It’s been a long time coming, but in the last few years South Asian characters on television have broken out of the molds that Western media has insisted on keeping them in for decades. Folks like Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and Aasif Mandvi have been doing the Lord’s work, chipping away at harmful stereotypes and creating unique, strong, and most importantly normal characters.
Just this past Monday, Freeform, the new incarnation of ABC Family, greenlit a pilot for a new comedy show called Brown Girls, about two young women of Indian descent. This is exciting! The plot, via Hollywood Reporter:
The pilot centers on the relationship between Rimmi, an Indian-American aspiring beauty vlogger, and Devi, a young woman who has recently emigrated from India. Brought together by family, Rimmi and Devi instantly clash over their different views on modern life and love while slowly realizing they both have something to learn from one another.
I am looking forward to the pilot, particularly because the writers are Shilpi Roy, who is South Asian, and veteran producer (and WOC) Nastaran Dibai. Aside from The Mindy Project, which almost never delves into Mindy’s Indian heritage, 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, which did, and um Degrassi’s “Alli,” who’s a rebel because of her conservative Indian upbringing, this is a rare opportunity to see Indian women in action, which warms my heart.
But we South Asians have been burned before. In the spirit of exercising caution, I’ve compiled a list of some of the classic “East meets West” Indian-American culture-clash tropes that I hope this show skirts—or, even better, addresses in a more subversive way. Sari not sari.
One of the most frustrating stereotypes about Indians—although mostly about Indian men, since we so rarely see Indian women in movies and TV—is the way they’re treated romantically on screen. On the one hand, they are sex-crazed maniacs who get turned on at the thought of boobs, but on the other hand, they are reliably nervous and totally lacking game. Taj from Van Wilder is a classic example of this walking psychosexual crisis. We’re certainly improving with characters like Master of None’s Dev, but it would be nice to see female Indian characters from India portrayed as being more comfortable, open, and realistic in that sphere.
Why learn to flirt and date when your parents will just set you up? Writers have relied on forced marriages as a form of Indian character development for so long that it’s almost as if a character isn’t truly Indian if they haven’t been engaged to someone their parents chose without their permission. It happened to Apu on the Simpsons, it happened to Divya on Royal Pains, it happened to Raj on The Big Bang Theory. It’s not that it doesn’t happen—it’s that arranged marriages are not the only way Indian people get married.
We get it, America. You’ve been on hold with someone who has an accent from one of the many states of India and is frustratingly loyal to the bureaucratic process that allows them to have a job. Oh, and you’re pretty sure their name isn’t really Janet. How perceptive you are. We saw this in Transformers, Jimmy Kimmel “outsourced” Donald Trump jokes to an Indian call center (in 2015, people!), and it was the entire premise of the NBC sitcom Outsourced. It’s the Kwik-E-Mart ham of racist jokes, which is to say it’s old and tired and probably should have been thrown out in 1989.
In general, people tend to think that foreigners don’t know anything about American culture, even though America has made a ton of money exporting its media around the world. Ben Jabituya, the Indian character from Short Circuit, portrayed by a white man in brownface, constantly got idiomatic expressions and pop culture references wrong.
This is obviously an extreme example. A more subtle take on this may be Americans being shocked that Indians don’t just watch Bollywood all the time—they binge-watch Game of Thrones and Friends just like the rest of us.
Centuries of Orientalization and patriarchy have rendered many depictions of Indian women in media meek and submissive, with lives that depend on the whims of their fathers—so I hope Brown Girls explores the idea of the young Indian woman, as an American or Indian citizen, in a more realistic way. Because Rimmi and Devi are supposed to be two sides of the same Indian coin, I can only hope that the show doesn’t simply rely on dichotomies as a means of character development, making Rimmi bold and independent (because she’s a familiar American!) and Devi dutiful and obedient (because she’s an Indian foreigner!).