in movies

On the desire to see yourself represented onscreen

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.

  • Jorge Albor

    Completely agree with the mixed feelings about this take. To add one more element of complexity, I also find it valuable to see an interracial relationship in film. It’s pretty disheartening to see the way films so often depict various races pairing up at though races should only date within their own group. All that is to say, the lack of diversity is a bummer and it sucks we so often have to what we can get.

  • SaulPaul

    Funny, I finally got around to watching Paterson last night. The lead actress is from Iran, a fact that is completely irrelevant and not commented upon. But, this is far from typical of course.

    • doodler

      and the sexy female lead of XXX:TRoXC is Indian! Huzzah!

  • Greta Hagen-Richardson

    Even though it is their real life story, people change details all the time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember the main conflict being that his girlfriend wasn’t Pakistani. He could have chosen to go with a WOC and still made the larger point. That being said, Holly Hunter was magnificent and other than her being mixed, I’m not sure how you retain that cast. For Master of None, Ansari heard the same criticisms the first time around and answered with a very disappointing effort. I love the show, but it boggles my mind that he would go down the exact same path. On the other hand, what is a better way to directly subvert the stereotypes about Asian men than to have his (SPOILERS) love interest be the epitome of straight-western desire, this beautiful, tall, thin, Italian woman?

    • You’re Not My Supervisor

      The two main characters names are Kumail and Emily. This is their story. Even though Emily Gordon did not star in it. She and Kumail wrote it. To shoehorn in a person of color in her role would be the worst kind of pandering and a disservice to their story and representation in general.

  • Phil A.

    I observed something: the centre-right/right-wing have jumped on something they intrinsically dislike (miscegenation) in order to scold the centre-left on its supposed hypocrisy about diversity. E.G., “anti-white.” This is dumb.

    I also want to point out I agree with you as well. When you’ve been programmed by Western society to see whiteness as aspirational and desirable, you gravitate that way. At the same time, to dismiss any nonwhite intimacy with white people as somehow exotic and fetishistic is disingenuous – I might argue disrespectful for those relationships.

  • Sam Brown

    The main friction point I have with the Jezebel article is putting up Stop signs instead of Go signs in art. The Big Sick is a great example of a great piece of art being spread not because of Hollywood money-making systems, but because it’s a great story. Asking film makers to comply with all the unwritten politically correct rules and make great art is virtually impossible. To point out the ways a piece of art isn’t 100% perfect according to your own very personal experience risks hurting more than helping. Making the art you want to see and making it well feels like a higher method. On the other hand, sharing you views and having others contribute to a conversation can help in a lot of ways as well, so there is no simple answer. Thanks Dave

    • Phil A.

      EXACTLY! But I feel like Jezebel is trying to out-WOKE itself. Interracial relationships will never “make sense,” because cultural diffusion makes no sense.