Like Nina Rastogi, I grew up counting Indians in entertainment media—or at least taking notice when someone who looked vaguely like me showed up in a sitcom or in advertisements. When Kal Penn got to the big screen as Kumar, part of me thought, “Wow, we made it.” And this for a pothead with a penchant for White Castle.
The recent en-masse arrival of South Asian actors onscreen has certainly improved things, as Rastogi argues, pointing to Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation, Mindy Kaling on The Office, and Iqbal Theba on Glee. (They’ve lately been joined by Raza Jaffrey on Smash.) And yet the recent Popchips ad starring Ashton Kutcher—not to mention the horrible, canceled sitcom Outsourced, which had just arrived when Rastogi wrote her piece—suggests that there are still plenty of people in Hollywood who think it is OK to mock South Asians. Why is that?
In case you missed the now-pulled Popchips ad, it featured Kutcher in the role of Raj, a Bollywood producer with floppy hair, an unfortunate mustache, and fancy Indian clothes. Kutcher employs a (pretty lousy) Indian accent, and compares his lust for Kim Kardashian to his need for potato chips. As Anil Dash noted, there’s no real joke in the ad, “the entire punchline being that he’s doing it in a fake-Indian outfit and voice.” Surely, Kutcher would not have agreed to the ad if he’d been asked to wear blackface, or to squint his eyes like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And yet somehow he didn’t blanch (so to speak) at the offensive Indian caricature.
It’s typical for new minority groups to show up on American TV and in Hollywood movies first as vague stereotypes, and to gradually evolve into fully realized characters. The early roles are often asexual and flat, providing comic relief or a criminal element, rather than representing actual people. Think Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or, going further back, Carmen Miranda as Dorita in The Gang’s All Here. The path toward complexity tends to be long, halting, and slow. Still, one would have thought that the arrival of Ansari and co. on primetime meant that incidents like the Popchips ad were a thing of the past.
To understand their persistence, one might point to post-9/11 racism against brown people generally (which took the life of Balbir Singh Sodhi, among others). But a larger problem, I would argue, is that many Americans don’t believe that South Asians, as a group, have ever been disenfranchised. This lack of awareness, in turn, makes people like Kutcher think such mockery won’t sting.
Consider the South Asian characters that have appeared on the small and big screen in the last couple decades. First, there was Apu on The Simpsons. Then the stereotypes expanded, slightly: taxi cab drivers and doctors joined the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor. These are very different jobs, of course, but each fits into a stereotype about the South Asian immigrant. Whether it’s the over-achieving Neela Rasgota (Parmindra Nagra) on E.R., or Barney’s driver Ranjit (Marshall Manesh) on How I Met Your Mother, these roles play into simple-minded ideas about the hard-working immigrant making good on the American Dream. Is that a hurtful image? Only insofar as it reduces individuals to an idea, rather than treating them as a complicated set of people who, in fact, don’t all drive cabs or become doctors.
Some people may say that there’s nothing wrong with such positive stereotypes. “If only people assumed that I was hard-working because of the color of my skin!” But the truth is that even these stereotypes are dehumanizing. And that’s how you end up with Ashton Kutcher in brownface, dancing obliviously to faux-Bollywood music.