Dissed Identifications: Desi Stereotypes at the Expense of the Other [TV Correspondent Tryout]

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.

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  • Jane

    “This representation of Indian males as passive, childlike, and submissive is not uncommon but is significant because of the rich colonial history behind it.”

    While the colonial history and the positioning of Indian men as inferior to white men is indeed terrible, the solution is not making Indian characters more “macho”. The solution is to get rid of the gender binary altogether. (Not that I’m saying the writer is advocating the former over the latter, it’s just that I felt the article felt a bit incomplete regarding what’s to be done about the problem).

  • Anonymous

    First: I’ve never seen the Big Bang Theory. But I wonder if you could say more about racialized sexuality, beyond pointing out the ways that Indian men have been emasculated by colonialism? Would you also be upset if Raj was represented as actually gay, because that’s also emasculating? Or is part of the problem with the “ersatz homosexual marriage” that it’s also homophobic, and that the laughs come by mocking queer relationships (and, for that matter, the stereotypically feminine role in a straight relationship)?

    Again, I haven’t seen the show, so I really am wondering how this works out. Howard is white, I assume?

    • http://twitter.com/DropDeadPoet Alexis A.

      Howard is Jewish, and a bit sex-obsessed: its pretty much a meme on the show for him to make awkwardly over-the-top sexual innuendo.

  • Hapa

    I can’t stand the way TBBT portrays the few non-white people on the show. Priya is always stamped as other. By comparing her to a bengal tiger etc. Many of the white cast are ganging up on the nonwhite competition (Priya). Raj used to get to sleep with girls in the beginning, now he gets nothing. Yet, all the white cast has been able to pair up in genuine romantic relationships except him. Even Sheldon has Amy for god sakes.

    I loved this show so much, but when I look deeper at the racial dynamics I look forward to watching it less and less.

    • Anonymous

      Same here. I mean, if the main male cast can have at least one non-white friend, who gets very little attention compared to other cast members, what’s stop Penny, Bernadette and Amy from having a non-white girlfriend, if not Priya? I know most girls on the show are present b/c of their relationships to the men or b/c they are utilities to the men on the show. It’s just ridiculous that it’s a bunch of white people versus Priya. Personally, I feel she could do much better than Leonard but that’s besides the point. Raj is in my opinion the most attractive guy of the four. Sheldon is a close second, but I find him much more annoying at times.

      But yeah, the show is losing me comparing Priya to a bengal tiger. And I wasn’t very comfortable with the conversations pertaining to Bernadette’s ex-boyfriend, Glenn, who was tall and black.

      For instance, in Howard’s own words: If you had sex with that guy, I mean, there’s nothing I can do here that will make any kind of impact.

      I don’t know if this was Howard’s insecure, sexual fear being projected onto the black guy’s supposed bigness. And was this just b/c he was tall or also b/c he was black? It just annoyed me.    

      This show is kind of like Friends I guess. You only get additional bits of color when there is a love interest or ex or something. Minus Raj of course. And then most (white) females introduced are love interests. Minus Amy I guess. But at least she comes around more often to hang out with the other girls. It’s just overwhelmingly white even though I do enjoy watching the show. But there are things they could change to improve it I guess.

  • Filmi Girl

    My favorite Raj moment in TBBT – to Sheldon: “Dude, stop telling me about my own culture.”

  • http://profiles.google.com/jordanalam Jordan A

    I think it’s a good point to bring up that the Indian male has been stripped of his strength and thus must be viewed as the “effeminate.” A similar trajectory can be seen with Japanese men after WWII by the American media – to detract from their kamikaze image during the war.
    All in all, it’s saddening to see these stereotypes coming out that are entrenched in historical re-framing; not because that doesn’t happen, but because that means they stand the test of time.

  • TungstenMouse

    This is a good take on this series. Even though I do enjoy TBBT as mostly mindless tv, I find your assessment of the stereotypes (especially the Jewish and Indian ones) to be a bit tiresome.

    I did however want to point out that on the dvd special feature, the creators talk about an actual scientist (non-Indian, I believe) who pathologically couldn’t talk to women and that’s why they included that. It’s no excuse but it is an explanation.

    Anyway, thank you for this article.

    • TungstenMouse

      I actually meant that I find the stereotypes tiresome, not your assessment. Your take is very spot on. Sorry for my mistake.

  • Anj

    Well, Raj is portrayed in the same way that Sheldon and Howard are, and to a certain extent Leonard. As well, from all of the, Sheldon is portrayed the worst–perpetually socially awkward. I really think that in this case, race is not a contributing factor, their (humourous) awkwardness is why the show is successful.