Thank You, Don’t Come Again: How Steroetypes in American Entertainment Are Affecting the Indian-American Population

With ABC’s recent screwup mistaking Priyanka Chopra for another Indian actress in a promo for her new show, Quantico, I was reminded of the roles (or lack thereof) that people of Indian origin play in Hollywood and the American consciousness. This flub comes on the heels of backlash over a whitewashed representation of the Stonewall Riots and a growing sense of discontent over the lack of strong roles for People of Color in Hollywood. I considered writing an article about it, but then I remembered that my very first paper at Duke, in a class called Film, Race, and Politics, revolved around this topic. Incidents of racism are still commonplace, whether it’s backlash to spelling bee dominance or outrage over Chopra becoming the voice of Thursday Night Football. The ABC situation highlight that, despite the success of the Mindy Kalings and Priyanka Chopras of the world, Indians are still struggling to find a fair place in American society. I wrote the following piece when I was 18, and it’s here in an un-edited form if you feel like reading. I know it’s not normal Tautonomy fare, but every once in a while we should all step back and think about the state of the entertainment industry as a whole. 

Thank You, Don’t Come Again: How Stereotypes in American Entertainment Are Affecting the Indian-American Population

I rode elephants on my weekly pilgrimages to the Taj Mahal, worshipped cows before school, and charmed cobras on the weekend. I was only ten, but I already rivaled Archimedes on number theory. Well, that’s what I imagined they thought of me anyway. My friends’ pale faces alongside mine, the little brown boy from Mrs. Ninemire’s 5th grade class. They had known me well and since the 8th grade, but I was still nervous about the stereotypical ideas that they might have held about me. Why? Well, why not? The American entertainment industry had given no indication that my persona strayed from any of those clichés. And in the last ten years, nothing has changed. In actuality, the rapid increase of the South Asian population in the United States, 81% from 2000-2010, (SAALT 2012, pg.1) has caused a new surge in their representations in popular culture. Film in particular has increased its stereotypes of Indian-Americans with the increase of the Indian-American[1] population, using a hyperbolized Indian accent as the mechanism. This accent perpetuates many Indian-American stereotypes, including the pernicious foreigner and the emasculated Indian male. Both stereotypes cause discrimination that decreases the quality of life for Indian Americans around the country through political devaluation, typecasting, and decreased political representation. Additionally and somewhat paradoxically, American cinema also manages to portray Indian-Americans as model minorities, which limits their ability to achieve equity with their white counterparts in education and the workplace while also perpetuating the problems of the first two stereotypes due to basic oversight.

What catalyzes Indian-American stereotypes? One of the key components of most Indian-American stereotypes in Hollywood is the accent. An “Indian Accent” is a comical, racializing characteristic that is crucial to actors wishing to portray Indians. Davé (2013) tells us that, “The term brown voice identifies a specific racializing trait among Indian-American in Hollywood productions, which simultaneously connotes both foreignness and familiarity because the accent is identified with an English-speaking identity and hence offers some cultural privilege of assimilation”(pg. 40). Examples of this accent can be seen throughout film and TV, with Kumar’s parents in the Harold and Kumar trilogy, Raj from The Big Bang Theory, and, most famously, Apu from The Simpsons. Davé (2013) continues that, “Despite the inclusion of Apu in a social satire of American culture, his signature voice, I argue, is an example of racialized performance of South Asians… that reinforces… stereotypes of South Asian Americans… in American Media”(Pg. 42). This accent has created 2 distinct stereotypes with consequences that will be outlined in this paper: the pernicious foreigner and the emasculated male.

Firstly, this accent contributes to the perception of Indian-Americans as outsiders. It is evident that there is an ostracizing effect of “this accent in Hollywood … [it] separates a visible minority group as ‘not like us,’ which is a pernicious thing to do in a multicultural society” (Dwivedi 2013, Pg. 1). This is consistent with the theory of racial triangulation, in which Asian Americans are viewed as outsiders despite having civic value. That is to say, despite being relatively valued in comparison to other minorities, they are still subject to ostracism and otherization by broader white society (Kim 1999, pg. 4). Dwivedi (2013) continues, “Disney’s animated show Phineas and Ferb has an Indian kid named Baljeet. He’s got an accent. And Wikipedia describes Chirag, a character in the movie Diary of A Wimpy Kid, as Indo-American. But the film depicts the child with — you guessed it — an Indian accent. Now, it’s one thing for adults to have accents, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in linguistics to know that children lose their foreign accents — very quickly” (pg. 1). These representations emphasize the pernicious foreigner idea, and have distinct consequences for Indian-American Society.

Hollywood’s assumptions have distinct political consequences. Many might believe that xenophobic reactions to Asian Americans are non-existent; however, the last decade has shown us otherwise (Suzuki 2002, pg. 4). In fact, (Jackson 2012) informs us “In the United States, Obama has said … the stereotype is that all U.S. jobs are being outsourced to India”. This issue came up because the President believed the stereotypes were affecting US-India free trade agreements. Even more distressingly, just as East Asians have been profiled because of fear over South Korea and China, Indian-Americans have experienced terrorism-based discrimination in the wake of 9/11. This discrimination is referred to in Kal Penn’s stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, where Penn’s Kumar is first “randomly” security checked and then assumed to be an Al-Qaeda terrorist on multiple occasions. More seriously, the Indians as pernicious brown foreigners-cum-terrorists narrative has resulted in tragedies like the Balbir Singh Sodhi shooting, where the Arizona gas station owner of Indian origin was murdered in the wake of 9/11 anti-brown sentiment. Though instances of hate crime against Indians by those who believe that all Asian people with brown skin were responsible for the September 11th tragedy are not rampant, they are also not non-existent, and each occurrence is a disturbing reminder that discrimination in the United States is very much alive. It is this realization, in my opinion, that makes it continually less acceptable for film and television directors to request that Indian-Americans play accented terrorists as often as they currently do. It is about time that film found a place for Indian- American actors equitable to their white counterparts.

This portrayal of the Indo-American as an unadjusted foreigner, even when they are children born in the country, further entrenches Indo-Americans on the left side of the racial triangulation diagram. This stereotype is in itself a social consequence. Let us revisit again Kim’s theory of racial triangulation. Indians, and Asian Americans in general, are subject to “civic ostracism”. That is, they are viewed as distinctly un-American people that are loyal first and foremost to their home country. Chirag and his ilk are used as tools to perpetuate the innate beliefs that many Americans have about Indian people as aliens. If Indian-Americans are not portrayed as foreigners with exotic sounding names, they are portrayed as overly whitewashed attempts at assimilation (as we will revisit later) – i.e. Rajiv Surendra’s Mean Girls mathlete Kevin or Mindy Kaling’s Office character “Kelly” Kapoor. There is no middle ground. Through this stereotype, Indian-Americans are portrayed as Indians first, characters second.

The continued ostracism of Indian-Americans is harmful in that it not only makes it difficult for Indians to shed the stigma of a “pernicious foreigner” in everyday life, but also because it has the social consequence of increased typecasting and identity masking in the film industry itself. Today’s most popular Indian actor, Kalpen Modi, is known by most as Kal Penn. In an interview with Vulture.com, Modi discussed the benefit of changing his acting name while he was trying to break into the film industry, saying, “We read something, I think it was a Screen Actors Guild thing, that said that 40 percent of actors have screen names, and… I … thought, Everyone calls me Kal anyway…And it did increase auditions”. This is a harrowing admission from an actor who is known for breaking the mold of Indian-American portrayals in American cinema with his iconic Indian stoner in the Harold and Kumar franchise. Even after his initial breakthrough, Modi expressed agitation at being unable to break away from the stereotypes of Indian-Americans. Yuan (2007) details that “Penn [told] a story he says he’s never told before. It’s about the last movie he shot before The Namesake, “this awful movie called Son of the Mask.” The character was named Jorge, not written as an Indian, but Penn says the director insisted he do a really thick Indian accent. There were meetings and arguments, but Penn met him halfway. Then after the film wrapped, the studio flew him back for what was supposed to be routine dubbing owing to incidental noise, only to inform him that he had to redo all his lines in a thicker accent. Penn made up a story about a meeting he couldn’t miss, did the routine dubbing, and got out” (pg 2). In the same article, Penn details the plight of most Indian-American actors. “The majority of roles I get offered are very stereotypical. Look at the movies I started off doing, like [National Lampoon’sVan Wilder,” Penn says of his breakthrough role as Taj Mahal Badalandabad, an Indian exchange student whose only desire is to study “the great American art of muff diving”(Yuan 2007, pg 1). Stereotyping in film is never going to go away, this is true. But the continuation of this pernicious foreigner stereotypes limits the ability of Indian-American actors to find meaningful, non. Through his work and his anecdote, Kalpen Modi shows us both sides of that spectrum, and the path Hollywood can take to reduce this xenophobia moving forward. Yet this is not the only harmful stereotype in Hollywood. In fact, not only did the role of Taj exacerbate the Indian-as-foreigners stereotype, it also captured another effect of the Indian accent in cinema; the emasculation of the Indian male.

In the documentary The Slanted Screen, Asian-American actors and directors connect the desexualization of Asian-American males with efforts to marginalize the entire racial population socially, politically, and economically (Slanted Screen). Insofar as we see it today, Dwivedi (2013) emphasizes that, “In The Big Bang Theory the problem with Raj’s Indian accent is that, unwittingly, Hollywood is playing into a stereotype, created by British colonialism, of Indian men not being ‘real men.’ Of the four nerds in the cast, Raj is the least successful with women. In fact, at different points in the show his sexual orientation is called into question”(pg 1). 1968’s Peter Sellers film The Party as the starting point of this trend in American film; as we see Sellers paint his face brown, don an Indian accent and mutters, “birdie num num” (pg 1). With a hefty combination awkward foolishness and bumbling incompetence with women, today’s film industry has managed to almost completely desexualize and emasculate the Indian-American male.

There are distinct political ramifications of this stereotype. Because masculinity and sexual appeal subconsciously affect voting tendencies, stereotypical attitudes toward Indian-American males affect political representation for the whole race. There are 535 Congressmen and 50 governors in the United States Federal governing system. In a country where Indian-Americans make up roughly 3% of the population, there should be a proportional representation of around 18 Indian-American major elected officials. In actuality, that number is three. Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, along with Congressman Dr. Ami Bera, make up the entire Indian-American contingency in major American political offices. That is roughly .05% of officials. The disparity between population and representation is distinct and distressing. Why does the emasculation and de-sexualization of Indian-American males affect the population’s ability to win political office? Patzer (2006) indicates that “Demonstrated election actions in favor of a higher physical attractiveness… are not an isolated instance in political contests. More than 100 years of elected officials bear witness to what seems more than coincidental”(pg 125). Though it may not be directly attributed solely to the asexual or anti-sexual natures of Indian men in film, there is no doubt that it contributes to the current lack of proportionality in representation.

The Slanted Screen also encapsulates the negative social effect of these emasculating caricatures, asking whether the lack of Asian-American leads in romantic film is due to the media’s stereotypes influencing societies racism, or societies racism perpetuating media stereotypes (Slanted Screen). Either way we see negative ramifications for South-Asian actors entering the film industry as well as South-Asian audiences hoping to connect with leading romantic characters. Screen’s contributing interviewees really hammer home how just one popular Asian male lead like Bruce Lee can inspire a whole generation of Asian-American actors (The Slanted Screen). If Indian-American children see brown people in lead, romantic roles, like the kind that Kal Penn has started to pioneer in the last half decade, then the whole race will see an enhanced screen presence and a deterioration of the hurtful stereotypes permeating our society. One huge barrier, however, to combating these stereotypes and paving the way for equitable treatment of Indian-Americans in film is the continuation of the model minority stereotype.

The The model minority is the ideal, high achieving minority who has accomplished everything purely on his or her own merit. This idea has, historically, been concurrently used to undermine efforts for “non model” minorities to gain status and excuse the lack of minority help programs to the “model” group (Suzuki 2002, pg. 2). Though traditionally linked to those of East-Asian origin, “at the beginning of the 21st century… the next generation of Indian-Americans – immigrant children and second generation teenagers – began to appear as model-minority characters and sidekicks in American media”(Davé 2013, pg.70). Though it may seem ironic when considering that Indian-Americans are also portrayed as pernicious foreigners, this either or stereotype is a basic example of political and social devaluation of Indian-Americans and their culture in Hollywood. Foreign or awkwardly whitewashed; there is no in-between.

Davé (2013) outlines Penn’s stereotype heavy character Taj Mahal Badalandabad as a good example of the “model minority”. Studious, polite, and hard working, Taj is a socially awkward Indian college student who wants nothing more than to learn how to get girls from the master, Van Wilder. Raj follows the same script as a comic book obsessed astrophysicist with little social ability that tries hard to assimilate. The opposite of the constant foreigner, the model minority tries and succeeds at assimilation to the point where he is just a “whitewashed” version of himself, conforming to traditional American norms of acceptability. Davé (2013) highlights this stereotype extensively in his book, drawing heavily on the now-canceled animated series Clone High, which featured fictionalized representations of JFK, Cleopatra, and Ghandi, among others. He asserts that Gandhi’s image in the show encapsulates the model minority status of Indian Americans, saying “[Gandhi] is a leader who inspires others just as Kennedy and Lincoln do, and, yet, he is put in the position of being the outsider and the fifth wheel and the racialized other devoid of masculinity. He is a good sidekick, but he can never be the center of the narrative or a lead character”(pg. 83). This is a classic case of the model minority Indian American as he is shown in the American entertainment industry, and has distressing repercussions on the well being of Indian Americans.

The model minority viewpoint assumes that said minority (in this case Asian Americans) have reached their success in the United States purely on their own, and as such require no help from the political system in the way that less fortunate minority groups might. Suzuki (2002), however, disputes that notion that Asian Americans need little help in the system. Asserting that thanks to the glass ceiling effect and reverse affirmative action, Asian Americans are having a tough time breaking into upper level business management and academic administrations, Suzuki (2002) reminds us that “whites consistently gain a substantially higher return on education than any of the Asian American groups; that is, for the same level of education, whites are more likely to earn more, on average, than Asian Americans…” (pg 3). These conditions are not a result of film stereotypes, its true. Yet, the “model minority stereotype has had the effect of glossing over these problems, making them easy to ignore”(pg 3). This is common, and is a distinct social consequence of the stereotype. Moreover, oftentimes the model minority stereotype does nothing but increase the disparity between Asian Americans and their white counterparts. In fact, Associated Press (2011) wrote “a study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade examined applicants to top colleges from 1997, when the maximum SAT score was 1600. Espenshade found that Asian-Americans needed a 1550 SAT to have an equal chance of getting into an elite college as white students with a 1410 or black students with an 1100”(pg. 1). The idea of the Indian-American as the high achieving minority in film heavily contributes to these issues and perpetuates the gap in performance and equity in higher education and management. This image is continually embodied throughout American cinema, in characters like the aforementioned Kevin from Mean Girls and Kumar in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay flashbacks, and until this trend slows, Indian-Americans will continue to feel the pervasive social effects of the model minority effect.

Politically, the model minority stereotype serves the same function. The aforementioned political under representation that was caused in part by emasculating portrayals of Indian-Americans in film is overlooked in large part because of the model minority theory. A large part of Suzuki’s argument was that the model minority myth assumed that certain minority groups were already succeeding and needed no help. This clearly is contradicted by the data in regard to Indian-American political clout, yet is never talked about it American society. This is perhaps the biggest consequence of the model minority myth. In spite of existing problems, the persistent perception of success will never allow for cohesive political and social change to improve the lives of Indian-Americans as long as they are viewed as a model minority.

Stereotyping will continue to happen no matter what political and social developments occur in the climate surrounding film production. However, recognizing that the disparaging use of Indian accents in American cinema enforces harmful stereotypes of Indian Americans like the pernicious foreigner; emasculated male; and model minority, all of which have direct and unmistakable social and political consequences, makes becomes possible to mitigate the problem and evolve beyond tired clichés. When this happens, we will hopefully see less typecasting, adequate political representation, reevaluation of glass ceiling theory in higher education, and an overall decrease in discrimination against Indian-Americans. Equity does not have to be a pipe dream, and maybe by embracing accurate and fair depictions of Indian-Americans in society they will achieve equality, and truly be the model of how Hollywood ought to treat the minority.

[1] For this papers sake, South Asian and Indian are interchangeable. Though many of these political and social ramifications apply to the entire South Asian American population (the population of people originating in the indian subcontinent; namely Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and sometimes Pakistan), in film and TV the population is portrayed as Indian and with the Indian accent to have the stereotype. It portrays Indian Americans but affects the entire South Asian population

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