebrity (who often uses the same stereotypes), doesn't mean we've come a long way.
There are serious questions to ask at this juncture.
Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project. (Photo: Vivian Zink/Universal Television/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Is the goal of representation simply about adding numbers to screens? Or is the goal about disrupting a status quo system that perpetuates ethnic and minority stereotypes? In favour of one that focuses on the art; the storytelling; the complex narratives and the people that makeup those complexities, both men and women? If it's about numbers, then there are some victories to celebrate, at least for South Asian men. If the goal is change, then there is no hope for South Asian women, and the men who have been able to push through an otherwise impossible barrier are to blame for leaving them behind.
I know this to be true because many of the stories, when told from the other perspective, don't play up the male South Asian stereotypes. In a story about a South Asian women dating, the South Asian "suitor" is almost always a well to do, handsome and wealthy Indian doctor from a respectable family. Nobody in the make shift universe of the movie or TV show, including the audience, understands how she can be such an idiot and end up with Jack: the slacklining, amateur tattoo artist who just won gold at the last pottery-making Olympics (also in itself a ridiculous stereotype).
Women -- South Asian women -- always lose. Not only are they idiots but they're floozies because they went against their parents' wishes, their culture and often their religion and ended up with Jack or they're every unacceptable and typecasted label I described above.
Numbers on the screen cannot be the end goal.
They're the victims of negative stereotypes on both ends of the narrative.
If the aim of true representation is to be honest, then numbers on the screen cannot be the end goal. The intent has to be real and actual representation -- and not only of the people that we have a soft spot for like our mother, our father and ourselves, but even for those people that we don't necessarily see ourselves with. Which might be South Asian women, and that's OK.
The point is not about the colour of the person you end up with or how you met that person. It's about how you depict the people you didn't end up with, and South Asian men, who are breaking barriers in contemporary popular culture, seem to forget that.
There is no doubt that the men have made great strides in combating stereotypes about themselves. They've overcome obstacles and gained access in ways that was unimaginable not to long ago. But whether they bring South Asian women with them remains to be seen.
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