‘It is difficult to see yourself as a whole person when the world has decided you are not’: The issues with Film & TVs representation of South Asian women

I think I was about sixteen when I first saw a Pakistani woman represented in media. It was around when Kamala Khan was announced as Ms. Marvel, and I remember being so elated that I thought it was a joke, or a fan-made edit made by a wishful thinker. It didn’t strike me until much later how monumental it was for me to see someone who looked like me, had parents and problems and a life like mine, being shown in a positive light. Kamala Khan is an incredibly well-written character, and even I was taken aback by the amount of development and work they put into not only her character, but those of her family and her community members. She is able to be a Pakistani Muslim teen and experience all the struggles that come with it, but also save the world. It was amazing to be able to read something and identify so strongly with the protagonist, to the point where it seemed like my life was being displayed through the comic book pages. But it also struck me how ridiculous it was that I was as happy and surprised as I was. None of my white friends could relate to my struggle, and much of my male friends would try not to look completely confused when I gushed about it. They had grown up seeing people like them, in every way they could have been seen and more.

My seventh grade teacher showed our class Bend it like Beckham, and my desi friends and I laughed way too hard at every joke about aloo gobi and overbearing aunties. Jess, the main character, had struggles and victories that we could relate to. However, while she had no regard for picking out saris or cooking (preferring to spend her days playing soccer), she wasn’t played off as being too much of an other. Her differences were celebrated by her friends, although her family did not understand them. Her sister, by contrast, spent most of the movie worrying about her upcoming wedding, and whether or not her outfit would be copied by anyone else. It was freeing to see them both, with their different interests and personalities, but both allowed to exist all the same. The movie also featured an LGBT brown character, which was incredible to see; they didn’t sugarcoat the issues that came with being gay and desi, but navigated them as I could imagine would.

The very first time I saw a brown person in media, in general, was in the YTV show How to be Indie. Nevermind that I didn’t really like the show, I still did a double take every time I saw the main character, her skin brown and her eyes dark and her hair black. Her family and culture, at times, seemed to be played off as comedic, and it appeared to be easier to brush them off as ‘eccentric brown people’ than it did to properly develop them. The actress that played Indie, Melinda Shankar, is described by IMDb as being Guyanese-Canadian, and so casting was problematic to a degree as well. Still, the show made it easier to stomach every classmate that asked if my family was like hers, or made fun of accents like the ones my parents had.

To this day, South Asian representation has been severely lacking in Western media. In the 60s-80s, brown-face was as prevalent as it had ever been, with cringe-worthy performances by actors in films such as The Party (1968) and Short Circuit. In a post-9/11 world, Hollywood was saturated with casting calls requesting brown men for the role of Terrorist Number Four. It was easier to dehumanise them into villainous caricatures out to threaten the fabric of the United States than it was to show them dancing, eating, working, existing. It is difficult to see yourself as a whole person when the world has decided you are not, and has countless stories to prove it.

This issue only gets more difficult when you look at South Asian women in particular. While Riz Ahmed made waves in Nightcrawler and Lion’s Dev Patel gave a spectacular performance, I can’t help but notice that the amount of brown women I see is still quite nil. When we are shown, we are too often restricted by the stereotypes inflicted onto us by society, cast aside as background characters, the quiet wife of the main hero, an exotic affair, or a display in complacency. We are silent, know how to make a mean chai, and watch life pass us by. This is not the person I am, and it does not represent the dozens of desi women I know and love.

Brown women are women, and we do things like anyone else. We have sex, we laugh and joke and dance, wear tops that show our stomachs and smoke and down shots like water. We also pray, fuss about our hijabs matching our outfits, enjoy a good plate of biryani, and dream of a happy marriage. This not a spectrum, and these things are not mutually exclusive. There is no right or wrong way for us to be, but there are multitudes of ways to exist, and I guarantee you there is nothing in our skin that restricts us either way.

Desi women are in a difficult position, as we are often underestimated and given stifling social roles to fulfill by our society. There are certainly traditional rules that are often expected of us to follow, no matter how ridiculous they are. It is interesting to see Western media denounce these ideas as barbaric, and yet eat them up on their television screens. The same people who post articles about the lack of women’s rights in India are all too often the people who rolls their eyes at a Muslim lesbian on television, denouncing it was ‘unrealistic’.

I know there are steps being taken, but even those often come with two steps back. When Deepika Padukone broke into Hollywood, people compared her to Priyanka Chopra obsessively, as if they weren’t two entirely different people. Nevermind that we can have hundreds of Cate Blanchetts and Kristen Stewarts. The tokenization of minorities is a problem that plagues most underprivileged groups, and its role in female South Asian representation is one only furthered by social ‘norms’, misogyny, and racism. People are not talking about actual issues in the community, and oftentimes, the stories that are told are not being told by brown voices. Young brown girls should be able to see a world outside of the one carefully constructed with them, and see their place in it. With this comes representations of love, friendship, mental illness, and more. Even with my own interpretations and thoughts, I have to be conscious that I am a Pakistani woman who has grown up in Western society and, therefore, still have a skewed perception of reality that is not shared with all desi women.

I want to be able to see coming-of-age stories with girls who like to wear saris and practice Bollywood dance routines in their bathrooms. I want to see businesswomen with brown skin, lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, cashiers, dancers, engineers, and more. I want to see brown women being in all kinds of love, and stories where them dating outside their race or being gay isn’t seen as the end of the world. I hope that, with brown actresses being more prevalently displayed in film and television roles, we will be able to create more diverse roles for brown women. Mindy Kaling shone in The Mindy Project, and Priyanka Chopra’s performance in Quantico has been rightly raved about. However, I long to see roles that do not involve culture being the forefront of the plot and character development, rather than the character themselves, and their own individual experiences. It can be a difficult balance to maintain, especially when people cry out for erasing a character’s background when it isn’t mentioned, but also criticize it when it accidentally becomes the entire plot itself. Talking about issues is important, but it only becomes an issue when character after character is defined by issues directly related to their cultures, and not allowed to exist outside of that vacuum.

And I long for the day where this will no longer come as a shock to see.


by Liaba Nisar

Liaba Nisar is a student completing a double major in Theatre Studies and Geography, and stumbling along the way. She enjoys too-loud and too-quiet music, movies with pretty lighting, and desserts of all kinds. She has been writing since she can remember, and hopes to write and direct films in the future (if a caffeine overdose hasn’t killed her by then).

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