The desire to see yourself represented onscreen can be a powerful one. I’ve felt it for most of my life, and I was sympathetic when Aditi Natasha Kini wrote a piece about it for Jezebel, as viewed through the lens of shows like Master of None and films like The Big Sick.
While many people in the comments and around the web supported Kini’s post, it also attracted criticism from liberals, conservatives, and film Twitter (and me, to some extent!). Kini had chosen an autobiographical film that many folks loved and seemed to be criticizing the details of the writer’s (Kumail Nanjiani) own life.
I reached out to Kini to see if she’d be willing to chat with me about the piece. She graciously agreed. What follows below is a transcription of parts of our conversation. It has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation contains some plot details from The Big Sick.
[Also: You can listen to my podcast review of The Big Sick over on the /Filmcast]
David: Before we begin, can you re-iterate again the main thrust of your article?
Aditi: The question that I’m asking is why liberals are lauding TV shows and movies like Master of None and The Big Sick for being a gold standard for progress despite the erasure and invisibility of believable women of color in them.
I think that the gist of my piece is we can still enjoy things and hold them to higher standards. And what the brown guys of Hollywood are doing is they’re othering women of color, especially women in their communities, by making this a platform for them to assimilate in white culture.
What motivated you to write this piece?
It’s been kind of a build-up, a cumulative frustration, but it started with Master of None. I had a lot of discussions with people who thought it was it was an amazing show. It’s a good show but I had some issues with it obviously, and I had to bear the emotional labor of explaining that to non-women of color. And then I saw The Big Sick at a preview screening in New York. I didn’t laugh at some parts that a lot of the audience members laughed at. For instance, in the trailer they show the Pakistani woman who says who makes that X-Files joke. It’s not a joke; she just says The X-Files tagline. But it’s with an accent, and people laugh. I liked the movie but I walked away feeling a little uneasy.
I started writing my thoughts down. It started out as a personal essay. Then I started talking about it in some Asian activist Facebook groups and with friends who are from similar backgrounds. They felt like I did. The impetus to write it became more of giving a voice to people who are being marginalized. After going through approximately 11 drafts, the essay became more grounded in race theory and the history of the US as time went on.
I’ve seen a lot of right wing blogs that have picked this piece up and have claimed that you are anti-interracial relationships. What’s your reaction to that?
It’s very curious that like white supremacists and centrist liberals are united in hatred of the piece. They’ve denounced me as racist. A lot of people took it very personally or took it to mean that I am this new face of the overly politically correct, progressive left, and that like white nationalists, we also don’t want mixing or whatever the phrase is.
There’s a whole vein of critique that is accusing me of being salty and ugly, and that this article just reeks of “intra-sexual competition.” That’s one of the reasons many women of color don’t write about these things or talk about it that much, because they can easily be written off as bitter. I have color and caste privilege in South Asian communities, so I was more empowered to write this essay.
When white women are the main characters, the meatiest roles, in these depictions, and you have women of color as foils—as anti-attractive foils—it simply furthers a deep history of colonization.
This is not a new thing. Media representation includes books that represent white women and POC relations, especially cishet men-of-color relations, through the ages. And theorists have reacted to these representations for decades, centuries because the white woman is still held as the pure ideal in the US.
When we work within the framework of white supremacy by saying, “Why can’t love be love?” and defending it as the artist’s “personal experience,” you have to question why they’re choosing to make fictional shows still working within that framework.
In my opinion, the right seized on your piece as a means of destroying liberals’ moral high ground. And liberals saw you taking a piece of art that was valuable and denigrating it.
I think movies and shows like The Big Sick and Master of None give liberals an opportunity to congratulate themselves on being liberal and progressive. So watching and liking these movies makes them feel like you’re in a world that is progressing and being more open. And if I call it out I sound like I’m being unnecessarily difficult. I have got a lot of hate mail and a lot of it’s coming from people in interracial relationships.
I’ve also gotten a lot of thank you’s. A lot women of color, even in interracial relationships, understand where the piece is coming from, a place of wanting to understand why Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari are doing the same things to women in their community that were done to them by the white person.
I think there is this idea that I’ve violated a perception of liberals, their perception that the world is improving. I’ve had people reach out asking “Why can’t we just have a good thing for once? Why do you have to make it so unfun?” I hope I haven’t ruined someone’s experience of the movie, because it is a fun movie. It’s possible to like something and still be critical of it.
I think one thing a lot of people have struggled with regarding your piece, and that I struggle with, is what exactly is the counterfactual in this case? Given that the movie was about Kumail Nanjiani’s life, what other movie would you have wanted him to make?
He didn’t have to make all these women of color the butt of every joke like he did. It’s highly unlikely that every scene with brown people was 100% autobiographical.
I don’t actually agree with you that they are all butts of jokes. Yes, there is that one woman who says the X-Files line. Agreed, that’s a bit of a joke. But there are several other women of color who he meets who are not portrayed as the butt of any joke whatsoever. There is one woman who he rejects, but that rejection makes Kumail look like kind of a jerk!
The phrase that I used to describe that specific woman in the film was pitiable spectacle. The woman you are talking about is heartbroken over someone she barely knows because her future happiness depended on him or something. The counter-factual is that this movie could’ve been one that didn’t “other” these woman and instead conceive of women as full-bodied characters in non-sister and non-mother roles.
What you’re describing is a problem that’s widespread in Hollywood films. I think part of the reason people are reacting poorly to your piece is that The Big Sick is a movie that does many progressive things really well, but there are thousands of other movies that have exactly the same problem that you’re describing. So why are you picking on this particular movie?
A lot of people asked, “Why aren’t you talking about The Mindy Project?” I did not watch most of The Mindy Project. I got tired after one episode. The reason that I’m holding The Big Sick and Master of None to these excessively high standards is because I like them and there’s potential in these artists to make a lot more. They’re trying. These are the role models that people are going to grow up watching. Second- and third- generation South Asian and Asian immigrants can aspire to this level of craft because there is quality there.
I see potential in Aziz Ansari who tells minoritized story so well, like the Thanksgiving episode and the New York episode of Master of None. Those are exceptional episodes.
And the same with The Big Sick.. I’m really impressed by how comedic it was. I was enthralled and I walked away feeling uneasy because I liked it, not because I didn’t like it.
Thanks so much for your time today, Aditi.