Well, speaking of films being used as political lightning rods…
Aditi Natasha Kini has written a piece for Jezebel entitled “I’m Tired of Watching Brown Men Fall in Love With White Women Onscreen.” In it, she not only conveys her personal dismay at watching recent shows and films like The Big Sick and Master of None, she also explains how race (and specifically, whiteness) has been operationalized in popular culture:
The Big Sick has been roundly lauded in the press lately, including here at Jezebel, and not without good reason: it’s a funny, heartwarming love story based on the true-life experiences of cowriters/married couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. But as much as I liked it—and I did—I also found myself exhausted, yet again, by the onscreen depiction of a brown man wanting to date a white woman, while brown women are portrayed alternately as caricatures, stereotypes, inconsequential, and/or the butts of a joke.
I know, I know: isn’t it progress to see Asian men get the girl for once, instead of stand-in as a prop, token or joke? Sure, it’s great that Hollywood is putting its money behind narratives with brown men at the helm, as in The Big Sick and Master of None. But both also center white women as the love interest—a concept which, in the complex hierarchy of power and race in America, pays lip-service to the one notion that has shaped the history of South Asian and American culture alike: Whiteness as the ultimate desire, the highest goal in defining oneself as an American. Both of these works are part of a larger trend that’s common in films in media portraying the desi community, that the pursuit of white love is a mode of acceptance into American culture, and a way of “transcending” the confines of immigrant culture—the notion that white love is a gateway drug to the American dream.
There have been a lot of writers online attacking this piece, and I myself am quite torn on it.
On the one hand, Kini’s point is undercut by the fact that The Big Sick is largely autobiographical. The movie is a passion project by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, and it’s difficult to understand the counterfactual that Kini is advocating for in this case. Should they have altered the film details (and thus, the details of their life) to conform to Kini’s concept of a film that’s more ethnically diverse and representative?
[I should also point out that the fact that The Big Sick exists at all and is receiving a major theatrical release is a bit of a miracle. I think the film will do a lot to expand people’s idea of what the American immigrant experience is.]
On the other hand, as an Asian-American immigrant, I can totally sympathize with where Kini is coming from. Americans who aren’t white spend decades of their lives watching films/TV shows in which white people are the romantic objects of affection, OR films/TV shows where white people get the romantic objects of affection by the end (often, the latter are of a different race).
Consider this: When was the last time you watched a film that had a Pakistani woman as the love interest? When was the last time you watched a film that had a white woman as the love interest? Imagine what it feels like to acutely perceive that imbalance every single day of your life.
The Big Sick is a great film. Kini’s concept of a similar film from the perspective of a Pakistani woman would also be something I’d want to see. I’m sad that we can’t watch both this year, but maybe they will coexist one day.