Essay: Hollywood must represent South Asian community to avoid harmful stereotypes

Like many adolescents, the majority of my interpretation of “normal” growing up came from the media, specifically TV shows and movies. As a child, I rarely saw a person of color in the principal cast of a show or film, let alone a South Asian female protagonist whose storyline wasn’t tied to a “loser” personality. As a first-generation Indian American woman, the host of challenges I faced would revolve around being different than this sense of “normal” reflected on TV and within my predominantly white neighborhood.

At school, I was surrounded by my white friends with their own set of customs and traditions. Being exposed to a culture beyond my own was important for a well-rounded childhood experience – but in elementary and middle school, it’s hard to see it this way. So at the time, the sight of a TV character who looked like me and could showcase the struggles of being Indian in an American society would have meant the world. Yet that never was the case.

When all of my friends were celebrating the same holidays and attending the same churches, I began to feel left out through no fault of anyone but my own internal monologue. I questioned why I was different from my peers and what made me different – my skin color was darker, my household customs were different, the language my family spoke at home wasn’t always English and the food I brought for lunch wasn’t always received kindly. I began hearing stereotypes thrown around about my culture – our houses smelled like “curry” and we were only good for tech support. I found myself laughing along with them instead of saying something. I felt embarrassed simply for being different despite knowing inherently that there is nothing wrong with my Indian American identity.

So when Mindy Kaling reached astronomical success in the predominantly white television industry, I imagine countless other first-generation Indian Americans like me believed she could pave the way to break down these stereotypes through an inclusive and culturally sensitive narrative in media and pop culture. She was and still is the only real South Asian representation that has been able to break into the world of acting, screen-writing and producing in television and film. But Kaling did the opposite of what we’d hoped – while she included an influx of Indian American female protagonists in her writing, the characters continued to perpetuate tone deaf, two-dimensional stereotypes and other harmful narratives about the South Asian community. Every time Kaling released a new show with an Indian American woman as the protagonist, I found myself disappointed at her interpretation of Indian characters and her willingness to put them into a stereotypical box.

After Kaling rose to fame with her role as a writer and actor on the 2005-2013 sitcom “The Office,” she created and wrote “The Mindy Project,” a sitcom starring herself, in 2012. The show followed obstetrician-gynecologist Mindy Lahiri as she navigated life in her 30s while living in New York City. But much to my disappointment, there was little to no content in the show that highlighted Kaling’s relationship with her culture. The titular character rarely mentioned her Indian roots except to make fun of them. Kaling’s character would commonly refer to herself as a “model minority” or attribute her intelligence to her race rather than her work ethic. The protagonist made slights at her background often, most notably in a Season 2 episode where her character’s ID read that she is 5’10″, weighs 110 lbs and has blonde hair with blue eyes. She said her philosophy is that “IDs are meant to be aspirational,” joking that she would rather be a skinny blonde white woman than one with Indian American features. That was exactly the outsider feeling I spent so much of my life trying to shake.

In each of Kaling’s many works since “The Mindy Project,” she showcases her female Indian American protagonists laughing at themselves in an effort to beat someone else to the punch. Her 2020 Netflix original series “Never Have I Ever,” which follows 16-year-old Devi Vishwakumar as she navigates high school after losing her father, is a prime example. Within the first few episodes, viewers learn that Devi thinks she’s “not like other Indian girls,” whom she views as the stereotype – nerdy, soft-spoken and innocent. She hates her dark and fast-growing hair, complains about her mother’s strict rules and treats cultural traditions as a chore. In Kaling’s wildly successful 2021 HBO Max series, “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” she includes Bela, an autobiographical Indian American character who pursues comedy writing, as one of the four protagonists. Bela calls herself an “Indian Loser” within her first few minutes on screen.

Kaling’s writing throughout her nearly two-decade-long career sends a message to all non-South Asian viewers that negative stereotypes we heard so many times at school about Indian Americans are true – Indians are hairy, nerdy and belong to oppressive households obsessed with grades and success. While this is not only a gross generalization, it also tells non-South Asian people that Indian Americans think of themselves this way. Kaling’s messaging further tells young Indian American girls that they should be embarrassed of their culture and accept the narrative that the media already pushes.

Despite the harmful messaging Kaling’s writing perpetrates, she is not solely to blame for the misrepresentation of South Asians in the media. The core of the problem lies in the fact that Kaling is the only form of representation that exists in such a multi-faceted way, placing unfair pressure on her as the lone pillar of Indian representation in Hollywood and pushing her to create such stereotypical characters. Her interpretation of the culture and her experience growing up represents that of only one person – herself. It is unfeasible of us to expect Kaling to address every problem Indian Americans face. Hollywood must start hiring more South Asian writers, producers and actors rather than relying on the same person to satisfy their diversity quota.

Anaya Bhatt, a freshman majoring in political communications, is an opinions writer.

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