Why Representation Matters

As a young girl I struggled with finding a role model.

Sure, there are heaps of amazing people doing amazing things in the world, however finding someone who looked like me, was a huge challenge.

Sure I could kinda picture myself in a movie, but surely only as the nerdy, brown girl who filled out a diversity quota in a cliche teen film, rather than the protagonist. And obviously the characters I had to look up to were stereotyped drastically, so much so that the idea of relating to said characters became nothing but a joke.

When I was younger, I automatically found myself aligning who I was, with the colour of my skin, and if there was nothing to match, the next closest thing would do.

It started with The PowerPuff Girls. Obviously, we may never know the true cultural identity or background of the three icons, but Buttercup had black hair, so I guess I could settle for her.

Alex, from Totally Spies? According to totallyspies.wikia.com, Alex’s favourite cuisine’s are ‘Chines cuisine’ and ‘Asian cuisine’ (???) so from that, we can draw that she probably originated from the continent of Asia, which will have to do. No, my Dad isn’t, nor does he talk, like Apu from The Simpsons, but obviously that was the only way any of my white friends would instantly see him. It didn’t matter that Apu was voiced by Hank Azaria, that specific character obviously shaped the way an entire generation of people viewed our culture. There was one single brown person on Zoey 101, and he was a dude so there went my opportunity to relate, and it didn’t matter that That’s So Raven and True Jackson, VP were a completely different shade of brown than me, I could picture myself being them far easier than I could Miley Cyrus OR Hannah Montana.

Oh, and The Elephant Princess?? If you’ve never heard of or seen the show, firstly, consider yourself spared, and secondly, here;

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First of all, Alex Wilson. Second of all, ‘exotic visitor‘….say he’s brown and leave.

And third of all;

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If producers are going to make an entire show, set in India, regardless of how made-up the place is, slap on a golden elephant and some blend between Hindi and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as the logo, they should probably consider that the only true authentic thing they could possibly do, would be to at least cast an Indian girl. At this point, I’d settle for any South Asian girl who’s only dark feature wasn’t her hair and eye colour.

I remember a few years ago I was reading a book, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. It surrounded a young girl in an outer city town in Chicago, and one of my favourite characters was her best friend, Jamie. I couldn’t even begin to describe the main character, not her name, her personality or the in depth arc of her plot line. But I can tell you a lot about Jamie. Why? Because, somewhere within the middle of the book, in a fit of anger, she spoke Hindi.

Jamie had already been described, as broadly as teen fiction novels do describe their characters sometimes, but I’d just assumed that the mention of her ‘tanned skin’ and ‘dark hair’ was just another version of a white character. I’d loved reading about how quirky she was, how outspoken, brash and out there her character was, but had simply assumed she was white. But she was Indian, and my mind was blown that I was suddenly picturing myself as this character.

It was a turning point for me, because I started avidly searching out these characters. Looking for young women, young South Asian women who I could identify with. It’s why I love Rupi Kaur so much. It’s why I’m so passionate about Ecca Vandal and her music.


The bigger issue with what I’m getting at, is that growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me. Young, brown children couldn’t turn on the TV with the reassurance that they’d be able to relate to a character or understand them 100%, because we weren’t physically represented on a lot of popular TV shows and movies. It was like we didn’t exist.

And then Bend It Like Beckham came along and for a little while, we were satiated. Brown girls all over the world turned to Jess Bhamra as inspiration. Not only was she dealing with sexism in a male-dominated sport, but she was also dealing with the wild clash of cultures that erupted between her and her family.

Slumdog Millionaire was an international sensation and although, like a lot of Hollywood movies (Lion), it seemed to pick and choose which parts of the South Asian culture to showcase, it showed that it existed.

Kelly Kapoor, an unsung hero of The Office US. She was purely just an annoying, whiny character. She had just as much depth as white characters like Meredith or Angela, and she strayed from the stereotype usually forced upon brown female characters on screen. The fact that she was Indian played no part in her character, other than what you saw, and one episode which showed a Diwali celebration.

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She casted her own parents in the episode, wrote it herself and constructed the way the audience would view the entire scene. How would that have played out differently if someone else, someone who wasn’t South Asian, produced, wrote and directed the episode?  As much as Mindy Kaling has been something of a shining light for millions of young South Asian girls, it’s difficult to think of many more. Because they haven’t been given a large enough space, as say Scarlett Johansen, Margot Robbie, Emma Watson or Jennifer Lawrence have.

It took me a while, but only recently, after finding the Instagram page of Chella Man, a hearing impaired trans activist, that I’ve learnt that while having role models is amazing, having someone to inspire you is very necessary, living in a Western society makes it a little bit harder for some of us.

Thankfully, as I’ve grown older, the number of brown faces I can see on TV or in movies has grown substantially. Movies like The Hundred Foot Journey and Life of Pi, as well as influential actors and actresses like Mindy, such as Priyanka Chopra, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Naveen Andrews, Kunal Nayyar, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Hasan Minhaj, a South Asian actor and comedian who was invited to give the keynote address at the White House. 

The fact that there are more and more South Asian actors making their voices heard and demanding the representation they deserve, on what feels like, our behalf, makes me feel slightly better knowing that younger generations won’t have to settle as Galleria or Aqua when they dress up as the Cheetah Girls, or go along with dressing up as Clueless knowing they’ll end up as Dionn because she’s some shade of brown. I also feel better because they’ll have an easier time picturing themselves doing the things they want to do. They have people like Lilly Singh, Ecca Vandal, Hannah Simone, Rowi Singh, Avan Jogia and Rupi Kaur to look up to, and that makes it substantially easier for them to navigate the world, especially the Western society’s we live in.

That said, my Bend It Like Beckham costumer is to date, one of the comfiest I’ve ever worn, so I’ll probably keep that one going.

Priya

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