We live in a society dominated by the media. On a regular basis, we surround ourselves with certain celebrities and characters that we follow under the guise of “entertainment.” Sometimes, though, we get so caught up in predicting the plot twists and shipping our favorite couple that we don’t stop to take a long hard look at the way these people are presented to us. Now looking back on decades prior, we didn’t have nearly as much diversity in female actors on television as we do today. But just what do these leading ladies of color say about the time we live in? And what do they say about us?
One of my very favorite shows is The Mindy Project. I know, I know, you too, right? What’s not to love? There’s the hilarious single leading lady, the attractive male doctors, and the half hour I debate whether I should’ve been pre-med after all. Mindy Kaling, the writer/ /producer/titular actor behind the show, is paving the way for women of color everywhere. She is the first woman of South Asian descent to have so much control over her own show in America. She is also a great role model to women, because she, to use her own words, “fluctuate[s] between chubby and curvy,” proving that being thin has nothing to do with being beautiful. Her character on the show, Mindy Lahiri, is a charming (if not a little crazy) doctor looking for Mr. Right in all the wrong places. She is a successful and well-established OB/GYN who is one of the three partners at her practice. Thus Mindy’s career suggests that we can consider her a positive example for women of color.
She self-identifies as Hindu, but we never really see much of Mindy’s Indian culture on the show. The question is: should this be discouraging for modern Indian American women? Definitely not; it’s realistic. It would probably be more offensive if Mindy only wore saris, or only ate Indian food, or spoke with a heavy accent. Her actions actually resonate with a lot of people in America today, who may identify as South Asian and/or Hindu but aren’t very active participants in their culture. Mindy definitely knows about her ethnic background—we see her share homemade saag paneer with her brother and watch her inform kids about why Hinduism is awesome—so she can’t be called ignorant. She even refuses to convert to Christianity at the request of her pastor boyfriend, proving that it’s more important to stand by your faith than to stand by your man. Mindy Lahiri is a modern woman, first generation American, in touch with her Indian and independent side.
Another show that people are abuzz about is Devious Maids. This show has been pretty controversial from the start—though it is making history as the first American program with five Latina women as main characters, many Hispanics find the show a close-minded, racist cop out. They see the television portrayal of five Latina women as maids a shallow stereotype forced onto Hispanic culture, as oppressive and constricting as the uniforms the maids are obliged to wear. Even mentioning the title of the show to my Latina roommate makes her cringe, and I can understand why. Upon first glance, the program definitely seems to perpetuate the stereotypical generalizations of Hispanic women as lowly cleaning ladies, working for their wealthy white employers. But there is more to this show than meets the eye.
First, while these women are maids, that isn’t all they are. They each have higher aspirations and goals: Carmen wants to be a famous singer; Valentina wants to be a fashion designer; and technically Marisol is an English professor, just pretending to be a maid to clear her son’s name. So these aren’t just unmotivated women, content with their lot in life. Second, not all of the employers portrayed in the show are actually white. Alejandro, Carmen’s boss, is a famous international singer who can afford a mansion and full staff, including a white woman (he’s also gay, but that’s setting another precedent). This subverts the notion of the all-white, privileged people being more successful than those of color, and provides a model to aspire to—if Alejandro can be a successful singer, so can Carmen. And so can you. Third, the five Latina maids on the show are, for the most part, psychologically and morally better than the people they work for. They are smarter and more “devious” than their white employers, making them able to outwit and overcome the obstacles in their paths.
This suggests something that seems harsh, but is all too true in our society: sometimes we have to measure life by our relative success. We may not be doing what we always dreamed of, but we’re mentally, emotionally, and interpersonally better than other people. And yeah, I know, this still feels racist. But no, not all Latina women are maids. But some are. And that’s what this show is based on. The show is actually a bigger parody of the stereotypes of the maids’ white employers: there’s the pill-popping gold-digger; snooty cold wife with cheating husband; a naïve and superficial second wife; an exceedingly bitter and suicidal ex-wife; a cokehead party boy; and an unfaithful, bipolar mother who expects her maid to raise her kid for her. If anyone should find this show offensive, it’s not the Hispanic population.
One of my most recent favorite programs is Elementary, both underrated and underappreciated in my opinion. This show is a new spin on the workings of Sherlock Holmes and his partner Watson. One thing that makes this interpretation so different from other Holmesian crime shows (cough cough, Sherlock) besides its New York City location is the fact that Watson is a woman. Her name isn’t the traditional John, but Joan. And she’s Asian American, and played by Lucy Liu. Joan is actually Sherlock’s sober companion, meaning that she keeps an eye on him, and keeps him from abusing drugs. In the meantime, we watch her put her keen perception and knowledge as a former surgeon to use in helping solve murders. This can majorly impact the portrayal of women of color; there aren’t many Asian American celebrities, let alone women, on television these days to relate to (besides Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy, and that’s not too encouraging either). Joan provides a strong, attractive, and intelligent example for people to look to. She’s also sassy and confident to stand up to Sherlock Holmes, and keep him in line.
In this day and age, it’s hard not to be influenced by the images we see on screen. The women of color we return to, day in and day out, to catch up with on our favorite guilty pleasure shows, do of course, speak to the nation we live in. These women speak to the progress we have made, the lines we dared color outside of, the ways we paved for ourselves. These women are like a distinct and discrete connection, a long-lost cousin, a missing link to tie us back to our roots. The women of color that we look at and look up to, whether intentionally or not, are a reflection of our goals, perspectives, and ideals. They are a reflection of who we are and who we’re not. So the next time you’re about to log in to Netflix, and you catch a glimpse of yourself on the still-dark screen, who are you going to see?
-Sonia Okolie, Slant Editor