By Tanya Vasundharan
I remember tagging along with my mother to watch Bend It Like Beckham back in 2002. She had been looking forward to it immensely after the trailer — the thought of a British-Indian woman telling her family to stuff it about aloo gobi and Guru Nanak, resonated somewhere with her. Perhaps she recalled her own youth in London and my grandmother’s excruciatingly embarrassing insistence that she put up Sai Baba posters in her hostel room (and shaming her in front of cute men). But the film turned out to be incredibly disappointing, particularly because of its one-dimensional and heavily cliched portrayal of Indians, and the notion that you have to either embrace or reject your cultural ancestry.
We’re 15 years down the line, but popular culture in the West is still making the same mistakes with its representations of brown people. Enough for a show like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None to be considered as breaking radical new ground in 2016. But Anglophones around the world and in India continue to consume American (+ Brit + Scandi) pop culture that has nothing of us. Because it’s fun. Because it’s addictive. Because, yes Edward Said, it’s cultural imperialism.
But in a defiant middle finger to global TV staples – like Friends (which had an all-white cast and one black character who featured as a love interest for a few episodes in the 10th season), or even the more recent Girls (which explored four white women’s friendships and whose writer admitted to having ‘forgotten’ about black and brown women) — a new web series is now showing us how to be ‘unapologetically brown’. Welcome to Brown Girls, written by 27-year-old Pakistani-Kashmiri-American author and poet Fatima Asghar, and starring actors Nabila Hussain and Sonia Denis. The series of short eight-minute episodes that premiered this week, is now available for viewing online. And it doesn’t have a single white character.
The series has rapidly become popular for its honest, no-holds-barred portrayal of two young women – one an African-American named Patricia, the other a Pakistani-American Muslim named Leila — and their friendship and lives in Chicago as they struggle with everything from negotiating queer identities to being broke and making music.
Asghar, the writer, says that the lack of representation in TV shows (where brown people have most often been sidekicks) had a major impact on her while growing up. Her web series addresses several issues that plagued her and are relevant to women of colour living in predominantly white spaces — like their desire to be visible and yet not exoticised because of their ethnicity. It thinks about everyday racism (“They’re going to call me a terrorist,” panics Leila after punching her girlfriend’s new lover in the face at a party) and biases amongst people of their own ethnicities as well (“Just because they’re black doesn’t mean they’re not racist. We have everything internalised because white people have fucked it all up,” says Patricia curtly). But it doesn’t confine itself to these subjects. Most often, the women are just doing regular things — getting drunk, sending men home in Ubers after sex, dealing with heartbreak and parents’ divorce. Vulnerable yet headstrong, quirky and irreverent, they refuse to be pigeonholed into convenient slots.
Sounds ideal, right? But a show with brown people at the centre, though a much-needed corrective, is still capable of flaws and gaping holes. At times, the acting is a little wooden, and perhaps more importantly, in its attempts to depict the women striving to liberate themselves from their cultures and religions, the show ends up excluding certain experiences.
The first episode, for instance, opens with an exasperated Leila muttering “Eid Mubarak” to a hysterical Pakistani aunt, who is appalled that Leila is iffy about making it to the mosque. “Sorry about my crazy aunt,” she later says to her lesbian lover. While the show does speculate on the various ways that Leila’s Muslim identity shapes her — she wonders, for example, how her family will react to her announcement that she is queer — the exploration of her relationship with Islam and Pakistan lacks nuance in the episodes so far. A scene where she makes rotis out of pizza dough, to the horror of her perfect sister from Pakistan, is briefly funny but still reeks of tired Bend It Like Beckham jokes.
It’s not just a problem in American television. My Nigerian friends felt that Chewing Gum, a recent British sitcom about a black Christian woman desperate to lose her virginity, had the same problem. It overlooked the possibility that there are Christian women who are simultaneously proud of and deeply invested in their faith, and don’t necessarily view it as a patriarchal or cultural imposition.
I had a virulently atheist upbringing, and once upon a time also blamed religious faith for imposing sexual repression on people. But I realized while living in England that religion and sex have a far more complex and precarious relationship in many people’s lives. I once sat at a dinner table with four Christian women from different countries in Africa discussing their completely different takes on sex. “I did it, but it’s okay because there’s a poster of white Jesus in my room, that doesn’t count,” declared one woman to the squeals and laughter from the others.
The implication in popular culture and television (especially present in white feminist debates) appears to be that sexual and other forms of liberation must be accompanied by a complete renouncement of your faith, and indeed, your cultural heritage. From my many interactions with brown women in England where I was part of an ethnic minorities activist group, I gauged this was a point of deep frustration.
The women’s ‘inter-racial’ friendship in Brown Girls, for instance, depends heavily on their mutual love for alcohol and sex — but what if religion prevented one of them from drinking, and the other from sex, and they were completely okay with that? Would they still be able to forge deep friendships, as I did with so many people from other countries with entirely different worldviews?
Brown Girls is still an important shout-out to brown women everywhere about the energising possibilities of their friendships, in communities that don’t recognise them enough. The sheer creation of unconventional shows like this one and 195 Lewis (another recent mini-series that gives visibility to black, queer, and polyamorous women friends) is heartening.
For viewers based in India and those in the diaspora, it makes a refreshing change from the kinds of television we’ve seen emerging from predominantly white countries, shows with all-white casts. But perhaps, to be really inclusive, the writer and director should take off their own blinkers and expand the conversation from one that only portrays brown women burning to breaking free from religion. The show is only in its first season, so here’s hoping they’ll do just that in the episodes to come.
Co-published with Firstpost.