Ugh. That’s the word that best describes my view on Bravo’s show, “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley.” The preview video for the show features six attractive white people in the starring roles. Another TV show that ignores the hard work of minorities in the United States? I’m not surprised.
I had an instant flashback to a question that my friend (and fellow Indian American) Neal Justin asked then-NBC head Jeff Zucker: “Why aren’t there any South Asians on E.R.?” This was back when E.R. was at its peak. We were at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, where network executives and stars pitch TV critics. Zucker responded that Ming Na was on E.R. Na was born in Macau. Justin pressed Zucker on the point and asked if he’d ever been inside a Chicago hospital, which are usually full of Indian American doctors. Zucker didn’t have a good response.
At least a decade later, it seems that Hollywood’s attitudes haven’t changed.
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For the settings that the shows are in, Asian Americans tend to be underrepresented in television and movies. It’s understandable that a show set on a farm in North Dakota might not have South Asian people; it’s inexplicable when the show is set at startups in Silicon Valley or in a hospital. I meet founders all the time and the bulk of them tend to be Asian or Indian.
To the extent that Indians are represented, it tends to be in stereotypes: Indian women are represented as exotic sex goddesses and Indian men as dorks.
Two current Indian characters on TV exemplify this: Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda Sharma on CBS’ The Good Wife plays a tough legal investigator and seductress who often ends up in bed with random characters and guest stars.
Aziz Ansari plays Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. He’s an aspiring politician, but largely an obnoxious loser. I was excited when we discovered that he was married to the attractive Wendy Haverford. Finally, an Indian male in a normal relationship! That turned out to be a gag; she only married him for a Green Card.
The most promising Indian American character in recent memory was Kal Penn’s character, Dr. Kutner, on House. A suburban hospital with an Indian doctor. Wow. He was a complex character: a bit of a goofball and not entirely studious (defying many of the stereotypes about Indians) but also a good doctor. But Dr. Kutner didn’t have nearly the on-screen sex life of other characters like Drs. Cameron, Chase, and Foreman. Kutner committed suicide abruptly on the show when Penn decided to join the Obama administration.
Some of this will change as the result of Indian Americans taking on more senior roles in television. Mindy Kaling, who plays a minor character on The Office, is the showrunner on The Mindy Project. Kaling writes and stars in the show about an ob/gyn trying to balance her work and professional life. She plays a doctor who just happens to be Indian, instead of an Indian actress playing the role of a stereotype.
Kaling feels the weight of representing Indian Americans on her shoulders. “When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one, whereas, for instance, Steve Carell — he’s not making sweeping generalizations about white American men on his show because there’s so many different white American men on different shows,” she told NPR’s Terry Gross.
Why make a big deal of this? “Silicon Valley” is probably another stupid show that no one will watch, right? Perhaps. But television does affect perception.
Justin visited the issue of diversity on TV in a recent column in the Star Tribune, where he is a TV critic:
The lack of diversity in leading parts is not only hurting minority actors; it may also affect the next generation of Americans. According to a recent study, black children in the Midwest come away with less self-esteem after being exposed to television; the opposite is true for white boys.
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” Indiana University Prof. Nicole Martins said. “You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife. … Young black boys are getting the opposite message: There are not a lot of good things you can aspire to.”
It’s unlikely that South Asians will stop going into computer science and engineering because of what they see on Bravo; there is just too much parental pressure in many households. But stupid shows like Start-Ups reinforce the perception that we’re outsiders. Part of the reason that I do a lot of television work is that I want my nephew and nieces to see someone like them on TV. They’re too young to understand the content, but I hope they come away with a positive impression.
There is some truth to the stereotypes; there are plenty of shy dorks among South Asians. I used to be one.
Photo credit: Kati Voluntine