Overview

Typically, Indians cast within the realm of American television have been represented as hardworking people whose identity is based on their heritage. Their identity is tied to a cultural heritage and not necessarily who they are individually. Situational comedies, also known as sitcoms, have a history of encouraging this stereotype. Sitcoms airing in the mid-2000s to present day have Indian-cast parts involved with customer relations who also work under or alongside a Caucasian boss. This view of Indians as a subservient race is clear within the confines of their popularized role. The view is constrained by preexisting beliefs and values, shown as propaganda in its biased nature of story that promotes a particular point of view[1]. Elluls writes that any modern propaganda will “address itself at one and the same time to the individual and to the masses,” precisely what is being done with the Indian culture through it’s representation in one individual.

For this module, propaganda will be defined as a systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response. These images of Indians on television are intended to encourage the notion that Indian immigrants or their descendants are less valued people within the American work place. The contemporary television landscape will be assessed.

According to Nina Rastogi, a former reporter for Slate and the Washington Post, “Immigration from the subcontinent of Asia didn’t begin until the late 1960s. So the U.S.-born Indians who comprise a small population of the South Asian performers are starting to gain mass appeal.”[2] They are appearing more in TV sitcoms, especially within the last two decades, because sitcoms have found a niche role for Indians.

Sitcoms from the early 2000s to the present day will be included in this post, specifically those that contain Indian actors as recurring characters. Sitcoms of this nature are The Office (2005 – 2013)The Big Bang Theory (2007 – present)Rules of Engagement (2007 – 2013)Parks and Recreation (2009 – 2015),  and New Girl (2011 – present). These sitcoms are some of the most watched and well received of our time. However, the shows have characters that represent the stereotypes of Indian culture and could be said to dehumanize an entire genre of people. If true, it is unfair representation of a culture through the lens of television media, and could wrongly shape the public’s perceptions of Indian culture in reality.

Core Concepts

Because there is a lack of diversity in television casts, the few ethnicities that are represented onscreen must then encapsulate the wholeness of one race, resulting in stereotyping. This occurs as the cast cannot delve into subtleties of ethnicities, because multiple characters of the same minority are rarely present, and thus must focus on stereotypes to convey meaning on a specific race.[3] According to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative the “characters coded for race/ethnicity across 100 top films of 2014, 73.1 percent were White, 4.9 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 12.5 percent were Black, 5.3 percent were Asian, 2.9 percent were Middle Eastern, less than one percent were American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2 percent were from ‘other’ racial and/or ethnic groups.” [4] The result of this stereotypes the minority characters in sitcoms.

Because of this, Indians are marginalized on television based on some criteria. If they are men, then their accents, facial hair, or love life play a large part of their character role. Aziz Ansari, an Indian-American actor, points this out in his new show ‘Master of Nothing.’ His character can only get work as an Indian actor based on his acquired accent.[5]

The Indian females are categorized as either the beautiful vixen or the IT girl, according to shows such as The Office or New Girl. There is no middle ground. The result is an Indian female character who has roles as two extremes. This strategy is divisive and serves to alienate the population of Indians as a whole. Instead of covering the entire spectrum, these characters are stereotypes built to keep Indians in categories.

The motivations of the demonization is based on ignorance of a culture. In an attempt to diversify a cast, a token minority character might appear on a situational comedy. This cast member will then fulfill duties that diversify the humor, but by doing so, cultural stereotypes are used to differentiate the character from other characters. The demonization takes place by lack of resources, because a sole character identifies as Indian, the weight of the culture is put on one character.

In ‘Master of Nothing’ Aziz Ansari comments that “they just don’t want to see two Indian dudes starring in a sitcom. Indians just aren’t at that level yet…we’re like set decoration.”[6] And he couldn’t be more right.

Although the study cites minority representation within film and not television the disparity between racial castings is alarming.

Despite the crudely characterized illustrations of Indians, there are reasons why this comes about. Breakdown Services has a lot to do with castings and have since the 1970s.[7]
Casting directors send out their criteria, and the Breakdown Services will post this document online with the ethnicity tag for each role. Often, a “breakdown begins with a character’s name and then lists any age, gender, or ethnic designations before filling in more details about the character’s personality or plotlines”.[8] This method calls for an open casting that’s dependent on looks and set criteria, made by the director. It leads to discrimination within the show and contributes to an Indian Image.

This takes place through stereotypes associated with Indian heritage. Visual tropes of this include men wearing traditional Indian garb, the acquired use of an Indian accent in broadcast media, and the questioning of spicy Indian cuisine. These Indian characters are usually young and heterosexual.

  Examples:

The Office

kelly-1
Figure 1. In the first season of The Office, boss Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) harasses Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling) during a diversity training. (Source: “Diversity Day,” The Office, Season 1, Episode 2, 2005).

The scene of “Diversity Day” where Michael Scott embarrasses Kelly Kapoor

The banality of a paper company gains some edge with the character Kelly Kapoor of The Office. In the earlier seasons of the show Kapoor was written is as quiet customer service employee who was subject to stereotypical abuse from her Caucasian boss, Michael Scott. In the second episode of the first season, Michael Scott addresses her Indian heritage by mentioning convenience stores and speaking in an Indian accent.[9] Kapoor slaps him after he repeatedly says she should “try his cookie cookie,” referring to Indian food.  As the series progresses, so does Kelly Kapoor’s character. She wears less conservative clothes and turns into an attention seeking individual who longs for romance and cannot find a long term companion.

New Girl

cece-and-jess
Figure 2. Jess played by Zoe Deschannel (left) and Cece played by Hannah Simone (right).

Kelly Kapoor’s counter character can be seen in Hannah Simone of ‘New Girl.’Simone plays CeCe, best friend of quirky and aloof Jessica Day, played by Zoe Deschannel. Hannah Simone acts as the sexy, exotic foil to the All American Girl. The relationship Cece has with her best friend Jess is divided. Jess is the quirky, cute individual in the relationship and Cece serves as the sexual, worldly counterpart. Jess is a school teacher and Cece is a model. Cece is often the voice of reason in the situation and levels out Jess’ antics.

 

cece-and-schmidt
Figure 3. Cece (Hannah Simone) and her love interest Schmidt (Max Greenfield). Source: Vulture.com

Cece is even referred to as “brown angel” by her Caucasian love interest Schmidt. Schmidt routinely makes racial remarks to her. These remarks are exaggerated in a way that allows her heritage to seem comical. For example Schmidt remarks that Cece is similar to a Hindu temple because she is Indian and is his muse.[10],[11],[12]

The Big Bang Theory

raj-and-howard
Figure 4. Raj played by Kunal Nayyar (right) and Howard (left) played by Simon Helberg.

The scene of “The Dumpling Paradox” where Wollowitz is identified as Raj by impersonating Raj’s accent. (Season 1, Episode 7).

Raj of The Big Bang Theory is also ridiculed for his ancestry. Raj works in the science sector and has inept social skills. His character on the show is an astrophysicist who has selective mutism, a condition that prohibits him from conversing to women without an aid of alcohol. His best friend, a Caucasian male named Howard Wollowitz, routinely criticizes and bemuses Raj’s lack of love life. Wollowitz is an effeminate male, categorizing himself as a ladies man, but lacks finesse for the majority of the show. Wollowitz is also known for his impression of Indians. In one episode he uses his Indian accent to impersonate Raj because Raj is scared to talk on the phone to a girl. In another episode Wollowitz does his best Indian impersonation by saying “I can’t sit on that elephant, my butt is on fire from eating all of this curry.”[13] The elephant in Wollowitz’s impression is a Hindu sacred symbol. Here, it is put into the demeaning context of transportation and it’s associated with spicy Indian cuisine.

Rules of Engagement

timir-and-russel
Figure 4. Timir played by Adhir Kalyhan (left) and Russell played by David Spade (right)

A compilation of moments between Stewart and Timmy

In Rules of Engagement, Adhir Kalyan plays Timir “Timmy” Dunbar-Patel, assistant to Russel, a Caucasian male. He is referred to as Timmy in the show because the pronunciation is American-friendly.[14] He is forced to do menial work under the oversight of his boss instead of using his MBA from Oxford to his advantage. His boss routinely criticizes him and uses him as a sounding board for his own amusement. Russell’s ridicule and lack of compassion for his assistant, who is more educated than him but isn’t American, shows how little respect he has for his employee and fellow man.

Parks and Recreation

tom-and-leslie
Figure 5. Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford (left) and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope (right) (Source: “Article Two,” Parks and Recreation, Season 5, Episode 19.)

Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation plays the role of assistant to Amy Poehler. His character is a charismatic, happy guy who falls into the trap of Indian counterpart to a white lead. Tom Haverford, is less well-mannered than that of the previous examples, but he does play into the role of a minority sidekick. Similar to Timmy in Rules of Engagement, Tom also changes his birth name. His name changes from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani to Tom Haverford. His ethnic identification does not mesh well with the American nominal standards, so Darwish changed his name to Tom, something more English, in an effort to draw less attention to his heritage. This name change indicates two identities these characters have, a private, cultural one in which the name they are given as children represents their heritage and family; and a more English sounding name to make their presence in American culture and professionalism more seamless.

Conclusion

As of recently, portrayal of Indians within television has become more commonplace. Diversity amongst casts has been an issue for some time, but casting concentrations seem to be changing for the better. Mindy Kaling who played Kelly Kapoor in The Office now has her own show. On ‘The Mindy Project’ she stars as the only Indian female gynecologist working alongside primarily Caucasian male gynecologists. Her life is a whirlwind of baby deliveries, romance and professional work as a modern single woman working as a doctor.

In Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None,’ He plays Dev, an Indian guy who is trying to make it in New York City. The show documents his heritage, his love life and his job pursuits. The show manages to depict life as a modern Indian well, by bringing attention to the racism Indians experience within the media, but also breaking away from what is represented and what is reality. ‘Master of None’ shows a modern Indian man living in the bustling city of New York.

With Mindy Kaling’s ‘The Mindy Project’ and Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None,’ Indians are becoming the stars of their own shows, and they are able to shape the stereotype as they wish. Kaling and Ansari are able to construct their images on television through the shows they are producing and writing.

This is truly a feat considering the stereotypes their former characters and race has been subject to through television representation, as mentioned through the examples of this post. However, despite this progress, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari and other Indian actors are continuously working against the stereotypes propagated by the television industry. There is still a long way to go for fair representation of Indian minorities –devoid of references to heavy accents, facial hair, IT, and food selection—but the eventual integration of Indian culture is on the rise.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How has minority casting shaped your view of television sitcoms, specifically those with Indians?
  2. Can you find examples of Indian stereotyping within other forms of media?
  3. Do you believe that American television has a difficult time diversifying Indian characters?
  4. Do you feel that an audience is manipulated to buy into a stereotype with propaganda messages like this floating around?

 

For More Information:

Please consider these outlets and articles for further findings on Indian dehumanization in popular culture:

 

[1] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. The characteristics of propaganda (p. 6)

 

[2] Rastogi, Nina. “Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and the Sudden Rise of Indians on Television.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 09 June 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

[3] Smith, Stacy L., Dr., Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper, Dr. “Inclusion or Invisibility.” Npr.org. USCAnnenberg, p. 16. 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

[4]  Mehta, Maitri. “Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ Episode “Indians on TV” Gets Representation Painfully Right.” Bustle.com. Bustle, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[5]  Mehta, Maitri. “Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ Episode “Indians on TV” Gets Representation Painfully Right.” Bustle.com. Bustle, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

 

[6]  Riley, Charles. “Indian Actors on American TV: It’s Happening.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[7] Rastogi, Nina. “Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and the Sudden Rise of Indians on Television.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 09 June 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[8] Rastogi, Nina. “Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and the Sudden Rise of Indians on Television.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 09 June 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[9] “The Office Episode List: Diversity Day.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[10]Price-Wright, Heather. “‘New Girl’ Gets Away With Racism – And We Can’t Let That Slide in 2013.” Mic. Mic Network Inc, 25 Oct. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[11] “TV: New Girl 1.19 “Secrets” Best Lines.” Mrsubjective. WordPress, 03 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Sept. 2016

 

[12] “New Girl: Episode List, Secrets.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

[13] “The Big Bang Theory: Episode List, The Extract Oblideration.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

[14] “Rules of Engagement: Episode List.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

 

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