When you think of television’s hot male characters, who do you see? That Archetypal Handsome Dude, he's tall, with some scruff, great hair, a fair amount of muscle (but not too much, obviously). Okay, maybe they're a lil’ sunkissed, but your go-to TV heroes—the McDreamies, the Jon Snows, the Don Drapers, even the Sherlocks—are definitely white. At least, they used to be.
Once upon a time, Asian and Middle Eastern actors were relegated to the sidelines, too often stuck playing scrawny, sex-starved intellectuals or lecherous creeps. But there's a revolution happening that's rewriting just what non-white masculinity looks like on TV. You see it in Elliot Alderson’s big ol’ social anxiety-riddled eyes in Mr. Robot. You see it in Dev Shah’s also very large and often incredulous eyes in Master of None. You see it in The Night Of, in Nasir Khan’s gigantic, innocent—well, you get the point. These characters aren’t just written so that their desires are relatable; they themselves are also made desirable to the viewer. They're the new attractive.
Historically, masculinity in mainstream media has been strictly color-coded. From Jax Teller to Chandler to even Chuck Bass, straight white male characters on TV can be terrifying, goofy and lovable, narcissistic and privileged, and a whole host of other fun personality types. They're all also seen as legitimate romantic interests by default. Black and Latino characters—while still frequently problematic—can range from criminals to detectives to record executives and are also granted status as romantic options.
Before maybe 2005, brown folks had few options to work with as far as on-screen representation goes: the terrorist from True Lies (a real charmer!), a heart-eating Kali worshipper from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a snake charmer?), and a plethora of white men in brownface. Interestingly enough, Hrundi V. Bakshi, the bumbling Indian movie extra played by Peter Sellers in brownface in 1968's The Party, probably progressed the most as a romantic interest than any other actual South Asian character in Western media up until that point, but almost entirely as the butt of the joke. That is until The Simpsons' Apu, another character portrayed by a white man, came along.
Throughout the 2000s, things got a little better. Kelly Kapoor was sassing up and down Scranton in The Office. When it came to men, British-Indian actor Naveen Andrews was holding it down on Lost as the Iraqi Sayid, Ohio native Maulik Pancholy was being the Smithers to Jack Donaghy’s Mr. Burns on 30 Rock as Jonathan, and of course Danny Pudi’s Abed was making meta commentary on Community. These male characters are far more well-rounded than their predecessors, but they weren't common and they definitely weren't legitimate romantic interests. Shows like Outsourced (oh, god, Outsourced) and Tyrant were billed as more realistic looks into Indian and Middle Eastern culture and gave audiences far more in-depth characters, but both ended up falling back on the same old racist tropes.
Before we go any further, we should probably stop right here to offer a quick prayer hands emoji to Kal Penn and John Cho, the stars of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and patron saints of subverting countless Asian and South Asian stereotypes while being funny, sexy, and high as fuck. And a second prayer hands emoji for John Cho and his work on Selfie (RIP), the unfortunately named, now-cancelled ABC series that cast him as the romantic lead.
🙏🙏 Okay, thank you.
Shows like Master of None, The Night Of, and Mr. Robot, give us a refreshing departure from the contrived stereotypes that have informed pop culture so far. Not only do they humanize these underdogs of color, they make them just as desirable as any white protagonists on TV.
The treatment of Nas (Riz Ahmed), the Pakistani-American protagonist in The Night Of, is fairly unprecedented—his style and accent tell us that he's just another kid from Queens. Meanwhile, his relationship with the black basketball players he tutors who invite him to a party out of pity show that to them he's kind of a foreign nerd, and his family's clothing shop (where a rando aunty refers to him as the number one bachelor) and his father's cab ground him in a distinctively Pakistani-American identity. It's one of the more realistic portrayals of the South Asian experience in pop culture, and it's clear that the fluidity of his social and cultural identities has a function, allowing characters (as well as the audience) to warp it to accommodate their own perspectives.
Given that he's the protagonist, by definition, we're already rooting for Nas, who's introduced as a sweet, naive character who falls for a strange girl because there's something ~different~ about her. He's cute and his eagerness to comfort her makes him even cuter. He's treated like a regular late-adolescent boy who is trying to figure it out, just as he would on any other show—that is, until the woman he slept with gets murdered.
In Master of None, Dev Shah's Indian background dictates how he interacts with his family, but his Indianness has nothing to do with his sex life. His girlfriend meets his parents, and despite his fear that they will reject her, everything ends up being totally chill and they accept her anyway.
Dev's Indianness is not a gimmick that justifies his warped libido. It’s not something that’s strange or exotic, like Kal Penn's Taj from Van Wilder (not all patron saints are perfect). Dev's just a normal dude who has normal sex with his normal girlfriend—unlike Ansari's also fantastic Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec, he's a leading man, not comic relief. And it's not like this commitment to normalizing brown actors and brown characters has gone unnoticed—last week, Aziz Ansari made history by becoming the first South Asian actor to be nominated for an Emmy for a leading role in a comedy series.
Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson does not have any “ethnic flavor” and yet, he is portrayed by someone of Egyptian descent. It certainly helps that Rami Malek has a fair complexion and can pass for white, but technically he’s brown, and I’m here for a brown dude becoming the sexy face of rail-thin, kind of losery hackers. Apparently I'm not the only one that sees the value in a chiseled face, eyes that are large and in charge, and his signature awkwardness.
I’ll take an Egyptian playing a normal albeit crazy American hacker over a white dude playing a collage of Middle Eastern identities in Tyrant.
These men are proving that a sexy TV hero doesn't have to be a brawny white dude. Skinny brown men can be normal, without selling out to an accent or a stereotype, and be sexy. In a recent interview with SF Gate, Ahmed spoke to the progress that The Night Of has made for characters of color, moving away from stereotypes to more realistic portrayals in which their ethnicity may be totally "incidental" (kind of like Glenn from The Walking Dead, whose Koreanness in no way justifies his character or his actions):
"With characters like Nas and stories like this, they’re definitely a step forward—not just for actors of color, or not just for audiences of color but also our culture in general. If the aim of the story and art is imagining what it’s like to be someone else, then we need to put up loads of different versions of who we can be. I think change is coming slowly. It never comes fast enough, but we keep our heads down and keep moving forward."
It’s time to face the truth: these men are no longer just your nerds, doctors, convenience store owners, and terrorists. They’re your love interests, your sex symbols, your daddies, and your heroes.