By Guest Contributor Vijay Simhan
There has never been a shortage of television shows, particularly comedies, built on stereotypes. In fact, there’s something we find comforting about stereotypes in that it confirms some of our (often unspoken) assumptions or makes us feel like we’re in on the joke.
The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) follows a circle of four friends who are scientists that “understand how the universe works” but do not know how to “interact with people, especially women.” The characters’ lives change when a beautiful free spirit, Penny, moves in next door. In other words, the show extends the oft-used stereotype of nerds or geeks or dorks that split the atom by day and spend their nights with Dungeons & Dragons and Star Trek, or more currently, World of Warcraft and Battlestar Gallactica.
In most cases a show such as TBBT would not really elicit more than an initial glance. However, with the increasing presence of Indian and Indian-American characters on television, the TBBT character Raj Koothrappali and the Indian stereotypes he represents are worth considering. (That and everyone I know notify me whenever they see any Indian on television.) Particularly curious is Raj’s inability to speak to any attractive girl or to act as his own agent in matters of love coupled with the (un)intentionally ambiguous depiction of his sexuality.
In one episode, an FBI agent running a routine background check arrived at Raj’s apartment. Played by Eliza Dushku, the agent’s beauty left Raj tongue-tied and unable to articulate his thoughts unless he got “drunk on rum cake.” Similarly, in all his interactions with Penny, an attractive blonde, he is unable to speak more than a few words and is often represented as a nonentity in her eyes. Even with girls who are considered less attractive and desirable, such as with Howard’s girlfriend, Bernadette, Raj is not able to express his true feelings unless it’s through dream sequences and Bollywood musical numbers. One particular episode ends with Raj day-dreaming a Bollywood musical about Bernadette and mumbling, “Dance number aside, I’m definitely not gay.”
Alongside this voiceless representation of Raj is his ongoing, “ersatz homosexual marriage” with Howard. While they are best friends, there are repeated instances of physical, sexually-charged contact between the two followed by awkward exchanges usually reserved for couples in relationships. In these cases, Raj typically takes on what would be considered the stereotypical role of the woman often accusing Howard of not calling or ignoring him “the morning after.”
This representation of Indian males as passive, childlike, and submissive is not uncommon but is significant because of the rich colonial history behind it. During the British Raj’s rule of India, colonialism stripped away the Indian male’s strength and virility and, in turn, as Ashis Nandy stated, they suffered from “emasculation and defeat in legitimate power politics.” Nandy, in The Intimate Enemy, goes on to suggest that the British viewed many Indian males as “childlike” which included an innocence, ignorance, and passivity but with a willingness to learn masculinity and loyalty at the hands of the British.
Raj’s depiction contrasts with his sister Priya’s representation. Priya, who is not a regular character on the show, aggressively pursues Leonard, and the current story arc examines their burgeoning romance. As to be expected, the show uses this as an opportunity to play up the expected Indian stereotypes in rather typical ways. In all honesty, the stereotypes used are the same stereotypes that you would expect friends to employ when making fun of each other and are nothing that I haven’t heard from my own friends. In many ways, I found this to be an endearing quality of the show as it represents how friends really behave around one another rather than sterilizing interactions to what is politically correct or acceptable.
In any event, some of the common exchanges during this series of episodes included the requisite mocking of Hindu cow worship (which is factually incorrect), the representation of women’s subservient status to men (purposely undercut by Priya’s dominance/contrast over her older brother Raj), and the expected references to the Kama Sutra. None of these stereotypes are particularly unique and are in fact, all too common in how Desi characters have come to be represented in the television landscape.
In TBBT, you see the pitfall of stereotypical humor regarding characters of all ethnicities, sexualities, and backgrounds. It’s an easy laugh that touches on the familiar and the safe at the expense of the Other. It becomes easy for shows to play up the stereotype for laughs, but by utilizing such stereotypes, the possible representations for Desi characters become limited and their Indian-ness becomes the way in which the audience defines them. These representations don’t challenge the limits of comfort the way incisive takes on race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity often do. The result is that the viewers are left shortchanged and are not asked to stretch their preconceptions of others, while the Other is left with yet another clichéd representation of self.