My Saturday afternoons would often be spent watching the Disney Channel as a child. Just like other kids, I found the seemingly innocent comedy in these shows appealing, which could keep me entertained for hours. I noticed that none of these shows had an American Indian character, someone that I could relate to.
But that all changed when Disney introduced the show “Jessie” in 2011, a show about the experiences of a nanny and her four adopted children. To my surprise, one of those children was an Indian named Ravi, who spoke with a thick Indian accent, wore kurtas and constantly talked about samosas. I was a bit confused as to why the producers made him behave like this but was happy to see my culture represented on television nonetheless.
In the next couple of years, my classmates would start to come up to me and make comments that I had never heard before. They would insult my skin color, ask if I had “gross Indian food” for lunch, and pointed out my hairy arms and budding mustache. As I looked into the mirror, these features started to stand out, making me hate them more and more.
In particular, kids would start referring to me by the name “Ravi.” Why were they calling me that? Why did they decide to make fun of me now? It did not occur to me that the mustache, the food and the name all tied back to the comical character from “Jessie,” a character that I gradually came to hate more than I love.
America has always had a fascination for stereotyping and poking fun at racial minorities through entertainment. In a predominantly and historically white nation, these jokes are harmless and hilarious for the majority of viewers.
African Americans faced this with blackface and the popular Jim Crow character in theatre. Native Americans faced this with descriptions of violent “redskins” and movies such as “The Indian in the Cupboard,” according to SAPIENS.
It seems like Indians are America’s new favorite target. Although depictions such as blackface are now generally seen as offensive and racist, most people hardly bat an eye at the racist and stereotypical depictions of Indians in American entertainment. Instead of being appreciated and respected, aspects of Indian culture and history are picked apart and served as comedy for American viewers, children and adults alike.
The stereotypes and soft racism in “Jessie” run far deeper than a forced accent. Ravi is a flat character in the show and represents the “classic Indian”: an awkward, nerdy, unathletic boy. His main purpose is to serve as the butt of jokes from other non-Indian characters. In one episode, another character refers to Ravi as a “traffic cone” when he is wearing traditional clothes.
Most notably, Ravi has a pet lizard named Mrs. Kipling, whose presence is a recurring joke throughout the seasons. The lizard’s name is a clear reference to Rudyard Kipling, author of “The Jungle Book” and a strong advocate for imperialism. Having an Indian character own a pet named after the man who wrote “The White Man’s Burden” does not seem coincidental.
Later on, in the show’s narrative, Mrs. Kipling has 12 children, whose names are arguably worse. Aside from those named after characters in “The Jungle Book,” one of the babies is named Mohandas, an allusion to Gandhi (Gandhi’s full name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi). Gandhi is widely revered by Indians and considered the father of the nation, as his teachings of compassion and nonviolent protests paved the way for its independence.
How is a baby lizard, whose existence is purely for comedic purposes, named after him?
Not only is this simply a bad choice of name, but it’s disrespectful to a pivotal figure in Indian history. While this seems apparent to some, these deliberate attacks on Indian culture and history likely go unassumed by the children who watch the show. This may have been slightly more acceptable if there was a force that pushed for a celebration of Indian culture on the show. However, none of the members of the production team behind “Jessie” were Indian. This lack of representation behind the scenes makes it likely that bits of Indian culture were simply used for comic relief.
But would they include such blatant stereotyping in media meant for adults?
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from “The Simpsons” is a prime example of this. In the show, Apu is an Indian-American immigrant who owns a convenience store. His obnoxiously long last name is poking fun at South Indians in particular, whose names are typically longer than most Americans can pronounce correctly. Not only does Apu speak with a forced Indian accent, but the way he acts on the show makes it far worse.
Apu is portrayed as being extremely cheap, doing anything that will save him a penny and help out his business. Changing expiration dates or brushing off food that fell on the ground to be sold is commonly depicted on the show. On many occasions, Apu will manipulate his customers into purchasing items that they do not need, according to NPR.
It may provide a quick laugh, but his manipulative and stingy character is dangerous when it comes to stereotypes. His character, which does nothing to contribute to the plot of “The Simpsons,” communicates racism to an adult audience, which is especially impactful to those who do not interact with Indians on a daily basis.
Hank Azaria, the non-Indian voice actor for Apu, recognized the danger he created by taking on the role and recently stepped down.
“The character had unintended consequences for people – kids growing up in this country, Indian and South Asian kids growing up in this country had to live with that character and be called Apu in ways they didn’t appreciate,” Azaria said in an interview with NPR.
Although “The Simpsons” is meant to poke fun at society’s stereotypes, Azaria believes it ended up creating new ones for Indians in the process.
As Indian stereotyping in the entertainment industry continues, America needs to understand its implications. The racism that is communicated through these characters is not worth the chuckle that they may bring audiences and does not truly show what Indians are like. My race, my history, and my culture are not your comedy.