On “Velma,” Mindy Kaling, and Whether Brown Girls Can Ever Like Ourselves on TV

Personally, I enjoy a lot of what Kaling creates — she’s a brilliant writer, and I’ve enjoyed her books and some of her work onscreen. But her work de ella is almost ubiquitous when it comes to comedic portrayals of brown women, which is a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, this means that the themes and tropes that run through her work by her also make the negative stereotyping also seem ubiquitous.

No single story needs to be representative of an entire population, and creators have the right to tell their own messy, authentic stories. But that doesn’t necessarily give artists license to make flawed content infinitely, immune to criticism. At some point, it becomes less about an individual creator’s right to tell their story and more about the need to critically engage with a multimillion-dollar pattern, one that sees into society’s perception of brown women in real life.

But distilling the matter down to a “Mindy problem” is both reductive and unfair. Issues with representation of South Asian women ran rampant long before Kelly Kapoor or Mindy Lahiri could ever have existed. Decades passed in which brown women were barely on screen at all. Moreover, when brown men had the opportunity to make movies and shows, like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None or Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, they often focused on seeking out white women over brown women. At times they framed brown women as disposable or less appealing alternatives, which definitely contributed to perceptions of brown women as less appealing or desirable.

There are discussions to be had and valid criticisms to be made about each of these creatives’ work. But internalized racism can’t be attributed to a South Asian creator—it stems from real-world racism. Kaling didn’t invent stereotypes about brown women; they were leveled against her long before she gained creative control. In her shows of her, she often satirized and parodied very real experiences. Amidst the backlash to her work from her, she’s once again experiencing the same racism that people are complaining about in Velma, and worse. The film and TV industry have endlessly profited off of Eurocentric standards that erase and degrade brown women.

Long before brown showrunners, filmmakers, and actors gained some level of agency, Hollywood has profited off of the mockery of South Asian people. Hundreds of movies and shows feature an ever-present brown supporting character meant to serve as comic relief by virtue of their mere existence: Their accents, their hair, their skin, their traditions.

Maybe initially it seemed easier to laugh at ourselves, to tell the jokes before someone else did. Maybe that made them sting a little less. Perhaps it felt like regaining control of a narrative we had no part in creating. But just because these experiences are a lived reality doesn’t mean they’re our only reality. Jokes about the “ugly brown girl,” and the “brown girl glow up” do not need to be parroted onscreen forever.

Courtesy of HBO Max

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