In Hollywood, South Asian Characters Can’t Come-of-Age Without Assimilating
I grew up on Mean Girls, Clueless, and 10 Things I Hate About You and I have no regrets for knowing all the words to Regina George’s vicious monologues. But I also grew up on Bollywood, and I will always be a fan of 90s superhits with coming of age themes like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. India’s fluffy and often surface-level cinematic universe is huge and powerful, extending to international reach, but its lack of originality means it’s still somewhat of a joke to many audiences. So why is it that Western media, the media our lives are shaped by, has created little to no coming of age films for South Asian growing up in the diaspora?
Watching a South Asian girl go to high school and come of age seems to be limited to their parental struggles and hidden sexuality. We are defined solely by our brownness. Movies like Disney’s Lemonade Mouth starred mixed-raced Indian actor Naomi Scott as Mohini (shortened to Mo for the sake of whitening her name) and placed in her a situation of family conflict and a need for sexual liberation. Her father was controlling and conservative, the way many brown fathers are stereotyped. Mo’s boyfriend was the classic white bad-boy type, who eventually broke her heart. After they split another white boy put her heart back together and won over the affections of her family. It’s a story that’s been done to death and sits well with Western audiences because it makes white people feel good about being a saviour. Films like Bend it Like Beckham have a similar story: a subordinated brown girl just wants to play soccer and hang with white people. Jess’s character perpetuates the idea of rejecting cultural values and family to fit in, which is really code for assimilation. So does her affection for her Irish coach, Joe, which really doesn’t need to exist, storywise. This need to be accepted by white communities is an effect of neocolonialism and villainizes non-white identities.
In her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? Gayatri Spivak writes about the subordinated brown women in relation to colonial studies. Subordinated women do not often have a voice in the telling of their own stories are instead of needing to be rescued. Spivak’s memorable observation, “white men are saving brown women from brown men” gives us an understanding of the villainized brown man and helpless brown woman who must be whitified in order to be saved. The white man is the most desirable and can make the brown woman desirable too. This “saving” acts as a relationship between colonizers and the subordinated colonized peoples and is applicable to the context of how we’re characterizing the relationships between brown girls and white men, brown girls and brown men, brown men and white girls, and other combinations of white people and people of colour.
The diminutive representations of brown actors is an effect of elevating white characters to subjects of desire. Like Bend It Like Beckham, movies such as Bollywood’s English-Vinglish, promote a feminist perspective around cultural freedom and the ability to carve ones destiny, but fail to provide this message without a small romantic prospect between a European chef, Laurent, and the main character, Shashi (played by the late Bollywood darling Sridevi). From Rupi Kaur’s Insta-poetry to Bollywood/Hollywood’s Sunita Singh, the struggle of being brown and dealing with trauma defines South Asian feminine representation, leading to a tokenistic and often voyeuristically sexualized view of brown women.
As a writer, I have found myself in situations where I am asked at length about my trauma in relation to my ethnic background, and these are racially charged questions. When I began writing non-fiction and personal essays, I felt a pressure to write about being brown, informing others of the stress it inflicted on me and how my family was a catalyst for my oppression. It felt like teaching someone how to spell my name every time I meet them and brushing it off when they’re wrong, saying, “it’s okay, it’s a confusing name.”
Racism was only a small part of my Canadian school experience. There were tons of microaggressions, like being told I was too short, too small, or that it was good that I “sounded white” on the phone. Or having my unibrow stared at, my skin colour compared to other Indians, and my nationality to be assumed Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Columbian (I’m Indo-Guyanese, for reference). But I remember these things now that it’s after the fact, that I had a lot of ups and downs that had to do with friends, mental health, and academics. It doesn’t mean the racial stuff wasn’t important, it means that I wasn’t focused solely on my oppression in that way that popular media does when it talks about people who look like me.
In Marginality as a Site of Resistance, African-American scholar bell hooks wrote about the relationship between the “academic” investigator and the “subaltern.” The academic (most often a white person): “I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew.” Hooks investigated an idea similar to Spivak’s, by studying the way in which the colonizer often takes the story of the colonized and reshapes it for retelling under an imperialist lens that feigns empathy, but is really self-preservation for white people.
I don’t have to write about generational trauma with a majority-white audience in mind. I need to be wary of what I share and how I share it. Only I have ownership of my history, and putting that story out there for interpretation and retelling through white academia leaves my community vulnerable to uninformed scrutiny. As a minority in the North American art world, I feel this pressure to be representative of my diaspora when that really is not the case. There is no catch-all kind of trauma. The same goes for South Asian figures in pop culture.
For South Asian men, it’s often in comedy and caricature figures that actors find their place. Kevin Gnapoor in Mean Girls acted a symbol of comic relief and creepy lust. Chirag Gupta in Diary of a Wimpy Kid is just a weird, a social outcast. Karan Brar who plays Chirag also plays the socially awkward token Indian kid, Raj, in the Disney Channel sitcom, Jessie. Baljeet in Phineas and Ferb is constantly bullied and is never given the power to stand up for himself. Raj, in The Big Bang Theory, is just another of image an inferior, lustful after white women, and a sexist Indian man. All these characters are one-note and perpetuate the image of either a brown male villain or pity-subject. Recent and upcoming films like Boyle’s Yesterday and Chadha’s Blinded by the Light (the director of Bend it Like Beckham) still place brown men at the centre of a white narrative, elevating the music of British and American artists, respectively, to godlike levels and using them as driving forces for a brown character’s success.
Can’t South Asians just go to high school and ride around in shopping carts under the night sky like their white peers? Brown girls too can have a wild romance while dying of cancer. They too can wear swimsuits. A brown girl can be the Queen Bee. She can be mentally ill. She can be queer. She can be promiscuous. A brown boy can spend a summer falling in love with another brown boy. Like Lady Bird and Booksmart’s Amy and Molly, he can rebel against an academic institution with little repercussion. A South Asian child can have supportive and liberal parents or have matriarchal families. We’ve already done all of this, so why haven’t we seen it on screen?
When I watched Lady Bird I was moved at the subtle ways director Greta Gerwig packed the nuances of class issues, sexuality, parent-child relations, friendships, and mental health into 95 minutes. But there was a barrier between the character and me, and it was a cultural one. Wilde’s Booksmart didn’t excite me. Though this film was quirky and queer, I would rather re-watch Moonlight, Spirited Away, or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and bask in the resistance and rebellion of characters of colour who are not ‘rewritten’ by a white authority figure, but are empowered by their creators of colour to do impossible things.
I respect the way Booksmart decides to break down stereotypes of queer characters, dismantling the ways in which they are always represented as a side-character, or as particularly savvy when it comes to their social life (Amy and Molly are “nerds”). I liked that Booksmart was not a coming-out story. But that doesn’t mean it breaks barriers. It doesn’t. It’s still a white middle-class story about people who inherently have it a bit easier in the world than others at different intersections.
Buzzfeed’s Allison Willmore touches on class issues in Booksmart, where various levels of income are represented in senior year, but not talked about even though the film is centred around college application season. “The idea that most of us really do have to work that hard to compete with those who have advantages that we never will — and that we still might not get what we want — is less comfortable as the stuff of comedy,” Willmore writes in an article that explains Molly’s unacknowledged class difference. But how does being white give Molly an advantage in the world, even though she may not be as rich as her high-school friends?
We need to look at the foundations of exclusion. Racialized people still have a hard time entering the workforce and receiving equitable treatment from their employers. Stereotypes and generalizations still plague the South Asian community, and though Asians are doing comparably well, earning almost as much as whites, simply earning a high wage can be bittersweet. The model minority myth still plagues me and other South-Asian diasporic children, assuming we are on some kind of next-level smartness, strong family values, cheating the system, or some kind of money radar. Most of the time, that’s just not the case.
I was brought up in a low-income household and I still don’t know how I’m going to make money as an adult. I was only able to enrol in a Canadian university because of tuition grants in the province of Ontario. My father was a mechanic for most of his life and he and his young co-workers of colour were fired from their first job in favour of white hires. A South Asian friend told she was put into ESL (another damaging form of assimilation) as a child because she had a bit of an accent and pronounced some words a little differently than the white administration at her primary school. Looking at how ESL students are treated in high schools is also relevant to the South Asian coming-of-age experience, especially as a first- or second-gen immigrants. Though transformative and life-shaping, much of these experiences and intersections are left unexplored by Western media or painted in a favourable light. It’s ironic, in part because Western media created and continues to perpetuate a lot of these racist beliefs in the first place.
The only South Asian-lead film that could be classified as coming of age this year is the new Aladdin. It is an arguably bad film, once again starring Naomi Scott as a forward-thinking, ambitious young Jasmine. Jasmine does challenge the trope of a white man saving brown women by rejecting Prince Anders and fighting for a choice. But Scott’s also thrown flippant lyrics in a song about not being “speechless,” in the face of unjust treatment.
Jasmine’s agency is not revolutionary. It’s simplistic, watered down to the fact that she wants to be queen and refuses to marry a white man. It’s great that she wants to be queen, but it’s an overbaked message that will empower five-year-olds more than anyone else. There are very little complexities to her situation, and it isn’t because Aladdin is a Disney film. See films like Tangled, where Rapunzel’s complicated relationship with a manipulative mother figure and her sense of adventure lead her into a journey that isn’t just fighting back against oppression but transforming into a leader. The connotations of her oppression are rooted in mysticism, not ethnicity.
Do I sound picky? Here’s more: Jasmine’s arch still leads back to the traditional goal of attaining a husband. Frozen’s main message is about the love between sisters and accepting one’s true self. Films like Tangled and Frozen focus on the complexity of white characters, who can love and be whomever they choose, and lack the exoticism of Aladdin, which hasn’t quite gotten rid of the orientalist stereotypes of the original. Instead of retelling these stories, there needs to be some progress in the area of original POC content.
Within the indie film/TV scene, there has been. Independent POC-led film is crucial to removing a white or Eurocentric sieve that creates the framework for how we consume and value films and television for our generation. In 2017, Muslim poet Fatima Asghar created the web series, Brown Girls. The show explores an intimate relationship between two queer Black and brown girls. “A lot of people come from intersections that get erased on media platforms,” Asghar said to Time Magazine in 2017. “If we can shed light that these people exist and are real, and have many different personalities, it will expand the definition of what some of these identities mean.”
Though Brown Girls touches on the oppression women of colour face when their identities clash with colonial politics, the actors and script claim the women as content operators of their own bodies. In the same Time interview, the director of the web series, Sam Bailey echoes a similar sentiment to my troubles with publishing race-oriented writing, “When there are stories about people of colour,” she says, “it flirts with trauma porn.” Bailey’s statement reminded me that the prominent view of non-white people is that they are struggling with not being white. That they are unable to achieve some kind of ideal because of their skin-colour induced trauma. They become a study of misery when they don’t have to be. But the girls of Brown Girls, as people, are at the forefront of all the action in the series, not their trauma. The creators of colour have removed the voyeuristic lens of WOC suffering that has been so common in what we consider popular South Asian stories. We can only hope for more media like Brown Girls and by brown creators to be pushed the forefront of cinema in North America and beyond. It’s the only way cultural nuance can be explored beyond independent productions, and carve a substantial place in the mainstream media.
When I think of coming-of-age I sometimes think about my fourteen-year-old self, sitting in on my bed, legs crossed, trying to perfect Regina George’s cadence as she says, “Uh, why are you so obsessed with me?” My voice always shook. I was obsessed with her, to some extent, or the idea of her, even of the way Cady was eventually accepted and made a hero. The idea of being liked because I was so imperfect that I was perfect. Even if I played the villain, I could still be admired because I was blonde and pretty. How much has changed? For me it’s consuming more media created by people of colour, being choosier about what I watch and the actors I support. As I am currently still coming-of-age, I appreciate coming-of-age films, but I wish people that looked like me had the same space to be complex and hated in that on-the-surface way white girls are hated by each other.
No matter how talented Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, and Saoirse Ronan might be, much of their success is due to their racial identity and the roles created to fit those identities. That means there is space, opportunity and resources for brown and Black actors to be at the forefront of new stories if the industry chooses to make it. It’s about creating equitable roles that don’t force a South-Asian actor to whiten their voice, forsake their traditions, and play comic relief, pathetic best-friend, or oppressed teenager.
Nuanced South Asian representation is not just about handing out more roles for the sake of having a brown character on screen. If it was then maybe Bollywood fluff would be good enough. South Asian representation in Hollywood is about claiming the necessary space to tell a story that is not demeaningly white-centric. Let’s use South Asian identity as empowerment, instead of using it as something traumatic that needs to be overcome. Investing time and resources to South Asian creators will be a testament to the creativity, reality, and effective representation that has a basis in fact, rather than generalizations.