Uma Balaji | Contributor
From Dev Patel’s Oscar nomination for his role in 2016’s Lion to Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari’s Emmy win for an episode of Master of None, the past year has been full of triumphs for South Asian men in the media. But a common critique of works starring and/or written by South Asian men is that while brown men are finally occupying roles historically exclusive to white men, they’re rarely depicted alongside women of color. Aditi Natasha Kini of Jezebel goes so far as to call such works “masturbatory fantasies that give brown men the vantage point of white male cinephiles.” In other words, while these works do well showing brown men at the forefront, they are nearly always unfair to brown women and other women of color.
As Kini concedes, this infatuation with white women is understandable. From the perspective of post-colonial South Asians, whiteness is still the ultimate beauty standard, especially for women. And from the perspective of South Asian-American men, it is a triumph to see a brown man in the leading romantic role, rather than in the role of the nerdy, socially awkward sidekick or comedic punching bag. But while it is important to understand the reasons for the proliferation and popularity of works portraying relationships between brown men and white women, the resulting underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women of color isn’t justifiable.
For example, Kumail Nanjiani’s successful rom-com The Big Sick tells the autobiographical story of how Nanjiani met and fell in love with his wife, a white woman. As Kini illustrates, while the story is sweet and does humanize brown Muslim men, it is problematic in a few places. In the beginning, when Nanjiani first meets his future wife, Emily, in a bar, he takes advantage of his Pakistani-American identity by trying to impress her by writing her name in Urdu. While it is notably one of the few moments in the film when Nanjiani takes pride in his heritage, by using his mother tongue as a sort of party trick, Nanjiani plays into the exotification of South Asian culture. So even though he “gets the (white) girl,” he walks all over his own culture to do it. As bell hooks has put it, it’s “the commodification of Otherness.”
Kini also points out the troubling portrayals of brown women throughout The Big Sick. While Nanjiani is conducting a secret affair with Emily, his parents are trying to set him up with Pakistani women, all of whom are portrayed as undesirable alternatives to Nanjiani’s true love, and all devoid of any depth of character. Worse still is that many, if not all, of these women are caricatures of what white people expect Pakistani women to be: out of touch with American culture, heavily accented and traditional. And Nanjiani’s most serious Pakistani suitor in the film, a woman named Khadija, isn’t even portrayed by a South Asian woman—she’s just an actress who “often gets mistaken for South Asian.” So even in real life, South Asian women aren’t accorded enough respect to be allowed to play themselves on screen.
A few counterexamples can be found in works like The Mindy Project and Quantico, in which Mindy Kaling’s and Priyanka Chopra’s characters, respectively, fall in love with white men. However, considering the patriarchy of South Asia, these supposed counterexamples don’t hold much water—because brown women have been so disproportionately marginalized, when they pursue white men and reject brown men, it’s empowering, whereas brown men rejecting brown women is just typical South Asian colorist misogyny. As Kini writes, “In an already-skewed power dynamic, depicting South Asian women as unworthy romantic partners is a radical rejection of their cultural baggage.”
While Kini’s article is sympathetic and critical in most of the right places, the one point that gives me, as a brown woman, pause is when she writes, “That a relationship between a white person and a person of color is fashioned into the gold standard of ‘progress’ and ‘saving America’ is classic white liberal nonsense.” While I agree that such relationships shouldn’t be portrayed as something to aspire to, it is important to consider, at least with autobiographical works like The Big Sick, that the writers might not be trying to “save America.” They might just be trying to tell their own life stories. While the depictions of female leads in these works are unfair to women of color, it is also unfair to immediately politicize any work created by a brown man or person of color.
It is also true that the impact of art, in many cases, is more important than the artist’s original intent. But brown men fall in love with white women on-screen because that’s what happens in real life. So rather than chastising the storytellers for revealing that ugly truth, we should acknowledge their honesty and look for ways to change the reality.