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:
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:
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:
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:
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”.
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
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.