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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"All through their growing up years, I have let no difference show between Farhan and Zoya. I never thought to fit them into their gender roles. Maybe it is the fact that I am surrounded by strong women that influenced me to give Zoya full rein. Zoya has bloomed in the air of independence, and if today she is recognised as a creative thinking, sensitive director." - Javed Akhtar
"Sangita was always the darling of the house. There is nothing she and I don't share; she has always been privy to everything about my business and family. We share a close interest in art and artists. I am proud to see how she has helped make the new Jindal office at BKC into the cynosure of all eyes. Also what I truly admire about her is how she gives her time to so many people, is always willing to support a cause and has a ready ear for everyone's problems." - Kailash Kanoria
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"I never saw myself as responsible for ‘bringing Radhe up’. There was just a bit of cultivation – most of it long distance! I simply made sure she had a balanced exposure to Nature and different people. We share a certain spirit of inclusiveness. Since her childhood, she has been exposed to the poorest and the wealthiest of people. She doesn’t discriminate on the basis of background." – Sadhguru
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"What I admire about dad, and how we are similar is actually the samething. We both have amazing willpower. Once we set our heart on something, we do everything we can to achieve it. I think I inherited this quality from him." - Alia Bhatt
"Sitara is the star of our world. At times when Sitara and I are at home and free, I am roped in then to watch movies with her. Girlie stuff like Barbie or her new favourite, Frozen... It is not really my cup of tea, but I watch as it makes her happy." – Mahesh Babu
"Kindness, compassion, politeness come naturally to my Aadya; to this she adds her own sense of generosity. From a very early age, she loved to share all she had and even give away her toys, clothes, games without any goading." – Aman Nath
"I would like to see my daughters grow up with strong values dinned with attributes like tenacity, resilience, courage and ability to work hard among other things." - Nirav Modi
"Apoorva is my most authentic window to the younger generation, which seems to have, despite our belief that they are not serious about anything, seriousness, depth, and lateral views on so many issues, rather than being rootless wonders. Apoorva symbolizes a generation whose connect with India is International in approach. It can only mean good things for the country's future." – Uday Shankar.
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