From Baljeet in “Phineas and Ferb” to Ravi in “Jessie” and Devi in “Never Have I Ever,” you could call a rose by any other name and still be left with the same practice: Hollywood keeps using South Asian individuals to depict insecure, inadequate and undesirable characters.
On-screen representation is already limited enough for most people of color. But for members of the Desi community — people from the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora — the few personalities who we do see are often impaired by internalized racism and characterized by a litany of lackluster traits. These characters are familiar to viewers: they’re self-deprecating, disconnected from their culture and often ostracized by their peers. And they’re everywhere. Think of how common overly exaggerated Indian accents are in movies. Perhaps your favorite show uses the brown nerd character as the punchline of its jokes. From television to film, South Asians are frequently reduced to two-dimensional plot devices and token minority characters for the otherwise entirely white gaze. These stereotypes can have devastating real-world implications by contributing to bullying, discrimination and negative self-esteem.
Mindy Kaling’s latest television series, “Velma,” has reignited the South Asian representation issue. As an updated version of the beloved U.S. classic “Scooby-Doo,” the controversial show reimagines its mystery-busting team, turning the children’s comedy into an R-rated nostalgia intended for adults. Stark changes are apparent: Shaggy is Black, Daphne is Asian — and the titular character is now South Asian.
You may be inclined to believe that this is a positive change — that Indian Americans are overjoyed to feel represented by such an iconic character. In reality, the vast majority are not. Velma is frequently subjected to quips made about her physique and body hair in the show. While some may dismiss these comments as essential elements of a raunchy comedy, unfortunately this kind of pointed degradation is a recurring theme in Kaling’s works — especially when it is aimed at women.
In season one of “Never Have I Ever,” main character Devi is mocked for her ability to grow a mustache — a cheap shot that shames South Asian women for their natural facial features. While Kaling herself is the daughter of immigrants, she also pokes fun at the overbearingly strict Indian family trope, and Devi’s role reaffirms that the model minority myth is still pervasive. This oversimplification presents Asian Americans as a high achieving, albeit passive cultural group that excels academically by virtue of perseverance. But this idea ignores individuals’ complexities and reduces the diverse Asian ethnic group to a singular categorization. The myth places immense pressure upon South Asians to live up to established expectations, which can result in students being pitted against one another, high rates of academic burnout and increased feelings of anxiety.
Kaling has long been accused of projecting her own experiences upon characters, and the model minority myth is just one way she does so. In “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a leading character named Bela laments that she is a former “Indian loser.” The statement is outrageous; it would be denounced as indisputably racist if substituted with any other nationality. Yet in the case of South Asians, it is given a pass. Bela goes on to claim that it is thanks to a LASIK procedure and medical-grade botox injections that she is now deemed “normal.” This dialogue, while laughable to older audiences, is often absorbed by younger viewers and speaks to the imposition of white beauty standards on women of color. Teenage girls are among the most susceptible to feelings of mental distress, and Kaling’s discourse on what constitutes a “loser” only deepens the problem for young Indian American women.
While Kaling is certainly a perpetrator in the harmful portrayal of South Asians on screen, she isn’t the sole arbitrator of the phenomenon. Kaling’s characters reflect the broader message that society inflicts upon marginalized communities: white people remain the epicenter of storytelling, and not adhering to Caucasian customs means you are not worthy of a respectable plotline. This is a bitter misstep. It’s 2023, and Hollywood can do better.
Authentic representation isn’t meant to be all rainbows; like real humans, characters must be complex, dynamic and sometimes messy in order to truly come to life. But this must be accomplished without also relying on the use of excessive stereotyping that normalizes racism, and characters, like people, must be treated with dignity regardless of their racial or ethnic background. The role of Kate Sharma in season two of “Bridgerton” does a satisfactory job of striking this balance. Kate’s position as a desirable woman — a trait infrequently attributed to Indian characters — both disrupts Eurocentric beauty standards and shows that Desi characters can be alluring, multifaceted and well-rounded.
Despite this small victory, “Velma” and its counterparts demonstrate that society still has a long way to go in combating bigotry.
During this year’s Academy Awards, the live performance of Best Original Song winner “Naatu Naatu” by Kaala Bhairava, M. M. Keeravani and Rahul Sipligunj once again failed South Asians. The Telegu tune is an anti-colonist anthem from S.S. Rajamouli’s film “RRR” and was a true missed opportunity: almost none of the dancers in the performance are ethnically Indian, turning what should have been a milestone moment for overlooked artists into a bittersweet snub. Undoubtedly, representation matters — but only when done well. In the future, Mindy Kaling and her peers must use their platforms to recognize that the Indian American community is not a monolith and deserves more than just lazy casting or one dull stock character in every piece of media.
If the ratings for “Velma” are any indication, it’s evident that the reign of the white gaze is finally coming to a close. As audience members, we should all be thinking critically about the kinds of media we engage with, as our viewership ultimately determines who makes a profit and who gets a seat in the next writer’s room. Intersectionality means advocating for the appropriate representation of all minority groups, and for too long, South Asians have simply been excluded from this narrative.
Safa Wahidi (24Ox) is from Sugar Hill, Georgia.
Safa Wahidi (she/her) (24Ox) is from Sugar Hill, Georgia, majoring in English and political science. She is an active member of the Emory Muslim Student Association and serves on the Young Democrats of Oxford College Executive Board. Outside of the Wheel, Wahidi enjoys writing fiction, watching rom-coms and anticipating the next Taylor Swift album. You can find her wandering around the nearest Barnes & Noble, tea in hand.