Tagged: TV studies

A new form of the “Oriental” stereotype? An analysis of South Asian Indian characters in popular culture through Edward Said’s Orientalism

In one of the episodes of the popular comedy series The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali jokes about ‘rampant poverty’ and ‘periodic outbreaks of cholera’ in India. Raj is an astrophysicist from New Delhi who lives and works with his group of friends in California. Jokes about his Indian background, anomalies of Indian culture and his inevitable future in an arranged marriage are a recurring subject on the show.

At the outset, jokes like these do not seem out of place in a show that primarily posits itself as a comedy series. However, in the very construction and implication of these jokes, one can discern the construction of a stereotype of the Indian boy that emerges from this show – nerdy, awkward and irrevocably rooted to his culture. There are other stereotypes that abound in popular American television and films that also, like in the case of Raj, construct a particular image of the South Asian Indian. These stereotypes not only restrict the identity of a community into particular adjectives but, more importantly, reveal certain assumptions in our understanding of the ‘Other’ in the 21st century. This paper attempts to interrogate these assumptions and through that argue that stereotypes which are formulated about the South Asian Indian in popular culture can be seen as an extension of the Oriental stereotype, as discussed by Edward Said in his book Orientalism.

According to Said, Orientalism is “principally a way of defining and ‘locating’ Europe’s others” (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 50). In his discussion Said locates the ‘Other’ primarily in the Middle East. However, over a period of time that has seen increasing changes in technology and the advent of globalization, the axis that define ‘Europe’s others’ has shifted a bit. While the Middle East still remains an important region for analysis, this discussion locates the Oriental Other in South Asia, with a focus on Indian subcontinent. This location not only takes into account traditional Oriental discourse but also places the opposition between the East and the West in a postcolonial context. In that the Orientalist discourse and the assumptions that underlie it are more importantly, a reflection on Western thinking, an understanding of the location of the ‘Other’ is essential for the purpose of analysis and comparison.

Orientalism, as a discourse, relies for its internal coherence on institutions that are responsible for “dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said 3). These institutions may be governments, educational institutions, professors, settlers, authors, scholars, books and journals. They can be understood to be institutions since they establish knowledge about the Orient in a way that presents it as the norm in an organized culture. Institutionalizing knowledge provides it with legitimacy. In the world that we live in, popular culture is often seen to provide events, activities and knowledge with that kind of legitimacy. For instance, the act of obsessively clicking one’s own pictures in various poses and sharing it with the world might have been seen as odd some decades ago. But validation and popularity of the ‘selfie’ in popular culture, primarily Internet communities, has led to the word ‘selfie’ being included in the Oxford English Dictionary1, a traditional form of institutionalizing knowledge.

Similarly, certain stereotypes about the South Asian Indian are embedded in popular culture and can be seen as existing in a new kind of ‘institutional’ framework – depictions in television and films. To a viewer who does not have any previous interaction with the ethnic character being shown to him, stereotypes associated with him acquire a normative tendency – assumptions which he understands to be ‘true’.

These new institutions as argued here symbolize, essentially, a move from textual to audiovisual medium. It would be foolish to deny the importance of South Asian Indian stereotypes in literature and their impact. However, the powerful and diffusive nature of television and films implies that knowledge is disseminated in a way that leaves a deeper impact. The regular and routine nature of television programming means that the viewer is bombarded with this ‘produced knowledge’ every day for a long period of time. Moreover, since most stereotypes about the hardworking Indian immigrant or the Indian cab driver are situated in comedy shows, these stereotypes are presented to the viewer when he is consciously not using his critical faculties to receive knowledge. The fact that such discursive knowledge is disseminated in a seemingly ‘harmless’ way makes the institutional framework of television even more potent than literature.

One of the earliest Indian characters on American television was, ironically enough, not portrayed by an Indian. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the proprietor of Kwik-E-Mart in the animated television series The Simpsons was voiced by Hank Azaria, an American film and television character. An Indian immigrant, Apu spoke in an explicit Indian accent and was a reflection of the increasing number of Indians in similar low-paying jobs. Whether intentional or not, Apu started a trend of characterizing Indians as convenience store owners or clerks. Another stereotype of the Indian immigrant that continues to exist in popular imagination is that of the cab driver. In the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Ranjit played by Marshall Manesh, is a former cab driver who now drives the limo for the characters in the show. He is middle aged and of ‘cheerful disposition’ and always has a word or two of useful insight for others.

It is interesting to note that both these stereotypes – the cab driver and the convenience store clerk/manager – are archetypal manifestations of the American life. In the encounter between the East and the West, Said talks about a “vacillation” (Said 58) and says:

Something patently foreign and distant acquires, for one reason or another, a status more rather than less familiar. One tends to stop judging things either as completely novel or as completely well known; a new median category emerges, a category that allows one to see new things, … as versions of a previously known thing (Said 58).

This incorporation of difference into the mainstream so as to make the unfamiliar a familiar, identifiable part of the mainstream can be understood as the impulse behind this continual characterization of the Indian as the cab driver or the store owner. The difference – in culture, beliefs, and lifestyle – is incorporated into the American way of life in a way that concentrates the whole community into a type – a familiar type that may be encountered daily irrespective of which part of the country you live in. This concentration into a stereotype is done in a manner that reduces the threat of the unfamiliar. A similar strategy was used by the West to represent Islam in non-threatening, rational forms in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.

Moreover, the difference is incorporated in a marginal way that locates the existence of the Indian community in the background as merely props in the larger service industry in America. When we look at the character of a cab driver and a store owner, we see the alien is encompassed in a familiar stereotype which is then perpetuated to define the potential and the identity of the Indian community. The stereotype, born out of a reality of the immigrant experience, becomes dangerously synonymous with the community.

But stereotypes slowly transform and mutate to give rise to other clichés. As we slowly move away from Apu, we see that there is a gradual move away from the marginalized store clerk to the necessary-yet-not-pivotal role of the minority character. These minority characters are often in roles that exaggerate already existing stereotypes about the engineer-nerdy-immigrant Indian and often indulge in buffoonery. But this can be seen as the logical progression in representation of the Other in the mainstream. As Shilpa Dave, an assistant professor of American studies at Brandeis University, tracing a journey followed by African Americans and gays, writes:

To me, what we’re seeing is a trajectory of how racial ‘otherness’ is depicted in Hollywood. First there’s invisibility. Then you’re in comic roles, either as a buffoon or the butt of the joke. Then you get into dramas where you’re in positions of authority, like judges or cops, where you’re enforcing the status quo (Jacobs “Hollywood Goes South Asian”).

In this ‘trajectory’, an important question that needs to be raised is whether the casting of ‘otherness’ in comic roles is a way of minimizing the threat of the outsider. Unlike countries in the Middle East that have a history of conflict and violence with the US, Indians fit into the mould of a ‘non-threatening novelty’ that espouses a ‘comfortable kind of difference’. However, this difference is not so non-threatening so as to acknowledge the diversity of the community. In its characterization of the Indian character as the funny guy with the exaggerated accent who loves Bollywood dancing, the implicit Oriental opposition of the rational , Western mind versus the feeble, ‘native’ mind is discernible.

Another way in which Oriental stereotypes manifest themselves in the portrayal of South Asian Indians in American television is the difference between male and female representation. Archie Punjabi, an Indian American actor plays Kalinda Punjabi in the show The Good Wife. Kalinda is a private investigator with a ‘sharp tongue’ (Topfer The Good Wife) whose ‘erotically charged banter’ has been the subject of much debate among the show’s fans. In Royal Pains, Reshma Shetty, another British Indian, plays the role of Divya Katdare who is an assistant to a physician. She is not afraid of her sexuality and her wardrobe is seen as an attempt to “maximize her sexual allure” (Jacobs “Hollywood”).

This characterization of the female as sexually available is in direct opposition to the male characterization of the awkward, unavailable ‘nerd.’ The Orient, here, is not only feminized but also sexualized rendering the female subject an object of desire. Her primary identity is founded on her availability to the Western gaze, with her intellect and profession attributed a secondary place.

However, recent times have signaled a change in such representation. The Mindy Project, written by and starring Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri, is the first show on primetime American television with a South Asian Indian character in the lead. Mindy is an OB/GYN in a medical firm and is looking for love in New York City. She is funny, quirky and fiercely individualistic and a second generation Indian – but her ethnicity doesn’t define her. Just like Mindy, there are a small number of characters across the small screen – like Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation played by Aziz Ansari or Cece Parekh played by Hannah Simone in New Girl – that are not restricted by their ethnicity and essentially could have been characters from anywhere. It is an encouraging change, which interestingly enough has not happened organically but is the result of lobbies – an institutional initiative in contrast with the traditional Oriental institutional framework.

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is an organization “solely dedicated to monitoring all facets of the media – television, motion pictures, print, advertising, radio, etc. – and advocating balanced, sensitive and positive portrayals of Asian Americans” (“About MANAA”). Formed in April 1992, MANAA is also a part of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition that regularly meets with producers to encourage diversity of characters and content in their programming. The organisation believes in addressing “negative stereotypes long perpetuated by the media which detrimentally affects all Asian Americans, hurting not only their self-image, but how non-Asians treat them” (“About MANAA”). The existence of institutions like MANAA and other media networks lobbying for greater diversity and sensitivity in television programming can be seen as an effective counter to the institutional nature of the new Oriental discourse. While one of the criticism faced by Said is the lack of any space given to native institutions opposing the Oriental discourse, the existence of lobbies and ‘diversity initiatives’2 offer an interesting subversion.

But despite various efforts, the ghost of Apu still lingers on. While representations of South Asian Indians are moving beyond stereotypical portrayals, they are still restricted by a biased perception of ethnicity and geography. As Kunal Nayyar, who plays Raj Koothrappali on The Big Bang Theory, says:

You’re still going to have the all-American boy being the lover on a TV show… So there’s still that thing where the Indian guy can play the funny or the Indian guy. We’re not there right now where actors of my colour at least are going to be the leading man in a TV show, not that that won’t change or that can’t change. I just think that we’re not there yet (Peitzman “Kunal Nayyar”).

Apart from psychological distance that Nayyar talks about, there is also an inherent political distance that needs to be bridged. Indians play an influential role in American politics with many of them occupying significant roles in the government. Yet representation of the Indian community is painfully confined to midlevel professional occupations with the traditional higher echelons of power still being represented as predominantly white. Tom Haverford is an Indian American who is a sarcastic, underachieving government official for the city of Pawnee in the popular TV show Parks and Recreation. Born Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani, Tom changes his name to be more appealing (and identifiable) in politics. The fact that he is expected to disavow his Indian roots to be considered for a profession that requires him to be assimilated in the mainstream strongly resonates with the Oriental discourse that robs the Oriental ‘object’ of its cultural subjectivity and historical background.

Tom’s character brings to fore the conundrum of a dual identity crisis. If the Indian character is shown as explicitly Indian, then they are stereotyped as jokes. If, on the other hand, they are shown as achieving something, then they are completely ‘un-Indian’. What is striking here is the lack of a middle ground that accommodates the Indian as a ‘normal’ subject. As Said argues:

Orientalism shares with magic and with mythology, the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter (Said 70).

In his assertion of self-reinforcing nature of Oriental discourse, he establishes relative impenetrability of the ‘system’. Yet, as we have seen since the time the book was written, the character and stereotypes have changed in form. The contours of certain images have changed, but the fundamental Western gaze behind the construction of this image still retains its structure. In looking at the representation of South Asian Indians in popular culture, one can interrogate this structure. Such an analysis enables one to rob these stereotypes of their ‘normality’ and become aware of their existence as a part of an established discourse that has been influenced by various scholars, disciplines, perspectives over a period of time. But it is only when the ‘ontological reason’ of the existence of particular stereotypes will be dismantled that the persistence of Apu will be exhausted.

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Notes:

1 According to Oxford Dictionary, a selfie is a “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
2 According to Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, the rise in primetime Asians is also the result of advocacy. Her organization and its partners have been working with the networks to develop diversity initiatives for the past decade.

Bibliography:

Ashcroft, Bill, and Pal Ahluwalia. Routledge Critical Thinkers Series: Edward Said. Routledge, 1999. 50. Print.
“Hank Azaria.” IMDB. 2009. Web. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000279/>.
Jacobs, Tom. “Hollywood goes South Asian.” The Pacific Standard 30 August 2012.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Penguin Press, 1978. 3. Print.
Topfer, Susan. ““The Good Wife’s” Archie Punjabi on her Breakthrough Role.” The Wall Street Journal 15 December 2009. Web.
Peitzman, Louis. “Kunal Nayyar Opens Up, Along With His “Big Bang Theory” Character.” 19 June 2013. Web.
“Quotes: The Classified Materials Turbulence.” IMDB. 2009. Web. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1256033/quotes>.
“About MANAA.” Web. <http://www.manaa.org/about_us.html>.

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Maanvi is currently in third year in BA Honours English in Hindu College at the University of Delhi. Academically, she is interested in popular culture in modern societies and how this phenomenon has become a site for ideological struggles and social restructuring. She also an avid reader of fiction as well as non-fiction books. She is a huge admirer of old Hindi films and in her free time, indulges in amateur film criticism, reading Urdu ghazals and looking for Shakespearian parallels in contemporary politics and culture. She can be contacted at maanvi2501@gmail.com.