Hollywood Indulges in Desi-sploitation

For the vast majority of the history of television, the faces you saw on the screen were predominantly white. And not just white, but WASP-white. Eventually Jews and African-Americans found a place. More recently (last 20 years), Hispanics and Asians have finally earned a spot on the screen as well.  Now Hollywood and Madison Avenue have turned their attention to the people of Southern Asia,  and like other minorities before them, Southern Asians are mostly seen as sidekicks, comic relief and crude stereotypes.

NBC is at the forefront of utilizing Indians, with The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec and Community all tapping the minority du jour. In NBC’s defense, most of the characters on those shows (regardless of background) are charactertures. Glee features an actor of Pakistani descent in a supporting (and that’s being generous) role. Many of these shows are audience and critical favorites so it’s not just junk and schlock that are featuring these minorities. But this progress needs to be tempered. A deeper dive into these examples shows there’s a long way to go:

Aziz Ansari from NBC's Parks & Rec

On The Office, actress Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor, is a bit player at best – despite the fact that Kaling is a writer and producer of the show.  On 30 Rock, Maulik Pancholy plays Alec Baldwin’s assistant – he probably gets three lines per every two episodes. Parks & Rec features the talented stand up comedian Aziz Ansari as part of the ensemble cast (Ansari is this year’s host for the MTV Movie Awards). On Community, Danny Pudi, like Ansari, is a member of an ensemble cast. On Glee, Iqbal Theba plays the school principal who is usually the butt of jokes. So, no real opportunities as featured stars.

Kal Penn from the Harold and Kumar films is probably the only, or at least the leading, example of an Indian actor having had a lead role in a major Hollywood production. This leads us to the issues surrounding the film The Last Airbender (based on the truly excellent Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar). The source material features all Asians (predominantly if not totally of the Far Eastern variety) but the movie has shifted things a bit. Notably, the heroes were originally to be played by Caucasian actors and several of the villain roles are scheduled to be played by actors of Indian descent. Read the terrific website Racebending.com for more on this.

Neil Sadhu is a first generation Indian-American as well as screenwriter and actor in Hollywood. His credits include writing for Smallville and a role in front of the camera in the award-winning student film, Diwali. Neil provides a unique, first-person insight on the situation:

If you think about it, South Asians are still a very young community in the United States.  Indian immigrants didn’t come here in the masses until the 80’s and 90’s.  So it’s not surprising that the roles out there are most often stereotypical and possibly degrading. However, I consider it the growing pains of this generation of American-born Indians.  By and large, we want to hold onto our cultural identity, but at the same time, assimilate as any other minority would.  The subtext of what’s being depicted on movie screens and on television is that struggle.  I believe that as long as the exposure continues, it’s only a matter of time before harmony is reached.

The new emerging use of Southern Asians on television isn’t limited to programming. Advertisers, especially here in New York, are (guilty of) doing it as well.  Take a look at this Metro PCS ad:

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They talk and dress funny. Ha ha. The two characters, Ranjit and Chad, have a Facebook page as well (looks fan created). Not to be outdone, New York sports cable network SNY has the following:

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It’s as if the creative team who put this ad together were channeling a scene from Do The Right Thing.

For further insights I turn to Michael Hastings-Black, creative strategist at Desedo. MHB and Desedo are steeped in the Desi culture, I strong recommend you read his remarkable presentation on American-Muslim Consumer Identity. Here’s Michael’s take:

In the last 3 years, TV has reached a new norm in which Desis are regularly part of ensemble casts. Within this space, it is important to note the distinction between authorship and objectification.

On shows like Community or Parks and Recreation, actors Danny Pudi and Aziz Ansari are able to play with the layers and nuances of being both American and Desi, and the accompanying identity politics therein.

This is a stark contrast to commercials like the recent SNY or Metro PCS spots that mine the idea of Desi ‘otherness’ as a source of humor, something to be laughed at, not laughed with.

As a contrast, check out this Fiber One spot:

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And read this from Pete Johnson, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi New York, the agency for General Mills cereals (via Stuart Elliott):

Mr. [Ajay] Mehta “is indeed of Indian descent,” Mr. Johnson says, and for more information, you can visit his Web site.

Mr. Mehta “was our first choice throughout casting” for the Fiber One spot, Mr. Johnson says, because “his diction, his poise and his gravitas allow him to deliver a lot of information in an entertaining and engaging way.”

By the way, Mr. Mehta is playing not merely the manager of a single store, Mr. Johnson says, but the regional manager — “an important distinction if you ask him.”

Reflect on those two approaches to portraying people from Southern Asia, then read this [source Wikipedia]:

[A]ccording to the census report on Asian Americans issued in 2004 by the U.S. census bureau, 64% of Indian Americans had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the highest for all national origin groups. In the same census, 60% of Indian-Americans had management or professional jobs, compared with a national average of 33%. Indian Americans, along with Japanese and Filipino Americans, have some of the lowest poverty rates for all communities, as well as one of the lowest rates of single parent households (7% versus the national average of 15%). Indian Americans also earn the highest average income out of all national origin groups. This has resulted in several stereotypes such as that of the “Indian Doctor”.[9]

Not only is the representation of Indians by Metro PCS and SNY cheap and easy, it’s also pretty poor from a branding perspective. As a general rule using

Metro PCS characters Ranjit & Chad - Off the hizzee!

base stereotypes doesn’t impress highly educated people, it insults them.

So, after the Jews and African-Americans; after the Hispanics and Asians, we now have the era of the Indians and Gays as the go-to minorities on television. Progress? Perhaps not, but maybe so. It reminds me a bit of the famous quote from Mohandas K. Ghandi:

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

No longer ignored, Southern Asians may be in the “ridicule” stage right now. Perhaps soon will come the time when they win.

Product Displacement – Part of a DINU

Gladys Santiago has a great Tumblr blog called Product Displacement that’s worth a look. In it she delves into the murky world of fake brands that hold enviable product placement spots in such shows as Pushing Daisies, My Name Is Earl and Chuck. As you would imagine, Rob Walker is all over this type of stuff. PSFK also picked up on Gladys (via Rob). At first glance, these fake brand product placements are, if noticed, good for a chuckle. But Gladys is certainly taking deconstructing of this phenomenon to near academic levels.

First, here’s her quick definition of Product Displacement:

Product displacement typically occurs when a studio or broadcaster want to avoid giving a product/brand free publicity. Displacement is also used when companies refuse to allow their brands and logos from being shown, especially in scenes and story-lines that portray their products in a negative way.

She goes on to describe to types of Product Displacement: Fictionalized and Unbranded. Go read this post for more on these distinctions. I think they are some additional nuances and subtleties to explore as well. 

Product Displacement

Product Displacement

Gladys uses the example of the Slanket (a Snuggie-like blanket cum poncho) from 30 Rock. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I think the writers of that show are so clever, they’re working on several levels including meta.  Here’s what Gladys has on this:

Liz Lemon is using an Apple laptop when Tracy Jordan enters her office to ask for advice about his wife. Liz is startled by Tracy barging in and while referring to her “Slanket” robe, defensively says, “It’s not product placement, I just like it!” This is a clever response to accusations that McDonald’s paid to be heavily featured in an episode of 30 Rock, which Tina Fey denied. NBC via: Hulu.com

Show of hands – how many of you thought the Slanket was a fake product, just a spoof on the mega-popular Snuggie? I did.  Using the Snuggie would have been to easy. 30 Rock decided to spoof the spoof on product placement.So, let’s break this down:

  1. Regular product placement (apple computer)
  2. Unexpected product placement (slanket)
  3. Acknowledgement that product placement exists
  4. Denial of (unexpected) product placement

The last one is the truly genius part. Remember in Wayne’s World 2 when Mike Myers ‘pulled back the curtain’ on product placement:

Looking at that now, it seems so dated compared to 30 Rock. Spoofing real product placement? That’s for the squares. The cool kids now mock esoteric, bordering on unknown product placement. We desperately need Grant McCracken to sort this out for us.

Gladys continues with an interesting theory:

It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize “Tit Tat” and “Coffee Bucks” as stand-ins for real brands, but that recognition allows audiences to engage with product placements in a manner that is significantly more encompassing than simply spotting a branded product onscreen.  Referencing these product displacements to their real world counterparts requires audiences to actively draw upon their cultural capital and awareness, therefore they have more resonance than a strategically placed can of Coca-Cola or character mindlessly raving about his/her T-Mobile phone.  Ultimately, product displacements have the opportunity to flatter the intelligence of viewers, especially if they are parodic and satirical in nature.

Paging Dr. Jenkins, Dr. Jenkins to the O.R. please, stat.

Buzzin Hornets = Benson & Hedges

Buzzin Hornets = Benson & Hedges

So, now brands are going to deliberately use fake brands that are similar enough to the real brand so that consumers will make the connection? Crazy, right? Well, no, not exactly. In fact, if you are a fan of Formula One motor racing you’ve been familiar with what is known as alibi branding for years. For a long time, tobacco companies were heavy sponsors of F1. However, in some markets, France for example, not tobacco advertising was allowed. What to do with your very expensive sponsorship? Well, if you were Benson & Hedges cigarettes, you did this:

Same font style, same placement on the car. All the teams did something like this. 

I also like to look at this from another perspective, that of brands creating a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe (DINU). When shows do this sort of thing, they are creating a richer, more complex universe for their fans. The examples are myriad and range from the Pear laptop they use on Nickelodeon’s iCarly to the fictional airline from Lost. That’s why the Slanket gag on 30 Rock is so much better than the sledgehammer delivered wink-wink, nudge-nudge of Wayne’s World 2. 30 Rock played the gag on two levels, tweaking product placement but also expanding their DINU in a way that simply referring to the Snuggie never would have.

Where does this all end? At what point does clever just become confusing?  I’ll give the final word to Gladys:

These product displacements are a far cry from the fictional worlds where “acme” branded products abound.  That said, they have a sort of quirky quality to them—they add verisimilitude and provide shows with an entertaining, parodic element.  Brand integrations are commonly seen as an effective way to reach elusive viewers in a DVR-filled world, but with product placements at an all-time high, (according to Nielsen Media Research, there were 204,919 product/brand occurrences during first half of 2008 alone) it would be naïve to think that audiences are not capable of tuning them out as easily as they fast-forward through commercials.