Content Warning: This article includes mild spoilers for the television series “Bridgerton.”
Season two of “Bridgerton,” one of the most streamed Netflix shows, features Simone Ashley in the lead role of the new viscountess, Kathani “Kate” Sharma.
The casting of Ashley to play this role is monumental for South Asian women’s representation. In the Julia Quinn novel series which the show is based on, Kate and her sister Edwina are originally written as white characters with the surname Sheffield instead of Sharma. Along with the switch of names, there are a plethora of nods to traditional Indian culture in this season: Edwina referring to Kate as “Didi,” an endearing term for “older sister” in Hindi, the lehengas and saris in the costume wardrobe for the Sharma women, Kate massaging Edwina’s hair with oil, the Haldi ceremony and my personal favorite, the soundtrack’s feature of “Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham” from the eponymous 2001 Bollywood film. While I have seen a few other attempts at South Asian representation in the media, watching Ashley on my laptop screen was a completely different experience for me.
Growing up, the most I saw of South Asian characters on American television was Ravi from “Jessie” and Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb.” These characters were not true representations of my culture, but rather a caricature of me and my fellow South Asians. Most of the time, South Asian characters on American television are featured with thick (and unrealistic) accents and fill a “nerdy,” academic-fueled stereotype. Watching these characters as a young child alongside my white peers and South Asian counterparts, we were collectively taught that these characteristics are what to expect of the Desi diaspora.
These aren’t the only examples of racism toward South Asians in American media. A popular example is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant who owns a convenience store in “The Simpsons.” He was voiced by a white man for three decades before the character was removed from the show due to backlash about the racist stereotypes that he character embodies. I don’t know which aspect of Apu’s character is the worst: his unrealistic accent, the fact that his voice actor was a white man or his stingy attitude as a convenience store owner.
The creation of such characters as Ravi, Baljeet, Apu and most other South Asian characters in American media has formed a caricature of South Asians that is used by white people for humor or personal advancement. When people grow up consuming inaccurate representations of different communities they have minimal real-life interactions with, they expect these individuals to reflect the same stereotypes that they see on TV and in the media. As children, almost every one of my South Asian friends and I were mocked with accents similar to that of Apu’s and assumed to fit all aspects of the Desi stereotype.
Most of my confusion of my racial identity has stemmed from these instances of racism and my struggle to understand how I could separate myself from these stereotypes. To the creators of Ravi, Baljeet, Apu and other harmful characters who exacerbate the stereotyping of South Asians: you have minimized the struggles and legitimacy of the Desi diasporic experience down to elements that you found entertaining. You conditioned me to be ashamed of my parents’ accents growing up. You taught me that having an accent makes an individual other-worldly and less deserving of respect and my white peers have become accustomed to turning off their ears when addressed by an immigrant because they assume what they say will not be important. If only you recognized that these accents are much more than a variation of language but an embodiment of the struggles and strengths of immigrants. More than anything else, among all the tired jokes about South Asians, the ones about Desi people owning convenience stores dismiss the significance of what these jobs have done for South Asian families, as sole proprietorship has given immigrants the liberty to function in a workspace with significantly less racial profiling compared to the white-dominated, white-collar workforce.
These ill-intentioned ways of representing South Asians have had a tremendous impact on portraying the Desi diaspora as a monolith of people whose hardships only consist of academic stress. Looking back, I struggle to remember a time when I saw Baljeet or Ravi endure mental health issues or any form of distress that were unrelated to their grades on a test or the relentless bullying they faced from their peers. The only major struggles I watched them face were microaggressions packaged as comedy, which normalized racism so much that it bled and continues to bleed into the daily life of Desi youth in America. By disregarding nuanced emotions and experiences of the Desi community, the media plays a significant role in feeding into the disparities in mental health that already exist for South Asians. South Asians, especially South Asian women, are disproportionately affected by psychosociological distress, which can make these communities more susceptible to chronic diseases like heart disease. Additionally, discrimination and racial profiling play a significant role in mental illness, and stereotyping in TV shows not only perpetuates these disparities, but also makes it much more difficult for South Asians to break away from the cultural stigma that surrounds mental illness and seeking help.
The popularized stereotype of Asian Americans centering their whole lives around academics promotes the “nerd” label that’s placed onto the Asian American community from early childhood. These jokes stem from the model minority myth, which originated as an oppressive tactic in the 1960s to silence Black voices during the Civil Rights Movement and invalidate their struggles by contrasting them to the perceived successes of Asian American immigrants. In doing this, American society set Asian Americans as the “models” to other marginalized communities of Color, specifically the Black community. This not only grouped together the very different and unique struggles of all people of Color, but also contributed to tremendous negative mental health impacts in the Asian American community by exacerbating the pressure they place on themselves to succeed both academically and socially. The Looking-Glass Self theory in sociology explains how a child’s perception of themself and their self-awareness stems from how they believe others perceive them. When Desi children grow up around characters like Ravi, Baljeet and Apu who exist as the laughingstock of society, it’s not far-fetched that they disconnect themselves from real issues that human beings face, like mental illness.
It is especially detrimental to see the real-life implications of these racist tactics in my friends and family. Listening to my Desi friends nonchalantly make jokes about their anxiety or depression or how they believe their mental illnesses are not significant enough for them to seek help makes me realize how much the media has failed my community. I can only imagine how great an impact seeing characters, like Kate, who experience more than just academic stress or microaggressions could have on me and my community’s well-being. Our experiences, our voices, our health and our very existence are not insignificant or any less worthy of representation than that of our white counterparts. The next time you consume media that could harm a marginalized community, understand the potential consequences something as simple as an animated character on television can have on a community’s well-being and systemic inequalities.
This is why more characters like Kate Sharma are needed in the media. Parental pressure is a prominent issue that many Desi youth experience, and I believe that Kate’s role as the eldest daughter in her immigrant family demonstrates this struggle as she financially supports her family, protects her sister and upholds her family’s public image. It is because of Kate’s flaws, her clever sense of humor and her imperfect personal growth that I am able to see myself in Kate. I feel a deep understanding for Kate as she struggles to understand how finding her happiness is beneficial to her loved ones, and I find myself encouraging her to secure her own future before securing that of others.
Aside from the nuances of Kate’s personality, the casting of Simone Ashley as the lead actress of the season disrupts conventional eurocentric beauty standards. As a dark-skinned Tamil woman, Ashley resists the prominent colorism within mainstream media, including the deeply-rooted colorism within Desi film industries. It is important to see a member of a marginalized group within the Desi community defy the typical beauty standards for fair skin that were created by the caste system and exacerbated through colonialism. However, it is still disappointing for me to see the double standard for women of Color through Ashley. Most of the recognition and acceptance I have seen for Kate from both the general public and the Desi community stems from her beauty rather than her talent. It makes me think that people of Color, specifically women, must be exceptionally beautiful and thin in order to be digestible for the white palette. It is almost as if her only redeeming trait is her appearance, which is deemed “good enough” for the media.
It is imperative that youth are exposed to South Asian actors and actresses who embody more than Desi stereotypes and experience emotions and struggles that don’t necessarily pertain to our race. That is why Kate Sharma means so much to me. It is the fact that she is probably one of the first Indian characters I’ve seen whose excellence works in tandem with her Indianness — neither element must be silenced or less expressed for the other to function. In fact, it is Kate’s rich culture, her beautiful lehengas, the endearing tone she has when calling her dad “Appa” and the care she has for Edwina as she massages her hair with oil that makes her so admirable to me. It is the way she and her sister are seen as the most beautiful girls in the town — without their race lessening this beauty. But while Kate’s role in the show makes me hopeful for the future of Desi representation, it would be naive of me to not acknowledge its flaws. I still believe that Kate’s character deserved a more accurate and nuanced portrayal. For example, Kate’s surname, the term she calls her sister and her cultural practices tie to different regions of India; the writers pulled together different aspects that resembled some single monolithic “Indian” culture without putting effort into developing an accurate and unique character for Kate. It is necessary that people of Color are enabled in every space and form of art that exists to share not only the talent we possess, but also the humanity.
Without seeing myself represented by my friends, family and role models in my life, my understanding of my racial identity would probably be limited to the extent of what I grew up watching on American television. It is because of my Indian pediatrician, my Sri Lankan pre-school teacher, my mother, my sister and my Pakistani friends that I am able to see the possibilities of excellence as a South Asian woman. South Asian youth deserve to grow up knowing that they are more than a caricature: that they can endure and survive mental illness, racism and social inequities; that they too possess the ability to become a doctor, an actor or, like Kate, who is — though not without her flaws — still the most respectable viscountess of the ton.
MiC Columnist Sahana Nandigama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.