Hollywood puts a thin mask on racial stereotyping
Toronto Star, Sep. 22, 2013
The problem with Raj’s accent in The Big Bang Theory is that Hollywood is playing into a stereotype of Indian men not being ‘real men.’
By: Veena D. Dwivedi Published on Sun Sep 22 2013
The news media and many others seemed shocked by the bigoted outrage that erupted on social media this week after Nina Davuluri, a woman of Indian heritage, won the Miss America crown in Atlantic City.
Sadly, few North Americans of South Asian descent will have found those Twitterverse comments surprising. They’re conditioned to seeing western culture routinely differentiate South Asian characters because of their look or their accent.
Take the characters on the CBS hit The Big Bang Theory. They’re incredibly funny, and as a PhD nerd myself I love them.
However, I have a difficult time watching the show, due to the character named Raj. It’s his Indian accent. When Hollywood actors use non-standard accents, something extra is being conveyed about the character. And in this case, that something extra has a long history in British colonialism.
Accents give us a place. They tell us who is like us, and who is not. In the now-defunct TV show The Nanny, actress Fran Drescher adopted a Brooklyn accent in portraying a “salt-of-the-earth” character, whereas her employer’s inflection was decidedly British. These different English accents highlighted the social class differences between them and spoke to potential conflicts between the two. It helped with the storyline.
In The Big Bang Theory the problem with Raj’s Indian accent is that, unwittingly, Hollywood is playing into a stereotype, created by British colonialism, of Indian men not being “real men.” Of the four nerds in the cast, Raj is the least successful with women. In fact, at different points in the show his sexual orientation is called into question.
There is a long tradition of the bumbling fool with an Indian accent in Hollywood. It started in 1968 with Peter Sellers painting his face brown (an entirely different issue), donning an Indian accent and uttering “birdie num num” in the movie The Party.
More recently, and more disturbingly, Disney’s animated show Phineas and Ferb has an Indian kid named Baljeet. He’s got an accent. And Wikipedia describes Chirag, a character in the movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as Indo-American. But the film depicts the child with — you guessed it — an Indian accent. Now, it’s one thing for adults to have accents. But you don’t need a PhD in linguistics to know that children lose their foreign accents — very quickly.
So what is Hollywood up to with the Indian accents, then? If accent gives us a place, and tells us who were are and where we’re from, the Indian accent highlights that these brown children, living in our neighbourhoods, aren’t “like us.”
More than 150 years ago, Indians were very clearly made out to be “not like us” from the British colonialists’ point of view. This certainly played into the colonialization of the subcontinent by the British Raj, especially after the failed mutiny of 1857. Arthur Herman, in his fantastic biography Gandhi and Churchill, noted that especially after the mutiny, “in British eyes a Hindu, especially one from Bengal or southern India, was not a true man.”
So it seems that this accent in Hollywood serves two separate functions. First, it separates a visible minority group as “not like us,” which is a pernicious thing to do in a multicultural society. Furthermore, one can’t help but wonder if the separation via accent is an expression of fear — fear of Indian (and Chinese) success in the global economy.
The other function is more damning, because it’s less obvious unless one has read history. The second reason the accent is there because all of the above male characters are not portrayed as testosterone-laden males. Gandhi was aware of this stereotype put forward by the British Raj, and actively fought against it.
This racist stereotyping needs to be addressed and let go, but sadly, one of the most watched shows on TV is keeping it alive today.
It’s time for Hollywood to “man up” to their mistakes. And stop it.
Veena D. Dwivedi is an associate professor of applied linguistics at Brock University.
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