South Asians in Pop Culture: Why So Many Comedians?

CultureThe Volume IssueTV & Film

South Asians in Pop Culture: Why So Many Comedians?


This article is part of  The Volume Issue, The WALK’s Fall 2017 theme, which seeks to explore every aspect of the concept of “volume,” one of which is the magnitude of representation of diverse groups in visible industries.  

Letter T here was a time in my childhood when the only Indian my friends knew of was Apu from the Simpsons. Now, South Asians are taking over the media, more specifically in the realm of the comedy. Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, Lilly Singh, Jus Reign, and Russel Peters. These are just a few of the biggest Indian American and Canadian names in pop culture today. It seems as though Hollywood has a new mantra: down with brown. Although I used to be ashamed to show off my latest henna design or eat my Indian lunch, this new wave of Indian Americans in the media has given me more self confidence.

 However, a deeper look shows that South Asian exposure in the media is not as progressive as it sounds. While having more exposure to people like myself in pop culture has given me more confidence to own my culture, most of these stars are comedians, and the majority of these Indian comedians–just like the convenience store owner in The Simpsons–make fun of their own stereotypes through their public careers. Vloggers love making videos about “Indian problems,” such as strict parents with thick accents, arranged marriages, and the pressure to get good grades. This is how they get laughs. This is how they get famous. This is what the people want.

This cultural phenomenon is keeping South Asian Americans like myself in a bubble. Ansari, for example, stated in an interview with The New York Times that even though he has sold out Madison Square Garden and has made nationwide recognition, the roles he is offered “are [still] often defined by ethnicity and require accents.” Hollywood seems to love South Asians who can make jokes about their own culture, and comedians are the easy target. Unfortunately, this means that the easiest way for a South Asian to gain recognition is to reinforce their stereotypes. So how can we expect comedians, or even just South Asians in general, to talk about their culture in any other context? It is a vicious cycle.

By playing on these stereotypes and making people laugh, South Asians subsequently mitigate the adverse effects of deeply rooted racism and micro aggression. But are these comedians lessening the harmful rhetoric or merely reinforcing it? It is hard to completely condemn this exposure which has provided a platform for a new generation of Indians to share their stories. However, it is important to recognize that there is more to our South Asian peers than their stereotypes, even if the media is not showing us the uniquely complex and beautiful facets of the culture. Regardless, when there is so much politicization going on against the brown (Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu) community in America, sometimes the only way to ease the pain is to laugh.

 Image courtesy of  Meg McIntyre 

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