I think there was once a point in time where I felt excited to see anyone that looked like me in Western media. But after the initial excitement of seeing other Indian people in Hollywood, I realized that often, in their desire to gain diversity points and break down barriers, mainstream media has overstepped the line of what proper representation is. Big name creators shoehorn in whatever they deem as diversity and representation, and it usually comes off like an assignment you only remembered to complete 10 minutes before it was due.
More often than not, I would come away feeling like I had come across a group of people who had an inside joke that I was not let in on. Except in this case, that inside joke was at my expense.
Seeing the same repetitive, curated narrative centered around pleasing a white perspective becomes disgusting after a while. You want to feel angry at what you know is poor representation, but instead, a sense of embarrassment takes over to the point that you’d rather have everyone remain ignorant of your heritage than accept this subpar, sorry excuse for diversity and inclusivity.
It’s such a conflicting feeling to experience. No matter how many times you’ve been disappointed in the past, you feel a little flutter of hope that yeah, maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time, you’ll finally get to see a potential role model, or someone that the general public will identify with, so then they can similarly identify with you and want to know you. But each time, it’s an unflattering caricature of what you know to be true.
There have been numerous occasions where I have felt unqualified to be making any complaints. I have personally avoided some of the more extreme, horrifying circumstances where people have been targeted for their background and seen truly disgusting portrayals of their identities put on display for wide-scale consumption. What right do I have to be asking for more when I already have so much privilege? How integrated do I want to feel in a society where I have always been shown that I am not included?
Obviously, there is an entire Bollywood industry where I could see my culture and background represented in a manner that I could appreciate. But as an American surrounded by Western influences my entire life, my demand for representation involves integrating people like myself into the places where we currently are. I want the majority of people I encounter on a daily basis, people who don’t know anything about me or my background, to be informed and understand at least basic information that shaped me into the person I am. I want people to be aware of the obvious facts about Indian culture, to stop making insensitive and ignorant comments that reveal how little they actually know, to appreciate all the things I have grown up with and love because of how amazing they are. It’s such a basic level of respect and appreciation that I’m asking for. But it’s always too much to ask of Western media.
And sometimes, the representation is not entirely incorrect. But presenting parts of a culture to an audience that has no basis for understanding why certain things are done a certain way is almost worse. The most recent example I think of would be the inclusion of the brief Bollywood dance number in Marvel’s Eternals. Rather than offering representation, it felt randomly thrown-in just to demonstrate that some attempt at inclusivity is made. Bollywood is already stereotyped by its big, colorful dance breaks, so having that be the sole aspect of Indian culture that is presented to the masses feels unproductive. Specifically for a Western audience, it’s not a normal thing to see in films, and I feel like this just opens up more opportunity for potential mockery and a false understanding of other cultures.
Nothing is above criticism, but you can’t open the floodgates for critique from a group of individuals that haven’t taken the time or gotten the chance to appreciate the better aspects of this culture. Even though I am solely speaking from a narrowed perspective, many other people of color and other minority groups feel and express a similar sentiment. It might be to different extents, and there may be more or fewer implications behind it, but this is an ongoing problem for a variety of minority groups.
All in all, despite all the social progress we’ve made, if Western media can’t do better than this, then I would rather have them not try at all. Calls for representation do not and should not mean quantity over quality, and until this is understood, then any efforts to achieve more inclusivity are simply stagnant.