By Samhitha Saiba
When I was a kid, I loved going to the movies. It felt like attending a high-profile gala or walking the red carpet myself; one measly ticket, two reluctant parents, and I could share countless hours with characters from every walk of life, reality be damned. Old timey cowboys, scarlet heroines--you name the character, and Hollywood had found a hunky actor to play the role. But I realized at an early age that there was one person that Hollywood had forgotten to include on its silver screens: me.
Growing up, it was extremely rare to find a person in films who looked or sounded like me: a young, impressionable Indian American. When I did, they often came in the form of harmful stereotypes: the nerdy virgin, the closeted pervert, the white man’s fetish. For the longest time, this led me to the assumption that my authenticity simply didn’t matter to the country that I called home; my identity didn’t deserve the screen time that America reserved so readily for its Brad Pitts and Natalie Portmans.
When the sixth grade arrived and Mindy Kaling hit my Netflix screen as Kelly Kapoor in The Office, I was awestruck. Here was a woman who looked and sounded just like me, all while still remaining a totally (okay, relatively) normal character on the show. I spent hours poring over Mindy’s Wikipedia and her story as a second-generation Indian American writer-slash-performer, if only to confirm its similarity to mine. I was overjoyed. I was inspired. I began deconstructing my subconscious shame of being an Indian American and shaping it into something more productive; I began rethinking a career in writing and acting. If Mindy had done it, why couldn’t I?
As I’ve grown, I’ve come to forgo this superficial reliance on Hollywood movies for self-esteem (Oprah has proved much more effective), but I’ve also come to realize that such a reliance is fairly common, and really not that superficial. As social beings, it is only natural that we look for in others what we find in ourselves. When we scout out new friends or lovers, we search first for what we have in common; favorite books, movies, and restaurants are all simply markers of the personalities and experiences we would like to see shared in another human being. Similarly, when we sit down in a movie theater--or even before a television screen--we search for commonalities between ourselves and the actors. We search for normalization.
Which is why Hollywood’s lack of representation reflecting its diverse consumer pool is so dangerous. Movies are still so intimately connected to reality for most Americans, which means that for millions of people of color, reality is still reserved for the Brad Pitts and Natalie Portmans of America. According to studies by the University of Southern California, nearly three quarters of all actors in American films in 2014 were white. African Americans came in second place, with a steep drop to 12.5% of actors, and Hispanic and Asian Americans followed at 5% each, despite making up more than a combined 20% of the country’s population. This means that just four years ago, nearly one out of every five Americans experienced the same ostracization I did as a child.
You might be thinking right about now, “But Sam,” (“Sam” being the more white sounding nickname you settle upon considering you’ve never heard the name “Samhitha” in your life, much less in a Hollywood movie,) “Sam, things are different now! We have Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians! Isn’t a shirtless Chadwick Boseman fighting off baddies in the heart of Africa enough proof of diversity for you?”
I love a shirtless Chadwick Boseman as much as the next gal, but these movies, while certainly steps in the ongoing journey toward more diverse Hollywood, are still just that--steps. America has a long way to go before such films are common place creations, and not solely discussed as unique celebrations of foreign cultures.
And while such all-minority casts are empowering splashes of color to a white Hollywood landscape, they do little to achieve the normalization that millions of viewers are still so desperately searching for. As screenwriter Nikesh Shukla puts it, these films lead to the belief that people of color only have ethnic experiences, and not universal ones. After all, most African Americans aren’t leather clad superheroes, and most Asian Americans aren’t Prada clad socialites. Instead of being reflections of the shared human experience the way most Hollywood productions are, these movies act as intriguing yet isolating pieces of non-white culture, doing little to normalize minority America.
So, what is the right way to paint over a white Hollywood? Shukla suggests an “Apu Test” (perhaps crudely named), wherein a movie can only be considered diverse once two minority characters have held a conversation for more than five minutes without discussing race. Actress Frances McDormand advocates the use of inclusion rider--a relatively new legal clause that major actors can work into their contracts to ensure a certain number of minorities are casted in their movie or TV show. Advocates everywhere are calling for the hiring of more directors, writers, and producers of color in Hollywood to guarantee that minority stories are told both authentically and in abundance.
The fact is that there is no one right way; like any painting, diversification is an ongoing process that requires constant experimentation and conscious effort. As long as advocates like McDormand and artists like Kaling continue to use their platforms to further this process, millions of Americans, including a couple young, impressionable Indian American girls, will find themselves normalized in the country they call home.
Plus, the rest of America will get to watch some kickass films. Everybody wins.
“After the Bechdel Test, I Propose the Shukla Test for Race in Film.” New Statesman, www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/after-bechdel-test-i-propose-shukla-test-race-film.
“Asian American Men Are Reclaiming Their Masculinity on Their Own Terms.” Very Good Light, 15 Jan. 2018, www.verygoodlight.com/2017/01/19/asian-american-men/.
Ng, David. “Inclusion Rider Could Make Hollywood More Diverse, Advocates Say.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 6 Mar. 2018, www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-inclusion-rider-20180306-story.html.
Santhanam, Laura, and Megan Crigger. “Out of 30,000 Hollywood Film Characters, Here's How Many Weren't White.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 22 Sept. 2015, www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/30000-hollywood-film-characters-heres-many-werent-white