The Belvedere Journal
How The Media Has Changed Our Perception Of South Asians
by Michellie J
This poor representation has been conventionalised and even in recent years there has shown little to no progress. It takes more than cookie cutter South Asian side characters to show inclusivity.
Many of you are probably familiar with the Disney Channel show Jessie which followed an aspiring-actor-turned-nanny for 4 adopted children.
This is Ravi, one of the children from the show and also one of the only characters I had of South Asian representation growing up. But while his white brother Luke is represented as a sporty, charismatic heartbreaker, Ravi is portrayed as a nerdy, undesirable lizard-freak with no social skills and a heavy accent. He is never shown to be popular with his peers or have anything else going for him except for being the comic relief, merely used as a laughing stock for the audience. Even when participating in his own culture, where his family are dressed in traditional Indian clothing while he is playing the part of an evil Indian villain, again perpetuating that he doesn't fit in and is instead villainized. This degrading caricature of South Asians doesn’t stop here.
When the show Phineas and Ferb was televised, many children saw Baljeet, the again stereotypical nerdy, thick accented comic relief side character who only served the purpose of making the 2 main characters seem cooler in comparison. He was obsessed with his grades and his 2 dimensional character was only built on his intelligence. But after seeing the negative image of the only South Asian character, many children started using the name Baljeet as a derogatory term towards anyone who somewhat resembled him, and by resembled they meant anyone who was brown in skin colour. It made many brown people lose their impression of themselves but as it was labelled as “positive racism,” everyone turned a blind eye. These characters constantly faced microaggressions packaged with laugh tracks and a disregard for the racism they faced, which quickly normalised racism to the youth consuming these shows.
As a child watching these shows regularly, I noticed how the white characters seem to have the perfect life - attractive, popular, intelligent . They are regarded as the conventional standards of beauty because of their skin colour, while on the other hand South Asians and other minorities are portrayed as undesirable in the media. I started seeing myself as also undesirable, and wondered if anyone considered people like me desirable. These are not the only examples of how the media constantly degrades minorities for the sake of promoting themselves as diverse.
It seems as if every piece of media depicts South Asians in a stereotypical way and no one bats an eye. Just for the media to market themselves as “diverse,” they cheaply write POC characters with no substance and continue to circulate harmful stereotypes to impressionable minds. This poor representation has been conventionalised, and even in recent years there has shown little to no progress. It takes more than cookie cutter South Asian side characters to show inclusivity, and when the characters are shown in a bad light it creates more harm than good. When we are only seen as the nerdy sidekick or the thickly accented corner shopkeeper, it limits our hopes and fits us into a box we are expected to conform to.
Now with the rise of social media, I am constantly exposed to more and more people embracing their culture which encourages me to do the same. However, the brown influencers who become popular in Western Media still conform to conventional beauty standards. Much of the “representation” I see on TikTok or Instagram only consist of fair skinned, smaller nosed South Asian women. This shows how society still only finds Eurocentric features attractive and the more a person of colour looks white, the more they can be seen as attractive. This can also be seen migrating to countries outside of the West where the beauty standards have changed to conform to Eurocentric features despite having completely different genes. Products such as 'Fair and Lovely,' a skin bleaching cream, has become popularised in South Asian countries and further promotes young girls to fit into these standards that only suit white people. Bollywood stars advertising this is more evidence that the pressure to fit into Western Ideals have spread across the globe.
Straightening my hair and wearing lighter concealer has become the norm for me to try and fit in and possibly be perceived as desirable, but the more I see characters that look like me not portrayed negatively the more I can be comfortable in my own skin. Seeing characters such as Kate Sharma from Bridgerton not being promoted in the typical nerdy stereotype is incredibly refreshing and shows the media are capable of creating minority characters without stereotypes to fall back on. We can see the impact of representation with the new Little Mermaid movie coming out, how so many girls are empowered when seeing their favourite Disney princess look like them. It’s clear that kids are more confident in who they are watching their identities being shown as in the media.
Everyone should be able to see themselves on screen and not be ashamed to be the same ethnicity as them, and I hope more and more characters are created for the future generation. Because all it takes is one Disney princess, one Marvel superhero for the minority youth to feel included.