'The Big Sick' Is Great, and It's Also Stereotypical Toward Brown Women
Clichéd tropes of South Asian women on-screen hold us all back.
Let me preface all of this by saying that I really liked Kumail Nanjiani's new romantic comedy. A funny, touching film about a courtship that involves a coma and a cultural clash, The Big Sick is based on Nanjiani's real-life romance with writer Emily Gordon. I watched the movie last weekend expecting a few moments of recognition. I was excited to finally see a Pakistani lead on a big screen, and I hoped to have a few knowing laughs at what it means to grow up as a second-generation South Asian caught between mumbling your way through prayer and swooning at Luke Perry. I happened to be seated next to a brown couple, probably there for similar reasons, and the three of us, very noticeably, laughed the loudest through scenes that depicted all-too-familiar moments between Pakistani mother and son (silent treatments, pressures to "go back to school and do something with your life.") But I found myself growing increasingly frustrated and then infuriated with the clichéd, stereotypical depictions of South Asian women that have unfortunately become the norm in the growing on-screen narratives of brown men.
My family came to Canada (by way of Pakistan) when I was around six. I already spoke English—I was born in the UK—but I had a British accent, so I was dutifully mocked and teased in school. It didn't take me long to figure out that I needed to teach myself to blend in and sound like the rest of the kids around me. Like any new immigrant, I turned to TV. My parents were kind enough to get a cable package, and I immersed myself in the words and movements of all the small-screen greats: D.J. Tanner, Blossom, and Charles in Charge. I studied them. I learned from them. So I was deeply, and I mean fundamentally, shaped by the culture I consumed. It didn't even occur to me that none of the people I spent my afternoons with looked at all like me or my family. But I have no doubt that it contributed to my discomfort with and ultimate rejection of my culture in my younger years. I wanted to be Brenda Walsh from Beverly Hills 90210, not Amil Niazi from Islamabad.
Only decades later, armed with a more resilient shell of self-understanding, have I recognized the factors that pushed me from my past. Representation matters. It tells us we belong, that we're normal and desired. It's why we now eagerly eat up series like Aziz Ansari's Master of None and films like The Big Sick. We've been so starved for reflection, so invisible for so long in the mainstream, that we are desperate for you to see us and to finally see ourselves. Which is why I'm left so conflicted about how brown women are being portrayed in these very same shows we embrace.
The brown women in The Big Sick, from Nanjiani's meddling mother to his revolving door of brides-to-be, are such comical versions of real South Asian women that it felt—in a film that packs such emotional nuance into its leads—jarring. I understand that this is a very personal story for Nanjiani, and one of my biggest frustrations is when people of color (POC) are tasked by white people with being stand-ins for their entire culture rather than simply being allowed to tell their stories. Surely, he could have found room in his personal narrative to flesh out the characters of the brown women who make up such a core element of his story. Women who are so rarely otherwise seen in Hollywood.
From the heavily put-on accents (I couldn't help but think of the influential Master of None episode that deals with this very same premise, asking brown actors to affect "Indian" accents) to the marriage-hungry motives of both mother and potential mates, the non-white women in the film were transformed from humans with agency, to cartoonish FOBs who wanted little more than to end up a dutiful Muslim bride to a… stand-up comic? I find that hard to believe. All of his maternally forced matches were seemingly young, intelligent, and westernized women. One would assume they also grew up in the US like Nanjiani, so why were they sporting thick accents and archaic desires for little more in life than a nice, brown husband to take care of them? In contrast to the romantic lead in The Big Sick, played by Zoe Kazan, the South Asian women are meek, simple, and out of touch with Western ideals and desires. They're counting down their expiration date in black and white, while the brown men and white women thrive in technicolor.
The same can be said of Ansari's portrayal of South Asian women on Master of None. In season one, he almost exclusively pursues a white woman, and perhaps absorbing some of the criticism around representation, attempts to be more inclusive in season two. When in the later season he does manage to match with a couple of brown women on Tinder, he's surprised at how "normal" they seem in comparison to how he imagines other brown women to be. They're cool, they're fun, they drink wine. One even loves professional wrestling! Not like those other South Asians! You don't need to erase our humanity in order to elevate your relationship with white women. Let us live, my dudes.
It's honestly hard for me to write this because I don't want to take away from the importance of seeing these stories on TV and on the big screen. But when we see so few of them, and so little of ourselves, every detail matters. Muslim women are increasingly bearing the brunt of the Islamophobic attacks across North America and Europe. While the entertainment industry works, slowly, on racial representation in front of and behind the cameras, the gender disparity remains staggering. How women of color are manifested in those few stories that do make it to a larger audience is incalculably important; when we're not caricatures on-screen, we barely exist. The biggest solution, of course, is to fund more women of color (WOC) creators, but men have to do their part as well, for the industry at large and for all the little black and brown girls who, like me, grew up invisible.
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