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.
John Cho recognized this trend last March, in a conversation with Kumail Nanjiani at Sundance. Cho noted that while he gets a lot of “Attaboys!” from people excited to see an Asian guy with a white woman (particularly other Asian guys), they don’t seem to want two Asian people on the screen together: “The screen might set on fire,” he said. Nanjiani sidestepped this critique by noting The Big Sick’s depiction of his brother in a happy relationship with a Pakistani woman satisfies those optics.
Onscreen Asian men have been depicted coveting or romancing white women through the ages: from the 1915 silent film The Cheat to modern examples like Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Gogol in The Namesake, Ravi in Meet the Patels, Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, and Dev Shah in Master of None. It seems that directors and writers have sought to solve a lack of Asian representation onscreen by casting Asian men opposite white women—but that tack almost inevitably erases interracial relationships between people of color.
In choosing an Asian man, these white women also symbolically reject all the white men who have oppressed Asian men for centuries. And by earning white love, the Asian man gains acceptance in a society that has thwarted them from the very beginning. When an Asian is loved as a white man, he is taken on a road to realization (as Frantz Fanon puts it in Black Skin White Masks, one “marries white culture, white beauty, white whiteness”). It is at once an act of love, and of revenge. Fanon, specifically writing about black-white relations in the 1950s, offers an understanding of white love and its complex relationship to colonialism, something black women activists have been contending with for centuries.
The mating dance between Asian men and white women is rife with exotification and cringe-worthy othering. As bell hooks puts it, in “the commodification of Otherness,” ethnicity becomes spice to a dull, mainstream white dish. In The Big Sick, “Kumail” picks up “Emily” by writing her name out in Urdu in the beginning of the film. (Apparently Pete Holmes recommended Nanjiani use “Once you go Pakistan, you never go Backistan,” a line that would have made me vomit just from the pronunciation of “Pakistan.”) We later see “Kumail” pull the write-her-name-in-Urdu move on another white chick. (He sleeps only with white women throughout The Big Sick.)
That’s not to say he doesn’t consider relationships with brown women. Like Dev, Aziz Ansari’s character in Master of None, “Kumail” gives brown women a fleeting chance. His parents force interaction upon interaction with with fresh-off-the-boat, mostly-accented, traditionally-dressed brown women who eagerly hand him their studio-quality matrimonial photos. He stores these in a tin, indiscriminate and interchangeable with one another. When “Emily” discovers this, she quips: “Are you judging Pakistan’s Next Top Model?”
“Judging” is the right word. None of these women make the cut for his consideration, much less his respect. One—Khadija—gets a little more screen time than the others, but she is played by Pakistani accent-donning Vella Lovel (of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), who is in fact half-black, half-white, and a “million things in-between” and in interviews says she often gets mistaken for South Asian.
A South Asian man rejecting a South Asian woman because of her culture is a more radical statement than if it were the other way around. In The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s onscreen relationships with white guys take on a different context, because South Asia is a patriarchy—a colorist patriarchy. In an already-skewed power dynamic, depicting South Asian women as unworthy romantic partners is a radical rejection of their cultural baggage because women are the bearers of culture. The South Asian accent, a marker of difference, is only humorous under the white gaze, so when audiences laugh at one of “Kumail’s” potential suitors quoting The X-Files to desperately establish her interest in his interests, they are laughing at the idea that the Other might think they could “pass.” The spectacle is a pitiable, unattractive figure that withers under the gaze of old school South Asian patriarchy and newfangled American toxic masculinity.
Master of None resembles The Big Sick uncannily, and it’s not just because they’re two works created and written by well-known brown comedians about assimilating in America in the pursuit of love. They both handle minoritized narratives and non-romantic relationships with a lighter, more sensitive touch than romantic relationships, which come from a place of trite, clichéd misogyny. They’re both masturbatory fantasies that give brown men the vantage point of a white male cinephile. They’re similar in that they’re comedians who hold white media accountable for under-representation of brown people, yet seem to be casting non-brown women in the meatiest roles.
In short: this is not good enough. Representation isn’t a checklist, or an excuse for exclusion of more minoritized people. “Representation” like this furthers white supremacy and does not engage with critiques of white allyship. In The Big Sick, when “Kumail’s” future mother-in-law charges at a heckler who tells him to “join ISIS” during a set, it demonstrates the premise within which it exists: that if a white person cares for you, they will save you.
Brown women exist in resplendent agency and thrive without men as their locus. All women do, in fact, including those who get cast as the “white princess,” to use a term coined by Hasan Minhaj in his autobiographical Netflix special Homecoming Queen. The fact that writers’ rooms do not currently seem capable of writing believable brown women into rom-coms is a disservice to all women. And the trope of the White Princess, even if she is interested in an Asian guy, just perpetuates old school Hollywood misogyny.
Moreso, it’s a tired and inaccurate trope. That a relationship between a white person and a person of color is fashioned into the gold standard for “progress” and “saving America” is classic white liberal nonsense; further, these portrayals don’t accurately reflect the history of interracial relationships in America. Until marriage to white people was legalized just 50 years ago, for instance, brown people were only allowed to marry people of similar skin tones. The first documented Punjabi-Mexican marriage happened in 1907. Mississippi Masala, maybe our only major depiction of an interracial relationship between a South Asian person and another person of color, was released the year I was born, 1991.
Stars like Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari may have gotten into comedy against typical desi expectations of becoming a doctor/engineer/lawyer, but they have benefitted from increasing demand for diverse perspectives. Their characters in Master of None and The Big Sick seem to have come into the arts if not to spite their parents, then in spite of them. And to them, their parents represent “culture” in the stodgy sense.
In what might be the climax of The Big Sick, Nanjiani’s character shouts at his parents—why did you bring me to America if you did not want me to be American? He criticizes them for sticking to the old ways, striking a chord with many second-generation immigrants in the US. The American “dream” is dangled before them like a carrot rotting from the inside out. It’s a scene that portrays the apex of Othering, for the minoritized person to see their own people as Other. (Similarly, in Meet the Patels, Ravi Patel travels all the way to India to find a suitable wife despite being in love with a white girl, but he finds nobody who meets his expectations. His parents finally “agree” and he ends up his white love interest, who in the end we see sitting in the kitchen, rolling roti with her mother-in-law.)
It’s undeniable that The Big Sick, in addition to having a refreshingly funny script, gets a lot of things right. The truest moment is rendered by Indian national treasure Anupam Kher, who portrays “Kumail’s” father. “The American dream is not about yourself. You’re being selfish to Khadija, selfish to this girl,” says Kher (who apparently had this written into the scene), in response to his son’s big reveal about loving a white woman. And in this way, the movie has a degree of self-awareness: it recognizes the selfishness involved in the story of many Asian American male protagonists.
We, brown women, do not expect men to be our savior. Brown women are out there, making art too. But too often, Hollywood’s depictions of brown men amount to an erasure of brown women. And that is not good enough.
Aditi Natasha Kini is a multimedia artist and curator based in Brooklyn, NY. Recent work here.