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Not Just a Diversity Hire

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From Ravi in “Jessie,” Raj from the “Big Bang Theory” to Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb,” each serve as stereotypical Indian side characters with the token thick accent who only speak in random facts about their culture. Few characters in past and present media are an accurate representation of South Asians. South Asians, especially those in countries not of their ethnic backgrounds, are continually struggling to find characters that can be role models rather than the punch line of every joke. 

One example of a newer show that attempted to bring light to South Asian culture was “Never Have I Ever.” While the show had a few positives, such as South Asian American main character, Devi Vishwakumar played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, as well as cultural accuracy, the negatives outweighed them. The main plot of the story followed Devi, the stereotypical Indian high schooler who wanted to go to an Ivy League college. She was nerdy, aggressively annoying and focused heavily on school. Though there were moments spotlighting the struggle of being a South Asian American, the character development and subpar qualities were a terrible representation of most South Asians. 

Currently, the best source of South Asian representation is in Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix original “Bridgerton.” The second season followed the eldest sibling, Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, and his reluctance to find a wife of love, rather opting to find one of convenience to ensure his family’s title continued. The show took a new twist by adjusting the original novel, “The Viscount who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn, to have Katherine “Kate” Sheffield become Kathani “Kate” Sharma, a girl from India. Strict in her plans, Kate’s only goal was to ensure her sister married a man of nobility before she returned home. However, she found herself caught up in a complicated relationship with her sister’s fiancé, Viscount Bridgerton. As she discovered herself as more than her family’s breadwinner, she realized she may just be worthy of love.

“Bridgerton” created a safe space for South Asians with the inclusion of culturally accurate wedding scenes and costumes. By including a Haldi, an intimate ceremony between the bride and her family prior to the wedding, some South Asians can relate and have fantasy daydreams about a Haldi like hers. The costume designers included various Indian attire and color palettes with the regency era gowns that the rest of the cast wore. The Sharma family consistently wore jewel colored dresses to represent South Asian gem collections. They also adorned necklaces with pearls as well as gems, bangles and jhumkas, dome-shaped earrings customary to Indian culture. These smaller details tied together the beauties of South Asia that have been dearly missed in other shows. 

Not only did Kate represent a large population of underrepresented groups and highlight the positive aspects of South Asian culture, she also pushed the boundaries of how Indian characters, especially female Indian characters, are depicted in media. South Asian women are presented as the “stay-at-home wife,” and most South Asian women are raised with the intention of being a wife and mother first and a human being second. Kate, however, showed all sides of herself: a driven woman in charge of protecting her family as well as an insecure 26-year-old yearning for love. She was vulnerable about her feelings and grew into them, and most importantly, she explored the sensual side of herself. Rather than surrendering to the life of a suppressed homemaker, Kate aspired to return to India and work to support her family. 

Even after finding love, this goal, although altered, did not fundamentally change. She established herself as Viscountess Bridgerton. She relied heavily on her education and strengths rather than playing into the docile role that was expected of her, which made her perfect for the ever-restless Viscount Bridgerton. Additionally, purity and “lady-like” behavior are expectations of South Asian women. Throughout history, women have been berated for not retaining their purity, and especially so in South Asian culture as virginity checking rituals and arranged marriages are still heavily practiced. Placing a South Asian woman on a well-known show and allowing her to experience sensual emotions that she did not thwart away, encouraged other South Asian women to feel free from the restraints of cultural expectations. Rhimes promoted this type of discovery by having Kate and Anthony have premarital relations. Having representation of a working South Asian woman that leaned into her sensual feelings decreased the stigmas with exploring oneself and becoming someone beyond the restrictions of culture.

Furthermore, the actress who played Kate Sharma, Ashley Simon, is dark-skinned. This fact alone was an influencing factor for many viewers’ decisions to praise “Bridgerton” for its South Asian representation. In South Asian culture, colorism is a rampant and distasteful plague. Those with darker skin have consistently less opportunities and presence in media. Colorism is practiced from a young age, and these pressures are much more prevalent for women than men. Pale skin is consistently associated with purity and perfection, while dark skin is unpalatable in South Asian culture. Casting Simon as Kate allowed a dark-skinned woman to leave the shadows and escape the expectations of people of her skin tone. This was beyond commendable and went against a history of precedents discouraging dark skinned South Asians from finding any reprieve.

Within various flashbacks, it comes to light that Kate was not her mother’s biological daughter but rather a daughter of her father and his previous wife, while her sister was the child of their parents. This was also a deciding factor for Kate not wanting to be a nuisance to her family and wanting to work after her sister was married. Internalized colorism starts young and fosters easily as many families practice traditions of skin lightening and utilize various herbs to subdue melanin. Rhimes’ allowing Kate to not only find love but also leave behind society’s colorist mentality encouraged others to do the same. 

“Bridgerton,” while not perfect, did far more than allow a dark skin-toned South Asian woman to play a major role — it crafted her character in a way that connected her experiences back to her culture and helped her grow from its faults, thus making her relatable and admirable. Kate faced character growth the way any other character would, and her being Indian was not an all-encompassing trait that determined all of her qualities. The writing for her character was not stained by stereotypes. 

Not only was the show able to beautifully replicate Indian culture, but it also went above and beyond, commenting on the negatives and supporting change for the better. A show that is able to convey respect and also present an option of growth for a culture is the best way to support and represent it in the media. This is a call to writers and those in the media to realize that a race is more than its stereotypes. This is a call to create a representative outlet for South Asian audiences that does not place them in a box of thick accents, smelly curries and math problems. South Asians are more than that and deserve to be presented as such.

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