I recently did a post about Mindy Kaling’s book ‘Why Not Me?‘ and an episode of the show Quantico. I don’t often see South Asian people on screen who I can identify with, especially not characters who have real personalities and aren’t just the stereotypical cab drivers with accents. That’s not to say there aren’t real Pakistani and Indian taxi drivers who have recently immigrated to the United States in hopes of providing his/her family with a better life, because there most definitely are. But the problem comes about when the characters portrayed on screen are reduced to just their stereotypes. Because the cab drivers who helped my husband and I travel around Seattle and Portland last year had full lives with wives who lived abroad and theories about their competitors at Uber – they were more than their jobs and their accents.
Master of None is a show created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang that stars Ansari as the lead character of Dev, a 32-year old actor living in New York City. The show is absolutely hilarious because the dialogue totally strikes in my awkward life (Dev frequently ends conversations with ‘well this interaction is over now’).
But they also do a great job of covering social and feminist issues and telling the stories of those of us who are first generation born in the US with immigrant parents. One of the episodes really just made me want to go home and hug my parents and thank them over and over again for all the sacrifices they’ve made for us. In another episode, they contrast the ‘struggles’ of the men getting home after a night out v. a women’s experience (and the associated dangers) and even the micro-aggressions women face in social settings. In the episode Dev’s character realizes, through a conversation with his girlfriend, that while he identifies as ‘feminist’ his male privilege often prevents him from understanding the struggles of women in society. He eventually recognizes that part of being a feminist is stepping aside and listening to women and their narratives.
One of my biggest issues with the show, and one that has been discussed in various articles online, is the that none of Dev’s love interests are women of color (except for the one girl who only dates him for a second to get free food). I had the same issue at first with The Mindy Project when it first started. I realize that a part of this is because they’re trying to portray that the characters Dev and Mindy are open-minded/’forward thinking’ and date outside of their own race. And I can understand that from the perspective of wanting to make the characters more well rounded and not put them in the boxes that society often does. So while the active decision to not have the characters date other South Asian people makes sense, why not other women of color? Asian, Latina, Black women of color are also very very under-represented on screen, especially in a way where they aren’t reduced to stereotypes.
There’s an episode on the show where Dev, Aziz Ansari’s character, suggests the ridiculousness in that two ‘brown guys can’t be on a show together’ because then it would become ‘a brown show.’ But that’s kind of exactly what ends up happening in their decision to have Dev only seriously date or pursue white women on the show (and Mindy with white men). I think I hold Aziz Ansari to a higher standard than Kaling because he has criticized Hollywood for the lack of people of color in whole characters in various articles so I expect him to take advantage of the opportunities to do the same with his own show.
In another episode, Ansari’s character discusses the lack of ‘brouhaha’ surrounding racism against ‘Asian or Indian stuff’ in the same as ‘black and gay people.’ This article discusses the potential anti-blackness of this episode. While I don’t completely agree with the critiques in that article, I completely agree that it’s important that all people of color lift each other up and understand how anti-blackness is inherently integrated into our society on a structural level. Comments like the ones made in this episode create divides instead of using it as an opportunity for solidarity.
The black community has also faced more intense injustice for a much longer period of time and also has a much bigger presence in media because of decades of organizing. Think about how many efforts never got any traction before people started paying attention to police brutality against black men and women with the #blacklivesmatter movement. The author of that article talks about how she often has conversations with non-black POC who express their distaste towards the methods of protest used in the Black Lives Matter movement, such as blocking traffic on a street near their campus. And while I personally don’t agree with that method of protest, I also have to recognize that it’s not my struggle. I don’t know what it feels like to constantly be stopped by cops for no other reason than the color of your skin. I don’t know what it feels like to have to work against generations of systemic racism in order to succeed. So I can have my opinions about methods of protests and decide whether or not I want to stand in solidarity in that way, but I have no right to tell anyone whether or not there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to protest. We need to start being a little more empathic in our conversations about struggles that we do not understand. I do think that Ansari and Yang missed an opportunity here to do some solidarity building between two communities facing a lack of accurate representation in Hollywood.
Overall, I think the show is really great and it does make me really happy to see South Asian POC on screen as funny, awkward, sexy, and all the things that we are. I’m looking forward to the next season and I do hope that they address the issues that have been brought up by a number of people.