2017 has been a big year for South Asian women in Western media. Previously, they have rarely been cast as main characters in pop culture. Western audiences first received a taste of the subcontinent in 2004’s ‘Bride and Prejudice’ starring Aishwariya Rai.
Since then, audiences have been entertained by TV shows such as ‘The Mindy Project’ and ‘Quantico’ but this build-up culminated in two standout releases that starred Priyanka Chopra in ‘Baywatch’ and Deepika Padukone in ‘Triple XXX: The Return of Xander Cage’. How should South Asian women be represented? What has self-expression through social media achieved that mainstream media has not?
South Asian women are still heavily exoticised. Priyanka Chopra plays an authoritative and complex character in ‘Quantico’. Chopra describes her character in ‘Vulture’ as the ‘modern day global citizen’.¹ Despite this, the song that helped launch her global superstardom is controversial to say the least.
Chopra released ‘Exotic Featuring Pitbull’2 in 2013. The music video featured Chopra frolicking around a beach, clad in a skin coloured one-piece. Another scene featured her perched like a bird on Pitbull’s chair – here, she can be compared to a caged parakeet singing for her master’s pleasure. Perhaps the most exotic of all the scenes is the one featuring Chopra and her all-female clan shaking their hips in a tribal dance. Unashamedly, the song had lyrics such as ‘desi girl – I’m feeling so exotic’ and ‘I’m hotter than the tropics’. Anupama Chopra questioned Chopra about the success of Indian actresses in Hollywood. Chopra explained that the exotic girl is an easy trope or niche to slip into. ‘We are beautiful – the exotic beautiful girl is an easier fit.’3
Similarly, Deepika Padukone appeared as a villain in ‘Triple XXX: The Return of Xander Cage’. Padukone pranced around clothed in black, leather-like materials. She had black eyeliner circling her deep set dark eyes. She had tattoos, red lipstick and a flock of luxurious hair.4 All of these pre-planned props portrayed Padukone as an irresistible but precarious character. Yes, her sexuality shone through but this manufactured sexuality had an ‘other-ness’ about it.
Predictable as it is, ‘DNA India’ described Padukone’s first scene as a ‘crackling face-off. It’s steamy and super hot! Deepika Padukone is simply superb in the entire film as she kicks, kills and moves like no other’.5 One of the most memorable scenes in the film displayed Padukone sliding on the floor until she performed a split to stop a door from closing. Padukone’s physical display can be compared to the Amazonians of Greek culture who had a reputation for being beautiful, physically fit and dark-skinned. Due to their chastity and isolation, they had the curse of the other – the ‘exotic’ cast upon them.
‘Reappropriate’ stated that ‘Priyanka’s career trajectory has been interesting in that she has been playing those stereotypes [such as the exoticised female] to her benefit’.6 Why is it so problematic that Chopra capitalised on her exoticised identity? Unfortunately, in both of these examples Chopra and Padukone are sexualised as animalistic and savage. This holds a clear link to colonisation. Human zoos that displayed indigenous Asians, Africans and Latin Americans existed from the 1500s until the 1950s. Similarly to caged animals, people of colour acted as spectacles for public entertainment, exploitation and consumption. This stripped people of their humanity and identity. Coloured bodies had no authority or agency; instead, their identity was distilled to stereotypes, jokes and fetishes. Women are not exoticised to expose their sexuality. They are not exoticised to expose the richness of their mental and emotional states. Their bodies are exoticised because their bodies have to be captured, tamed and colonised.
Throughout history, bodies rather than personalities have been showcased. This inclination is still in existence. Joy Goh-Mah, in her blog ‘Crates and Ribbons’, argued that as a result of media’s false representation, men do not speak to her. Instead, they speak to every Asian ‘they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself … but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype. They don’t see a person but a concept!’7 Chopra and Padukone (despite their press descriptions) acted out sexualised concepts rather than multi-layered, nuanced heroines. In media, South Asian women should be portrayed as experiencing and celebrating their sexuality on their personal (as opposed to popular) terms.
Moreover, there is lack of diversity with regards to gender and sexuality. Writer Sangeetha Thanapal claimed that South Asian women should be portrayed as ‘lesbians or transgender on top of current representations’. Similarly, multimedia artist and performer, Creatrix Tiara claimed that ‘no one is that comfortable with their sexuality without being a sexualised object’ and ‘not many are queer’. Not all South Asian women are assigned female at birth, nor do they choose to fit heterosexual, hetero-normative narratives. Variety of gender and sexuality should be represented.
Another problem is the rise of South Asian actors portrayed as ethnically ambiguous in movies. Chopra told ‘Elle Magazine’: ‘I wanted to be seen as just an actor, not because of my ethnicity or where I come from.’8 Unsurprisingly, Chopra’s character in ‘Quantico’ had an American name called Alex Parrish that held no clue to her ethnicity. Similarly, Padukone played a character called Serena Unger. NDTV Movies’ Saibal Chatterjee commented that though Padukone had an ‘unexplained heavily Indian accent’, she played the character of Serena Unger ‘a woman of indeterminate nationality’. Why is Western media trying to create a niche of ethnically ambiguous characters that are stripped of their South Asian background?
Though markers of ethnicity are removed, the racialisation and politicisation of the body by the general public cannot be as easily eradicated. Chopra stated her disdain for the phrase ‘women of colour’ because ‘I feel like that puts women in a box’. I disagree. Labels are important as they are indicative of a deeply painful history. The erasure of labels erases the resistance of coloured bodies throughout colonisation. Women of various cultures, religions, classes, abilities and backgrounds lived lives of resilience. Their triumphant histories should not be erased or lumped into a category of ambiguity to be palatable to a Western audience. Ethnically ambiguous characters perpetuate the ‘other-ness’ of the South Asian identity.
Label these so-called ambiguous identities. Call them by their name. There is a plethora of subcontinental countries to include, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. What about the South Asian diaspora? South Asians do not live exclusively in South Asia. They live in many Western countries and have renegotiated their identities to embody both or multiple cultures. Celebrate this or at the very least, recognise this as lived experience. There is a lot of diversity in South Asia and these experiences deserve to be communicated to the general public.
Clearly, much needs to be done about the representation of South Asian bodies and identities in Western media. To resist the inculcation of one-dimensional and false representation, a movement has to be started. Writer, Marisa Wickramanayake declares ‘I think education is key’. This education is being undertaken at a grassroots level by South Asian women on social media.
Perhaps the most current example is Rupi Kaur who started distributing her trademark poetry through Instagram.9 Steadily, she has risen in prestige and popularity. Her Instagram is full of lines about the body, love, sexuality and race. Audiences have indeed experienced a deep connection to her authenticity and vulnerability. This is reflected in her ‘New York Times’ bestselling books and poetry tours. Moreover, Kaur celebrates the duality of her race – she is both Indian and Canadian. She embodies a duality that is reflective of both locations. She has not compromised one in the favor of the other.
One of Kaur’s contemporaries is Lilly Singh (or rather ’Superwoman’). Singh has been releasing Youtube videos for years.10 She is a comedian, rapper, author and entrepreneur. Singh parodies her Indian culture but also pokes fun at popular preconceptions about Indians. Her videos are clever and insightful jabs at racism, oppression and discrimination (among a variety of other topics).
Another brilliant vlogger is Nabela Noor, a Muslim American Bangladeshi whose labels are indicative of the complexity of South Asian females. Her videos range from debunking myths about Muslims and body shape to lighter topics such as fashion, beauty and DIY products.11
Yes, Chopra and Padukone are brilliant actresses but their portrayals are purposely controlled and regulated. The accessibility of social media has provided everyday South Asians a stage to create, curate and distribute their chosen stories. Indeed, these personalities have been bolstered into social media stardom. The numbers (sold out performances and Youtube subscriptions) exemplify that this content is constantly consumed. More so, people are entertained and influenced by it. These women have consciously eroded stereotypes. They have exposed the reality behind the lives of everyday South Asians. Perhaps the most important thing they have done is to normalise South Asians. Thereby they have acclimatised South Asians into Western perception. Even so, the South Asian experience has yet to be explored in its fullest capacity. One day, I hope it gains the traction and hype it deserves in Western mainstream media.
2youtube.com/watch?v=sPhhZg9v9NU Priyanka Chopra’s ‘Exotic Featuring Pitbull’
3youtube.com/watch?v=obtdV1jvFoE Anupama Chopra and Priyanka Chopra
4www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQEFmHsseaU Deepika Padukone in “Triple XXX: The Return of Xander Cage”
5dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-revealedthere- s-a-lot-of-deepika-padukone-in-xxx-returnof- xander-cage-here-s-all-you-need-to-knowabout- her-role-2292139
6reappropriate.co/2016/09/priyanka-chopra-hassome- interesting-views-on-diversity-we-breakthem- down/
9instagram.com/rupikaur_/ - Rupi Kaur’s Instagram
10youtube.com/user/IISuperwomanII - Superwoman (or Lilly Singh) Youtube Channel
11youtube.com/user/NabelaNoor - Nabela Noor’s Youtube Channel
*In this article, South Asian refers to the Asian subcontinent, encompassing countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
About Devana Senanayake
Devana Senanayake is a digital specialist, journalist and radio presenter. She writes about feminism, immigration, race and cross-cultural identity. She is interested in the exposure and celebration of diverse voices, experiences and projects run by people of colour.
This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer.