Manjila: Media representation of South Asian men matters

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

I recently watched “The Big Sick” and was left thinking about how the film portrayed Kumail Nanjiani’s character. The film tells the story of a Pakistani American man pursuing a career as a comedian who faces challenges with his family when he dates a white woman. When I see a South Asian character in a TV series or film, I mentally prepare myself to endure watching racist stereotypes. I was pleasantly surprised by this film since it depicted Nanjiani’s character in a more realistic way.  There has to be more media representation of South Asian men that represents them in a positive light to fight back against stereotypes.

Western media usually depicts South Asian men within a few stereotypical roles. First, there is the intellectual South Asian man; he is generally portrayed as a doctor, scientist or engineer. While not inherently wrong, this stereotype still locks characters into being superficial and reductive to those characters’ depth. There is also the socially inept South Asian man; he misses social cues, fails romantically and doesn’t understand white American culture. This stereotype grouping is incredibly harmful and often leads people into having presuppositions about what South Asian men are like in real life.

A prime example of these stereotypes is Rajesh Ramayan Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory. Koothrappali is incredibly intelligent and has a Ph.D. in astrophysics but is unable to speak to women. These two stereotypes typify the white American view of South Asian men in the United States. There is also an emphasis on his Indian heritage and the cultural differences between white American and Indian culture regarding values and traditions, which is usually played for comedic effect. The media exaggerates these differences to further stereotypes of South Asian men not fitting in with white American culture.

Media representation matters. People form their opinions and biases based on observations, including other peoples’ perceptions. Every show and movie that depicts South Asian men as intelligent but socially inept does a disservice to the millions of South Asian men living in the United States today. First, not all South Asian men come from affluent families, as opposed to what’s showcased in stereotypical media. South Asian families exist at all levels of socioeconomic status, and as a logical extension, South Asian men are not all doctors, scientists and engineers. Second, not all South Asian men are socially inept. These stereotypes are harmful, especially for South Asian boys growing up in predominantly white cities, schools and institutions. This harmful imagery can cause South Asian men to face interpersonal stereotyping and racism from their peers.

A recently released film, “The Green Knight,” does an excellent job of representing a South Asian character in a positive light. The film, based on the 14th-century Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” features Dev Patel playing the leading role of Gawain. Throughout the movie, his character fails at multiple tasks and makes many lapses in judgment. While these are all negatively charged events, Gawain’s failures are not a result of any ethnic stereotype, and it’s his character’s flaws and immaturity that ultimately lead to his end. There is certainly not a requirement that South Asian men should only play roles in stories based on European poems; however, Gawain’s character, played by a South Asian man, is well-rounded and not merely a walking stereotype.

No ethnic group or gender can be reduced to stereotypes. Why do we keep representing harmful stereotypes in our media, when there is an incredible amount of diversity in appearance, personality, profession and character amongst South Asian men and every other group of people?