By Guest Contributor Anurag Lahiri
During my four months of funemployment after grad school I became hooked on a list of TV shows. A couple of my queer desi friends had been raving about The Chicago Code a while back and when I finally watched it I enjoyed it. So of course when the same friends started tweeting about The Good Wife, and specifically about one character, Kalinda Sharma, I decided to take the hint and marathon it.
The same things drew me to both shows: aside from the suspense and drama, they’re both set in Chicago. As a girl from the Midwest, I enjoy watching a show whose city politics I can relate to.
There is a difference between the two shows though: Chicago Code was mostly special for me because Jennifer Beals was in it and, for an L Word fan, she will always be Bette Porter. Yes, even if she is playing a superintendent of a police department. On the other hand, I will gladly embrace Archie Panjabi as Sharma, a queer, desi, private investigator on The Good Wife.
When there are so few reasonable representations of South Asians in the mainstream media, my first reaction was pure excitement to see Panjabi playing a queer character. I am still extremely impressed that a TV network as mainstream as CBS came up with this character when many more underground producers haven’t been successful, in my opinion. Furthermore, the show hints at the complexity of South Asians with only one desi character/actress, which is more than shows like Outsourced have done even with a whole cast.
On the show, Kalinda’s personality is presented as being multifaceted; she is tough and opinionated. While these attributes are not often paired with Asian women on TV, they are often the reality for women who grow up being underestimated and under-appreciated.
Kalinda’s position–the very opinionated, privately queer, guarded desi girl–resonates very loudly with me: when I was interning as a social worker in a criminal justice setting, much like her, I tried to stay private while others shared stories about their personal lives. Staff at my internship made heteronormative assumptions about me. The show challenges such assumptions about brown women, and people in general, while offering reasons for why women, regardless of sexual orientation, are often private in the workplace.
While I don’t necessarily believe that Kalinda’s work–digging up dirt for her boss’ law firm, Lockhart/Gardner–was ever underestimated, I would argue she was still under-appreciated. She regularly goes above and beyond to help the firm, yet she struggles to ask for a raise. I know that it takes a lot of thick skin and hard work to prove oneself in that type of environment.
I admire Kalinda for discussing race at work and her immigrant family background, yet refusing to be tokenized. She uses her knowledge and experience to enhance her work and her job, yet she remains in control of her identity. It’s very easy to be turned into a token when you speak up as a minority, so I have looked at Kalinda to see how she does it.
In real life, this balance is very difficult and tiring to maintain. In the U.S. it is especially difficult because South Asian women struggle to find appropriate mentors in the workplace. There are some peer support systems for women in professions like engineering, medicine and law, but it is a struggle if you feel you have no one to turn to for advice and a mentor. Being able to visually relate to a brown woman on TV is helpful for me and, I assume, other desi women who are trying to establish themselves in a workplace.
Aside from her professional character, I am also impressed with the treatment of Kalinda as a personal and sexual character. Kalinda’s sex life is exhibited as much as the other characters and, while the manner of it tip-toes around exoticism at times, it is impressive considering the frequent shaming of brown women’s sexuality on TV. The show speaks to me by creating a South Asian character in the media that does not feel the responsibility to prove her sexuality and womanhood to people. While Kalinda confidently told one interested woman that she “follows through” when she flirts, she pulled away from another as soon as she found out she is married.
I’m still struggling with this unnecessary need to validate my sexuality, since queer desis’ existence has so often been denied and mistreated. Healthy and realistic media representation, like in The Good Wife, can certainly help queer women like me. I now have a character on TV who is reminding me, each episode, to just be. These types of reminders help us come into our smoother, more natural identities. They also remind others that there is more than just tragic queer desis living double lives, and triumphant queer desis marching in Mumbai Pride.
With Kalinda, the show gives the U.S. public a chance to see how an adult desi can be confidently queer whilst handling her imperfections. Her personal vulnerability is not portrayed in a way to make her seem like the “weak Asian girl” archetype, but rather, it is acknowledged as a major part of her complex history. Her vulnerability is always bubbling under her surface, in her extremely rare smiles and tense stature. Her strength is also evident, and it took an extremely dramatic plot twist – which I won’t spoil here – for Kalinda to cry even once. Her mysterious past serves to complicate her character beyond her appearance and challenge the audience. Just like any woman of color, I hope people realize that while Kalinda’s strength is admirable, it may not have been gained out of choice.
From death row to deportation, the show takes on some difficult issues in a way that is accessible. I appreciate watching the characters challenge each other personally and politically, because they each add something meaningful, but I am clearly partial to Kalinda. I’m so accustomed to the media being an exaggeratedly unhealthy version of reality, especially for queer and minority people, so Kalinda makes me really happy. Panjabi has come a long way from playing “standard” desi roles to opening doors for much more.