Why Don’t Brown Women Deserve Love Onscreen?

“Brown men aren’t scared of brown women, they are scared of being boring and predictable if they end up with one,” Shriya Samarth, a media junkie and friend, told me over the phone. “Whereas brown women can genuinely fear the expectations of being a daughter-in-law, brown wife, etc.”
Nadya Agrawal
June 27, 2017
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Why are brown men so infatuated with white women onscreen, BuzzFeed writer Imran Siddiquee asks in his essay of the same name. Why do they overlook and underrepresent women of color in order to date white women, is the question I ask.
 
While Sidiquee eviscerated the genre of “Diaspora South Asian Dude Does Rom-Com” in his essay by delving into the specifics of how men like Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, and Kumail Nanjiani (with slight mention to Ravi Patel from Meet the Patels) can rise high enough to be the leading men of their own romantic stories (Master of None, Homecoming King, and The Big Sick, respectably) by dating white women, he doesn’t focus enough on the politics of these relationships.
 
Interracial dating has been a facet of living in the diaspora for ages. I myself have a mixed family and mixed-race cousins. Many of my South Asian friends date non-South Asian people. It’s common. It happens. But there’s a huge difference between brown men dating white women and brown women dating white men. To hear many of my brown girlfriends tell it, dating a South Asian man comes with cultural baggage—like being tied to a patriarchal set of rules that keep you firmly mired in specific, oppressive gender roles. When South Asian men date white women, some cite “genuine attraction,” yes, but many say they’re “just not attracted to brown women.”
 
“Brown men aren’t scared of brown women, they are scared of being boring and predictable if they end up with one,” Shriya Samarth, a media junkie and friend, told me over the phone. “Whereas brown women can genuinely fear the expectations of being a daughter-in-law, brown wife, etc.”
 
Samarth, like me, has a mixed history with dating South Asian and white men. She chose to stop dating South Asian men after she realized how toxic and abusive they had been in her dating life. I chose to stop dating white men for the same reason. Where I personally felt more protected in a relationship with a partner of the same ethnicity, she felt trapped. Self-preservation was key to both decisions.
 
When looking at all three, Master of None, Homecoming King, and The Big Sick, Samarth rightly pointed out that many of the men were using white women to escape the expectations their parents had for them. These women provided an avenue to achieving an “American life” or simply breaking free from stereotypes. There’s a difference in pursuing a partner because they offer you privilege than pursuing a partner because they won’t abuse you.
 
That being said, these are ostensibly fictionalized relationships (or at least dramatized). Portraying a relationship onscreen is different from living one out in real life. To some extent you can’t help who you’re attracted to (though I would argue politics play out in our dating lives both consciously and subconsciously), but you can decide the kinds of relationships you write. Why, then, do all four of these South Asian men stick to only writing about white women? Why do they, also, seem to sacrifice women of color and South Asian woman to the storyline in a way they don’t for white women?
 
What I mean by sacrificing is women of color are often introduced just to disappear. They are ground up into the burger that is the storyline, while the pursuit of the white woman bookends the whole project. We see this in Master of None, The Big Sick, and Meet the Patels. In Master of None, the very charming Sara (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey), a black British woman, makes an appearance in the first episode of the second season. She provides the perfect meet-cute Ansari’s character Dev has been waiting for. But she doesn’t appear again after that episode. Later we see Dev dating a revolving door of women yielded from a dating app. Here are three South Asian women and one black woman. They are charming, funny, ridiculous, and charismatic, but they too do not appear again. Instead Ansari dedicates five episodes to a visiting white woman whose main feature is her Italianness. She is the one, the rest of the women were barely present.
 
In The Big Sick and Meet the Patels, both Nanjiani and Patel are being set up for an arranged marriage. They make their way through countless South Asian women only to land back on the white women they were in love with the whole time. Every single brown woman who was paraded across the screen as part of an endless lineup of suitable girls ended up an anonymous, unnamed and crumpled footnote in the story. These men had to go through them to reach their white women at the end. This is what it means to be a South Asian woman onscreen, you remain the punchline, the afterthought, the add-on, or the barely-explored B story. You will never be romanced seriously.
 
When I forward this argument online or in conversation, there are inevitably two responses: well, this is the only way to sell a script in white Hollywood, some say. Or, others respond, what about Mindy?
 
Regarding the first one, I’d say that’s a ridiculous reason to not explore relationships between people of color. Master of None finished its second season and we’re still seeing white women front and center. If all it took was one white woman to sell the script, we’re well past that now. I asked writer and performer Neil Sharma, co-director of the comedy group Deadass, what he thought about this response.
 
“I think that excuse is kinda dumb,” Sharma said. “Yes, I think it’s probably easier to sell a story with one white lead, but I don’t think that means that these are always how those stories need to go. As a brown person, I would freakin’ love to see a rom-com starring two POCs. I would be hyped if Aziz ended up with [a]Priya or [a]Mindy [or]even briefly dated a Kartika. They aren’t even selling a movie—that’s just TV and they already have an existing platform.”
 
“I will say that this doesn’t particularly irk me in the case of The Big Sick. That’s based on Kumail’s real life and is a personal story about him and his wife…And I’m hoping if he makes more movies, maybe [next]it can be a brown love story,” Sharma added.
 
As someone told me over Twitter, there is one show that depicts romance between two South Asian leads, Brown Nation, but it never took off. Like Homecoming King and Master of None, Brown Nation is a Netflix Original, meaning it has the backing of the network. Unlike those other two, Brown Nation doesn’t have a leading man with a considerable following of his own. It’s indie. That’s why it hasn’t had the breakout success of the other shows, not because it’s only about South Asian people. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat depicts an all-Taiwanese family as it engages with a mostly-white community. It’s distributed on a major network and has been renewed for a fourth season. Packaging, story, marketing, funding, casting—all of these are vital to the success of a show, not just whether it has a white romantic lead.
 
When it comes to the second response, I say try again. Mindy Kaling is one of only two South Asian women in a leading role on television (the other being Priyanka Chopra in Quantico). Mindy’s mission to date every white dad-looking dude in New York City is a boring storyline, yes, but it is nowhere near as frustrating as the white girl thirst of the men discussed above. It’s true that she utilizes these white men as an abstraction of what she wants—to be the romantic lead in her own rom-com. But they aren’t the end goal, they merely provide the means to potentially reach that goal. She is similar to Ansari and Nanjiani in that way, but we don’t see her in the show running away from her brownness by dating white men nor does she use them as a prize (there are in fact too many love interests in The Mindy Project to keep track of to believe that any of them are end game for the show). In the end she is at her most powerful and confident when she is single. Romance is simply the plot, it is not the goal.
 
South Asian men in Hollywood are falling into a holding pattern—while they may be offering up these scripts just to have brown “leading men” by any means possible, they’re all doing it in the same way. We now have four pieces of media, three of which are easily accessible on Netflix, which present incredibly similar plots: brown man meets white woman. Brown man pines after white woman and eventually marries her (or doesn’t, which becomes a rom-com in itself of foiled circumstance/woe-is-me soft boyness). They’ve demonstrated that there is no room in this model for South Asian women or women of color except as the sirens that try to lure them back into boredom.
 
If this is the masculinity they so desperately want to show off to beat back tired and frustrating stereotypes, I have to say they’re not exactly breaking the mold here. They are, in fact, reaffirming a new one—that all brown men hate brown women and aspire to whiteness. How’s that for a stereotype?
 
Nadya Agrawal is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Kajal Magazine. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and wherever fine Bollywood movies are bootlegged.
July 2, 2017