Today, we live in a world that is dominated and shaped by the media. It determines and dictates social norms, trends and what we can consider to be virtues and vices of our society. In such an environment, that is ever-changing and that is controlled by unseen forces, it wouldn’t be wrong to consider the media to be a mirror that reflects the state of society itself. It is also imperative to understand that we are living in an increasingly globalized society, where geographical borders no longer inhibit the movement of people across continents. In such a scenario, isn’t it important to study how the media perceives this inter-mingling of cultures and represents it to its consumers? I believe so and will go so far as to say that it is not only important to study this amalgamation of cultures, but also to study the composition of those cultures; specifically the role that women play and the visibility they are offered.
That brings me to why I chose this topic for my capstone. Being a female foreign national in the United States, the first thing that struck me was the varied ethnic landscape that is America. Not only does it boast of the richest inter-mingling of cultures in the world, but it can claim to reflect that in its media as well. I have always wanted to do a gender based study to try and analyze the phenomenon of representation and this project proved to be the perfect platform. Thus began my study of the changing representation of Asian women in mainstream American media.
I started this endeavor by doing some basic research in the form of reading. Some of the books proved to be tremendously helpful in exposing me to concepts such as the historical backgrounds of stereotyping and how the mental makeup of some Western countries that have colonized Asian ones still carries forward even today in the way that women from those countries are portrayed and ultimately perceived by audiences. The readings also helped me frame criteria by which I could scrutinize my case studies. This was a very important step because you need to know what to look for before you actually start looking. The criteria would be used to judge the character and the findings would be a benchmark by which I could do a comparative analysis with other media objects and included questions such as whether her race/ethnicity is explicitly alluded to, if she is shown as a working professional or not and if she is subject to the racial stereotypes that are often associated with her racial group.
My next phase was analyzing my case studies. I chose to study TV sitcoms and a Hollywood film featuring Asian women; namely The Big Bang Theory starring Aarti Mann, The Office and The Mindy Project starring Mindy Kaling, The Pink Panther 2 starring Aishwarya Rai and Royal Pains starring Reshma Shetty. This phase was an eye-opener for me, because having watched these objects before without a scrutinizing gaze led to so many fine details escaping my notice. But having the help of the criteria I had built up made me see them in a completely different light. I found it appalling that even today; the lines of gender and race are clearly marked and visible in the media. The protagonists of these shows are Indian women and most of the story lines revolve around their pursuit of a life partner. Even on shows where the female character is shown to be a working professional, she is rarely (if ever) shown practicing her profession and the emphasis is more on her want to find a life partner and settle down in life. It doesn’t help that on most of the shows, the female character is paired opposite a Caucasian male and it becomes apparent that the reason he’s involved with her is because she’s India and has that element of ‘ exoticism’ associated with her. This reeks of an 18th century mentality where if a person’s skin color was anything but White, it instinctively brought up mental images of far off lands and a whole civilization of people untouched by Western influences. It amazes me that even today we haven’t been able to get past that mindset. What is it going to take for a woman of color to just blend in without this tag of being ‘exotic’ getting attached to her? It also amazed me that even though her race and ethnicity is explicitly alluded to in these shows, she is shown going against the commonly held Indian beliefs that women are supposed to be virgins till they get married and as a sort of over-compensation for being Indian and coming from a conservative upbringing, she feels the need to be rebellious and overly independent.
It didn’t help when I analyzed other media objects as a comparative analysis. It’s a shame that Michelle Yeoh cannot break the mold of being typecast in martial arts roles, even if it’s a Bond film, despite her being an accomplished actress. It’s sad that Margaret Cho’s claim to fame is her stand-up comedy that focuses on race and gender and that the same racial stereotypes she mocked led to her short-run TV show and the various problems that went on behind the scenes. It’s tragic that a talent like Sarayu Rao isn’t even shown performing a surgery in ‘Monday Mornings’ even though she’s portrayed as a surgeon on the show. This goes back to what I was saying about the stereotype that is so deeply associated with Indian women that their primary goal in life is to get married and have a family.
The media object that most infuriated me was the Selena Gomez son ‘Come and get it’. I have articulated my indignation on my blog but it just goes to show that even in this day and age of social transparency, people have the mindlessness to go ahead and engage in cultural appropriation (and absolutely incorrect appropriation at that). I find it abstruse as to how someone can think that being a Hindu and being a tribal are one and the same thing. Call me optimistic, but I thought humanity had made leaps and bounds in the intelligence department, but I could be wrong.
My overall take-away from this study is that, unfortunately, not much has changed in the way Asian women are portrayed on screen. It definitely isn’t as bad as non-Asian actors portraying Asian characters on the screen, but it’s so sad that the history that each ethnicity carries with it, many times as a burden, has percolated to such an extent that it is still visible on the screen today. This study helped me uncover some of my own blind-eye viewing of these objects and has forever influenced the way I will perceive media objects featuring people of color and I hope I can disseminate some of the knowledge I have gained through this process with those that I come in contact with.