Why Do TV and Movies Continue to Stereotype South Asians?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 7 2012 2:29 PM

The Persistence of Apu: Why Hollywood Still Mocks South Asians

A still from Ashton Kutcher's now-pulled Popchips ad.

Like Nina Rastogi, I grew up counting Indians in entertainment media—or at least taking notice when someone who looked vaguely like me showed up in a sitcom or in advertisements. When Kal Penn got to the big screen as Kumar, part of me thought, “Wow, we made it.” And this for a pothead with a penchant for White Castle.

The recent en-masse arrival of South Asian actors onscreen has certainly improved things, as Rastogi argues, pointing to Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation, Mindy Kaling on The Office, and Iqbal Theba on Glee. (They’ve lately been joined by Raza Jaffrey on Smash.) And yet the recent Popchips ad starring Ashton Kutcher—not to mention the horrible, canceled sitcom Outsourced, which had just arrived when Rastogi wrote her piece—suggests that there are still plenty of people in Hollywood who think it is OK to mock South Asians. Why is that?


In case you missed the now-pulled Popchips ad, it featured Kutcher in the role of Raj, a Bollywood producer with floppy hair, an unfortunate mustache, and fancy Indian clothes. Kutcher employs a (pretty lousy) Indian accent, and compares his lust for Kim Kardashian to his need for potato chips. As Anil Dash noted, there’s no real joke in the ad, “the entire punchline being that he’s doing it in a fake-Indian outfit and voice.” Surely, Kutcher would not have agreed to the ad if he’d been asked to wear blackface, or to squint his eyes like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And yet somehow he didn’t blanch (so to speak) at the offensive Indian caricature.

It’s typical for new minority groups to show up on American TV and in Hollywood movies first as vague stereotypes, and to gradually evolve into fully realized characters. The early roles are often asexual and flat, providing comic relief or a criminal element, rather than representing actual people. Think Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles or, going further back, Carmen Miranda as Dorita in The Gang’s All Here. The path toward complexity tends to be long, halting, and slow. Still, one would have thought that the arrival of Ansari and co. on primetime meant that incidents like the Popchips ad were a thing of the past.

To understand their persistence, one might point to post-9/11 racism against brown people generally (which took the life of Balbir Singh Sodhi, among others). But a larger problem, I would argue, is that many Americans don’t believe that South Asians, as a group, have ever been disenfranchised. This lack of awareness, in turn, makes people like Kutcher think such mockery won't sting.

Consider the South Asian characters that have appeared on the small and big screen in the last couple decades. First, there was Apu on The Simpsons. Then the stereotypes expanded, slightly: taxi cab drivers and doctors joined the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor. These are very different jobs, of course, but each fits into a stereotype about the South Asian immigrant. Whether it’s the over-achieving Neela Rasgota (Parmindra Nagra) on E.R., or Barney’s driver Ranjit (Marshall Manesh) on How I Met Your Mother, these roles play into simple-minded ideas about the hard-working immigrant making good on the American Dream. Is that a hurtful image? Only insofar as it reduces individuals to an idea, rather than treating them as a complicated set of people who, in fact, don’t all drive cabs or become doctors.

Some people may say that there’s nothing wrong with such positive stereotypes. “If only people assumed that I was hard-working because of the color of my skin!” But the truth is that even these stereotypes are dehumanizing. And that’s how you end up with Ashton Kutcher in brownface, dancing obliviously to faux-Bollywood music.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.