Chintada: Representation of the South Asian diaspora in US media needs to change

Latavya Chintada, Staff Writer

As a South Asian, I often find myself and my culture underrepresented in many forms of American media. Most South Asians born in the United States grew up confined to a certain stereotype portraying us as nerdy, obedient, good at school, etc. Certain characters imposed these stereotypes repeatedly in TV shows, like Ravi from the Disney Channel show “Jessie” or Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb.” These characters, making up the little representation we had, did not do justice to the depth and range of the entire South Asian diaspora. 

To clarify, the South Asian diaspora consists of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. Given the rich histories and cultures behind all of these countries, it would be unfair to limit the representation of the diaspora to just India or Pakistan. It would also be unfair to reduce the more than one billion people that make up the populations of these countries to being “nerdy” or “quiet.” Although South Asia is a part of continental Asia, we are often not considered Asian in mainstream media or included in typical “Asian” discourse. This may stem from the fact that we have fundamentally different experiences from those who identify as East Asian or even Southeast Asian. We face different stereotypes, different discrimination and even different privileges. Because of this, South Asians have all but physically departed from the term “Asian.” 

Many South Asians in North America within this generation can probably remember watching Superwoman (aka Lilly Singh) on YouTube back in elementary or middle school. We finally had a large South Asian creator that most of us could identify with in terms of shared cultural experiences. While we initially related to and enjoyed the jokes Lilly made on YouTube, those same jokes may have further confined us to that stereotypical box we were in before. The stereotype that South Asian parents are verbally abusive or harsh still carries weight to this day. This is the reason that a wide range of representation is needed to eliminate any predominant stereotypes. 

Accurate and meaningful representation in Western media gives young South Asian children role models and the ability to find solace in people who look like them. As a child, my favorite Disney princess was Princess Jasmine, not because of her actual characteristics but because she was the only princess that bore some resemblance to me, even though she wasn’t meant to be South Asian. If given a wider representation, we wouldn’t have to confine such a diverse diaspora to a singular category. 

In fact, considering South Asia’s immense film industry—as shown by Bollywood and even smaller subsets such as Tollywood and Kollywood—it’s ironic that South Asian representation in mainstream American media is almost nonexistent or channeled into one-dimensional characters. We have such a diverse range of characters represented in South Asian films, yet the same is not extended to U.S. media.

However, there have been some breakthroughs in the last couple of years. In the Netflix series “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” Minhaj shares his experiences as a South Asian in a meaningful yet comedic way. Soloist Zayn Malik also represents South Asia in the pop culture sphere, and we see that through his music (some of which has South Asian influence) and his Bollywood covers. Excitingly enough, Marvel’s upcoming TV miniseries, “Ms. Marvel,” stars a largely South Asian cast, most of which are of Pakistani origin. Arguably the most impactful South Asian representation can be found in the “Never Have I Ever” series on Netflix. Despite some negative reviews, we have to acknowledge Mindy Kaling for bringing the South Asian diaspora to the spotlight. Scriptwriting and character development aside, she did a great job creating a South Asian main character who didn’t play into all stereotypes while also maintaining the cultural aspect, allowing the audience to relate through shared experiences. 

While we are still not where we should be in terms of accurate representation of the South Asian diaspora, we are definitely making progress.