M.I.A, Zayn, and Mindy: Seeing Myself in the Media

South-Asian pop culture stars have paved the way for young South Asians to feel more confident in themselves.

When I was nine years old and just beginning to open my eyes to the strange and fascinating world of art and entertainment, “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. was released. You know: All I wanna do is [bang, bang, bang, bang] and [ka-ching!] and take your money. And suddenly the song was everywhere. It was on the car radio when my newly licensed sister was driving me to school; it blasted on my elementary school P.A. system before the bell rang; its music video played on MTV when my friends came over after school, prompting them to discuss just how intensely cool the pop singer/rapper M.I.A was. And, to be fair, she was intensely cool. She was also intensely English, intensely talented, and irrevocably Indian of heritage. The latter of which struck me, even then, as unusual.

Soon after, the pop hit “Down” by Jay Sean (aka Kamaljit Singh Jhooti) came out. And Parks and Recreation, in which Aziz Ansari perfectly portrayed a first generation Indian-American (so flawlessly that his race was the least important thing about his character), aired and was widely advertised. And Slumdog Millionaire came out, gaining widespread acclaim and the Oscar for Best Picture – I remember watching the awards show with my Mumbai-raised mother, a bowl of popcorn, and baited breath. These seemingly unconnected events were sparsely scattered across a few years of my childhood, during which, in retrospect, I came into contact with a lot more entertainment and culture. Yet I remember those particular songs, movies, TV commercials – those brief and irrelevant moments – so clearly, so vividly, for reasons I couldn’t explain for a while.

By the time I was in middle school, as I began to develop passions for journalism and film and especially music, and as my generation started becoming savvier and more socially aware, I began to hear about something called “media representation.” My muddled adolescent understanding of the phrase was that there weren’t enough women, LGBTQIA+ people, or people of diverse races being shown as important or powerful in popular American culture. Chatting with my South Asian friends about it during lunch one afternoon, I was told that our race was the least represented for the size of our population, and that our women “had it the worst.” Upset by this idea, and surprised by statistics that backed my friends’ points up when I looked representation up on the Internet that evening, I did what I always inevitably do: went to my father for an explanation.

He was reassuring: “Don’t worry about it. The number of brilliant Indian lawyers and doctors and CEOs in this country isn’t statistically representative, either: There are way too many of us doing great things. Just because you don’t see us in movies or on TV doesn’t mean we’re not changing the world.” And that was comforting, in a way. Yet, curled up in bed that night, gazing at the faded glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, I thought deeply about cultural representation and developed the fuzzy realization that I disagreed with my dad’s point.

The reason I remember Jay Sean’s #1 single so clearly, even though I’ve heard thousands upon thousands of pop songs since, was the rarity of seeing an Indian guy in the media at all, albeit one that American girls found attractive and American guys wished they were like. When I was growing up, I witnessed countless terrible impressions of Indian accents that devolved into uproarious laugher; I watched white boys mock a girl’s beautiful performance of a classical Indian dance style at our school assembly; I was made aware of Simpsons and Big Bang Theory characters that seemed an exaggerated caricature of my parents’ perfectly normal country. And it wasn’t that those kids, or even TV producers, intended to be mean or offensive. It’s just that they considered Indians on the whole funny, so the fact that they could then learn to find Jay Sean or M.I.A. or Mindy Kaling actually cool felt priceless. So – for the same reason that I’m fascinated by the world’s love for Zayn Malik, I was near speechless when I met Rostam Batmanglij on a crowded New York avenue, and Nina Davuluri’s winning Miss America almost made me cry – I was really, really happy when “Down” hit #1 on the charts.

Whether you like it or not, the American mass media reaches hundreds of millions of people each day.  So if there are hardly any people with my race, or your sexuality, or their gender being represented – and if those who do exist in the limelight are just milked for their stereotypes – the effect is damaging, not just to those in the marginalized minority, but to the country as a whole. (On occasion, when I share that my parents grew up in India, I’m asked what tribe I am from. Tribe!) If generations of well-intentioned but uninformed Americans continue to come across media – things as seemingly unimportant as movies or books or songs – full of trivialization and erasure, they will continue to internalize false ideas about minorities, or remain unaware that such minorities even exist. People like me will find it difficult just to go about our lives as Americans, and our society will never be truly accepting or truly cohesive. So if we embrace artists and entertainers of more varied demographics, if we write more diverse characters, and if we attack the stereotypes so prevalent in our media, we will finally begin achieving the true 21st century mindset. (Not to mention the pure and simple fact that that if I casually open a website or flick on the TV, and I see someone who looks like me, with dark skin and black hair and brown eyes – it always makes me smile.)

Four years after I became aware of representation, I think I’ve learned who I am: a music blogger, an extrovert, a liberal, a feminist, a girl who likes to talk and write and think – oh, and I’m also Indian. And media representation still affects me every day. Take this delightful occurrence: Some of my friends and I took a beginner dance class at school this past spring as an alternative to a sport. During our weekly hip-hop class one sunny Wednesday, our choreographer started blasting an M.I.A. song and teaching us a dance to it. Delighted, I blurted to a friend, “I love this song so much – M.I.A. was, like, the first Indian girl I ever saw making pop music.” He responded, “Yeah, she’s so cool – I remember reading all about her in magazines and online. Everyone wanted to be exactly like her back when she was really famous. She had all of these songs talking about her heritage and Hinduism, but she was just, like, a normal, pretty British girl – I remember thinking that Indians must be so cool.” I gaped at him in awe. “Then I met you,” he teased, and I laughed without even retorting because I was just so content.

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