A love letter to Aziz Ansari, Dev Patel, Kumail Nanjiani and Riz Ahmed
I cried when Aziz Ansari hosted “Saturday Night Live.” The first Indian-American host—a Muslim—took the legendary stage the Saturday after the inauguration. Wearing a dapper suit, he opened with a stand-up set that was both sharply political and charmingly refreshing—I bet even a fervent Trump supporter would let out a few involuntary giggles. He was there because he was talented, charming and desirable enough to be there.
That fact is significant. Up to this point, the desirability of brown men has been presented as a punch line. The expression of South Asian male sexuality, even in something as simple as an “SNL” hosting gig, is revolutionary.
I rarely saw South Asians on television and in movies growing up. When South Asians did show up in films and television, they were the convenience store owners, the taxi drivers, the terrorists, the nerds. Two-second flashes of brown men with thick, exaggerated accents and sexless polos; brown women, according to Hollywood, certainly didn’t exist. The stereotypical portrayals did not simply demonstrate that whiteness was desirable, but that brownness was sickeningly repulsive. According to the people who made movies, sexuality was not for anyone who looked like me.
The implications of pigeonholing South Asian identity were not inconsequential. It justified a subconscious revulsion towards South Asian skin in its American audience. An old roommate once told me that she’s “not attracted to ‘Indian-looking’ guys,” as if “Indian-looking” were not a plurality of identities, but a simple phenotypic deformity not worthy of desire. As if “not being attracted to ‘Indian-looking’ guys” were the same as “not being attracted to brunets.” It also justified a subconscious self-hatred into my own psyche, one that made me almost believe it when another friend told me that the white guy I was seeing “probably just had a thing for Indian girls.”
I’ve often wondered why these stereotypes have prevailed. My hypothesis is the cultural stigma that children of South Asian immigrants face when it comes to pursuing the arts. Our parents push STEM or business because it gives us the respect and financial stability that they intended for us when they moved to America. That’s not to say that South Asian-Americans that pursue these fields are only doing it to appease parents, but for many of us, it’s been the only option presented to us. In the absence of South Asians in the arts, white people have had control over how they represent brown characters.
I’d like to think that we’re learning to unlearn the subconscious stereotyping. Things are changing as South Asian actors receive more visibility in mainstream media in roles that are more complex than “Cab Driver #2.” It’s making it harder to deny that frankly, brown dudes are hot. When I saw “Lion,” my friend audibly whisper-shouted “hell yeah” the first time Dev Patel graced the screen shirtless. Riz Ahmed is popping up in roles everywhere, even as Lena Dunham’s love interest in “Girls.” It’s also changing as South Asian actors become more in control of their own projects. The very first episode of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” opens on a sex scene. Stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani plays the lead in “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy based on his relationship with fellow comedian Emily Gordon. Through these self-created roles, South Asian men control the portrayal of their sexuality and introduce yet another revolutionary concept: that brown men are allowed romance. They are allowed to be sexy, to revel in romance, to experience earth-shattering heartbreak. They, too, have experiences just as nuanced as the Ryan Goslings and the Chris Hemsworths of the world.
The construction of self-represented sexuality does not, of course, work in a vacuum; it also extends the possibilities of ways to represent South Asian identity—an identity that is so layered with multiplicities, which are evident even with the four South Asian actors I’ve mentioned: Dev was born in Kenya, and raised in London by Gujarati parents; Aziz was born in North Carolina, raised by first generation Muslim Indian immigrants; Kumail is a Muslim who grew up in Pakistan; Riz is a Londoner with Pakistani parents. To equate South Asian-ness to simply being “Indian-looking,” as audiences have for so long, is laughable. While the experiences of the characters they play are informed by their specific identities, they still contain the universalities that audiences find relatable. What a shocking revelation, right Hollywood?
Of course, this influx of self-representation is hardly specific to South Asian men. It’s part of a larger trend of underrepresented voices explicitly deciding to control their own narratives, both on and off the screen. Think Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” or Issa Rae’s “Insecure” or Fatimah Asghar’s new web series “Brown Girls.” Or how Constance Wu won’t hesitate to call out whitewashing in Hollywood. Or how John Cho is just unquestionably sexy.
Ultimately, self-representation makes clear one thing: that the term “people of color” does not encompass a monolithic identity. We are so many god damn things. We do not exist in relation to whiteness, like some sort of simplistic antithesis. We are not defined by our ethnic backgrounds, yet we are not separate from them. Our specific cultural experiences are intertwined with our universalities; an intersectional synthesis is required to tell our stories.
I’m hopeful that my generation of South Asian entertainers will continue developing our many narratives. One day, I hope that I also have a significant role in reconfiguring the narrative.
In the meantime, I’ll be busy Googling shirtless Dev Patel pics.