When I was around 6, my mum bought me an Indian Barbie doll. She had it specially ordered because, you know, they weren’t exactly in high demand. This Barbie was just as disproportionate as her blonde counterparts, except she had jet black hair, wore a sari and a bindi. I didn’t quite know what to do with her. This was just one of my mother’s attempts to make me and my sisters feel represented in the ‘mainstream’. At that point in my life, all I really cared about was being allowed to wear jelly shoes with a heel and keep my tamagotchi alive until playtime. Being handed this Indian Barbie was really killing my vibe. It was like a specific reminder that I wasn’t just a girl, I was an Indian girl. As if growing up on the outskirts of Kent hadn’t made me entirely aware of that. As kids, being different isn’t desirable, edgy or alternative. Difference gets called out. Not celebrated. And for me, everything that made me ‘different’ came as a result of being Indian. Girls might be going crazy for bindis and henna now but back then, as far as I was concerned, this Barbie in her sari was not about to go party anywhere with anyone. She was staying at the bottom of a plastic Ikea storage box.
Fast-forward a couple of years to 2002 and Bend It Like Beckham hit the big screen, receiving huge commercial success. This was the first time that something came close to reflecting my reality on the big screen. I was 11 years old, I didn’t come from an overly traditional or religious household at all and I avoided sport like…a sport. Yet this was the first time I had seen an Indian girl in a film set in London, speaking English and that was exciting enough.
Over a decade later, do you remember the name of the main girl in Bend It Like Beckham? Yeah me neither. Give yourself half a point for saying ‘Jess.’ If I asked you to name 10 mainstream British Asian or American Indian female celebrities, could you? Maybe. But I can bet you would be struggling by #6. I can also imagine that Mindy Kahling, Aishwarya Rai and said girl from Bend it Like Beckham would be on your list. (Parminder Nagra by the way). Take away 1 point if you thought Aishwarya Rai is British or American. Remove 100 points and close this window if you thought Iggy Azalea and Selena Gomez dancing around in Bollywood inspired music videos counted for anything at all.
More often than not if a South Asian woman – or man for that matter – is on screen, it is usually to play a peripheral role. These tend to include tired tropes: the geeky friend, or oppressed-by-her-parents daughter; the terrorist or the guy who works in a corner shop. It’s like overhearing that one friend tell the same dull anecdote over and over again in a desperate attempt to spice up small talk. It’s unnecessary, exhausting and uncomfortable all round.
On those rare occasions when we have bagged the lead….well lets consider our highlight reel since 2002:
Freida Pinto had her ‘breakthrough’ with Slumdog Millionaire back in 2009. The film itself was powerful and beautifully shot, however, the story required the characters to be Indian so sticking a bindi on a Hollywood starlet wouldn’t have cut it. More recently, we have Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra who has recently been cast as a lead in an American TV series. This is great, a ‘breakthrough’ into America, except for the fact that she will be playing a suspected terrorist. So if the same stereotypes are very much still at play, what exactly is she ‘breaking through’? Whenever we see someone cast in a lead role, it is and it will be because the plot required a ‘brown’ character. Otherwise you can bet it’ll be back to the corner shop, arranged marriage, library or hospital.
And then there’s Mindy Kahling. Mindy gets celebrated for a lot of reasons and she definitely, absolutely, and completely should be. She is a boss. The issue, however, is that she is often heralded for being successful in spite of being a minority, in spite of not ‘looking like your typical celebrity’. Piled on top of this she gets burdened with being a spokeswoman for Indian American women everywhere. This is because of the severe lack of others in the industry coming anywhere near as close to achieving her level of success in the mainstream. Wouldn’t it be great if she could just be celebrated for being so fly because of her WRITING or her career? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all get excited about how funny and relevant she is, not just because of being brown and not in spite of it.
Fast forward again, this time a few more years than I want to stop and think about and I’m 24 years old. I’m standing in front of a giant art exhibition by Brooklyn based artist Chitra Ganesh. I’m going to be completely honest, I’m actually here for the Kehinde Wiley exhibit but the name Chitra caught my eye and I read that she is from Brooklyn. So here I am staring at this mural. I don’t ‘get’ it in the way I am probably supposed to. But there is an Indian woman doing something cool and I can’t help but feel some kind of excitement by her success.
There is something messed up about the fact that I am excited by this. That I feel the need to throw my fist in the air whenever I see a South Asian woman doing anything remotely interesting on a mainstream platform. I shouldn’t be so excited by any and every glimpse of representation I see. I probably shouldn’t be stalking South Asian creatives and feeling a point of connection on Instagram at 11pm on a Sunday night either, but there you go.
South Asians are rarely cast as three-dimensional characters. This is especially obvious when it comes to female sexual identity. There seems to be confinement to the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to this. Either they play the academic counterpart and have no sexual identity (cause ladies, you can’t be smart AND sexually attractive) or they are presented as your exotic fantasy, soaking wet and draped in a sari. So if you are lucky enough to be sexually attractive, you have to be completely fetishized first. Priyanka Chopra’s first introduction into the U.S, by the way, was a song with Pitbull, literally called ‘Exotic.’
How many South Asian women have won an Oscar? A Grammy? A Blue Peter Badge? There are a select few who are have carved out a real name for themselves. Most other times, South Asian artists are usually just there to add a bit of flavor. Lets throw in the odd ethnic family in Eastenders here, a channel 4 documentary there and maybe sample a Bhangra song in the top 40. Otherwise stay in your lane, make content about and for your demographic.
It sounds ridiculous but if you don’t see yourself in the representations around you, you don’t think you’re normal. There’s a feeling of betraying what you’re ‘supposed’ to be. Why do I feel guilty that I can’t describe the different dishes on the menu at an Indian restaurant? That is not the food I eat at home. My mum is just as likely to bake a quiche and half of those curries were created in England. Why do I feel like a bad Indian for feeling like an absolute lemon in a sari? Is that what being an Indian woman amounts to? Exotic cooking and exotic clothes? I don’t think so.
And then there are other people. They’re exposed to these representations too so they don’t think you’re normal either. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told I’m not really like most Indian girls. And what’s worse is that this feels like a compliment. In an attempt to move away from the two dimensional stereotypes, looking racially ambiguous over being Indian becomes a good thing because I’m trying so hard to model myself away from that ‘box’. I can marry whoever I want guys. Really. I don’t want to have to reject anything that connects me to being Indian because I’m afraid I’ll snap into the mold of what has been set out in popular culture so far. I have grown up listening to my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles tell stories of growing up in the U.K. Their stories include raising three kids while still studying for a Masters. Or being self-taught in both the piano and guitar and starting a successful band in the 90s. Where are those stories? Why are those stories never told?
When you are only exposed to the same select narratives, a graver issue of worthiness comes into play. You become guilty of viewing yourself and your community through the same narrow lens. As the underdog, the victim, the butt of the joke, submissive, the other. As needing to soften or erase that part of your identity in order to do things in spaces that aren’t ‘traditional.’ i.e. where you probably don’t belong.
I understand that to some extent stereotypes are always at play regardless of what privilege you have or don’t have. However a lot of stepping forward and making something that you think people will want to see or believing you have something to say, comes from having seen others like you do it too.
Every single icon I do and have looked up to in popular culture has either been white or black. And that’s all well and good and fine and fantastic except do you know what it’s like staring up at your Spice Girls posters at night as a kid and wondering why just one of them couldn’t look like you? In all seriousness, there is a LACK of ..presence and it is damaging. I say presence because I am not rallying for a role model. Yes I would bask all damn day long in the glory of having a South Asian Beyoncé icon slaying all over mainstream popular culture but, personally, I would just like to see MORE diversity in the stories being told and stories told with some agency.
In years of studying English Literature, it was only last year that I read ONE novel that delved into a vocabulary and community I could relate to. It brought together Nandos, Hip-Hop, samosas and Sharukh khan. It blew my mind that something entirely relevant to my life – was worthy of being studied at University and even written about in the first place. And that’s not okay.
It’s not okay that millions of South Asian girls are not seeing themselves represented in television, music, and film. That’s a lot of untold stories. A lot of undiscovered talent. A lot of girls growing up having to fight against outdated and narrow expectations and sadly even more buying into them and internalizing these portrayals. It wasn’t okay that I never played with my Indian Barbie. It wasn’t okay that I grew up feeling like I had to win people over and prove myself because of the stereotypes stacked against me. And it’s not okay that I debated even writing this piece because I wasn’t sure if I was qualified to voice my opinion.
Come on Barbie, lets go party.