Having been brought up in America as a person of Indian descent, I was always subjected to jokes about the “Indian accent” and jokes about me possibly knowing the 7-eleven owner. While I laughed at the jokes, I felt like my friends didn’t see me as American or as an equal because of how I looked. It used to be just Apu’s portrayal most people get their impressions of Indian people, but now there is Baljeet, the Indian kid from Phineas and Ferb, and Raj from Big Bang Theory. However, Priyanka Chopra’s Alex Parish in Quantico and Aziz Ansari’s Dev from Master of None are better portrayals of how Indians are not the static Indian stereotype. The media’s portrayal is evolving slowly from the stereotypical Indian nerd with the strange Indian accent to well-developed character portrayals that show Indians in various occupations and personalities.
Apu, the lovable Kwik E Mart Owner in The Simpsons is the first person that comes to mind when an Indian accent is mentioned. This is problematic considering the voice actor of the character is white. The voice actor, Hank Azaria, is of Greek descent (IMDb). The problem with the accent is that not all Indians sound like that. Just like how there is no “American accent” because not all Americans sound alike. There is a Southern, Boston, Midwestern, Northwestern, and many other accents that are spoken in America. Hank Azaria’s “Indian accent” represents a small percentage of India compared to the various dialects spoken in India. The “brown voice” promotes an image of Indians as “continually that of immigrant foreigners” (Dave, 319). Brown voice continually casts Indians as foreigners, which prevents “any kind of presence other than outsiders in American communities (Dave 319). In Aziz Ansari’s new show Master of None, he auditions for a part that requires an Indian to play and he is asked to put on an Indian accent. He refuses to put on an Indian accent because he considers it offensive and the casting director insists the character they are portraying needs an Indian accent even though the character they are asking is just a background actor.
Baljeet, the Indian nerd from Phineas and Ferb, moved from India in order to study in America. He is a side character that sometimes helps Phineas and Ferb with their schemes in order to have fun during their summer holiday. He like Apu has a pronounced Indian accent. In addition to Apu, Baljeet is shown constantly doing homework and even does math for fun. He is constantly stressing about getting A’s on every single assignment. All of his interests revolve around academics. In the few episodes of he sings, all of the songs revolve around him getting good grades. While it may be a good thing for Indians to be represented as the smart ones, we should not be represented as individuals whose only interests are revolved around academics. In The New Whiz Kids Why Asian Americans are doing so well, and what it costs them, a paper by David Brand, he mentions “The average math score of Asian-American high school seniors that year was 518 (of a possible 800), 43 points higher than the general average”. He also mentions “Asian-American students put in an average of eleven hours a week, compared with seven hours by other students”. While these statistics promote the image of Indians and Asians as nerds who only care about their academic career, these statistics provide where the stereotype Baljeet’s character was based on.
Asian and Indian stereotypes about our men are quite similar. Indian men are either seen as effeminate men or abusive husbands. Raj Koothrappali’s portrayal in The Big Bang Theory is that of the stereotypical effeminate man. His favorite alcoholic drink is the grasshopper, he can only talk to women when inebriated, and in one of the episodes was excited to go out with the girls on girl’s night. He is so scared to talk to women, he ended up taking an experimental drug in order for him to gain enough courage to ask a woman out. The idea that Indian men are effeminate came from British colonialism. The British saw that our men worship female deities, wear dress-like garments, and were easily conquered (Metcalf, 105). Westerners not understanding why Indian men/women choose to stay with their parents until they have a family of their own also explains where the stereotype of effeminate Indian men came from. These ideas were then carried into American pop culture references.
New TV Shows: Quantico and Masters of None
In contrast to stereotypical Indian portrayals, recently there have been shows that show Indians in a stereotype-shattering light. Quantico is one of these shows. The show’s main character, Alex Parris, is of Indian descent, does not have a ridiculous Apu-like accent, and is not a socially awkward nerd. Her role is also fighting against Islamophobia, in which some people think all brown people are terrorists. She also plays a sexually progressive FBI recruit. The fact that she plays a sexually progressive role argues against the stereotype about Indian women being prudes. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is also a great example of a show that breaks as well as shines a light on Indian stereotypes. Aziz Ansari doesn’t play a nerd or the stereotypical Indian. Instead he plays an actor trying to make it in NYC. In his new show, he points out the casual racism Indians have to put up with while working in the media. In the fourth episode, Indians on TV, it opens by showing various media portrayals of the stereotypical Indian and ridiculous Indian customs and traditions like eating chilled monkey brains shown in Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. The episode showed how American media often requires Indian actors to do the Indian accent. It points out that Indian American actors often have to try out for the stereotypical roles like a cab driver, scientist, or I.T. guy, but that was better than actors with brown face acting out the roles like Max Minghella in The Social Network. The show also mentions these occurrences are considered minor compared to black and gay controversies.
While most of the stereotypical Indian characters are beloved in the media, it is important to recognize the stereotypes these beloved characters were based on. The stereotypes inhibit our progression towards true racial equality. Quantico and Master of None as well as others show that American media is slowly progressing from using stereotypes as comedy to featuring their characters as more than one-dimensional characters.
Brand, David. “The New Whiz Kids”. TIME 31 Aug. 1987. Print
Davé, Shilpa, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha G. Oren. East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. New York: New York UP, 2005. 319. Print.
“Hank Azaria”. IMDb. IMDb. Web.
“Indians on Tv”. Masters of None. Netflix. Television
Metcalf, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.
One of the most influential lessons I have learnt from taking this class was learning how to differentiate between ads and content in social media or on TV. I was always so naive to believe that certain scenes in movies are not just plugs for product placement. I just thought that those scenes were necessary in order for the plot to develop. This also happens when certain companies try to promote their image by not directly advertising their product like the dove campaign where women were described by other people to a sketch artist in order to show the women what they look like according to other people. When first seeing this ad, before our class module, I wasn’t able to see how this was advertising their products. After looking at the class module however, I was able to see that from time to time major corporations have to put out media that makes it seem like their company cares for their customers.
Another influential lesson was the Big Picture Blog Post, writing this paper made me more aware of the stereotypes that are out there for Indians. I knew about how the media seems to portray us as gas station owners with thick accents and academically obsessed nerds, but until analyzing Raj Koothrappali from Big Bang Theory I realized that the media also effeminates Indian men just because certain values carried on from British Imperialism. I used to think imitating the Indian accent was funny as well before writing this essay. However, after researching why exactly the Indian accent was funny, I was shocked to learn that imitation of accents are harmful to the group being imitated. It makes the group feel outcasted and trapped in a static portrayal based on the stereotypes of that group.