We Are Not All Slum Dogs: the problem with our response to POC in pop culture.
- Zoya Patel
There’s a movie currently doing the rounds called The Big Sick, that’s had a lot of internet commentary around it. It’s a based-on-real-life romantic comedy about a young man who falls in love with a young woman, against his parent’s wishes. They date in secret, and then break up because she is upset he’s hiding her from his parents. Then she becomes grievously ill, and shenanigans ensue. Spoiler alert – it’s a happy ending.
This sounds fairly run of the mill, but what I’m neglecting to mention is that the young man is Kumail Nandjiani, a Pakistani-American, and his parents object to the young woman who is white because she isn’t Muslim. Once those facts are stated, it’s easier to see why all left-wing media have pulled out their ‘woke-o-meters’ to check how balanced Nandjiani’s portrayal of his actual life experience is, given it concerns brown people and Islam.
The verdict thus far is that Nandjiani’s depiction of people of colour (POC), despite being a POC himself is not quite woke enough. Specifically, his portrayal of the Pakistani women who are paraded before him by his hopeful mother is considered stereotypical and unfair to all Pakistani women the world over.
Let me start by getting my woke-passport out, and explaining that I am Indian-Australian, raised as a Muslim, and a woman (and technically living with a disability). Basically, you can’t disagree with me, based on the metrics of identity politics, because no matter how woke you are, my woke points are near impossible to beat.
I went to see The Big Sick with my very own white and not-parentally-approved-of partner, and we both loved the film. There are moments where Nandjiani’s parents are saying word for word statements that my own parents once said in response to my interracial partnership, and the film deals with the complexities of the issue with humour and grace, whilst remaining within the light territory of the comedy genre.
After viewing The Big Sick, I read a review on The Guardian on how the film was offensive to the Pakistani women characters, who were apparently portrayed as two-dimensional, desperate for love and rather pathetic. It’s a shame, the author implied, because as a woke viewer you really want to enjoy The Big Sick. But ultimately, it just doesn’t tick all the boxes.
See, when I watched the movie, I didn’t expect it to be some kind of oracle on the experiences of every Pakistani American to exist. I didn’t expect the four or five Pakistani women to be representative of the millions of Pakistani women in the diaspora the world over. I didn’t expect Nandjiani’s experience to be identical to mine, or to even offer me some kind of important message about interracial love.
I suppose I made the mistake of thinking it was a movie – some fun entertainment – and not the sole media portrayal of non-white experience that it has been interpreted to be by others. Do people place this pressure on films created by white people? Is there an expectation that La La Land be true to every white woman actress’s experience ever? Or that Point Break should have achieved a diverse and fair representation of deadbeat surfers the world over?
Of course not – because those films and millions more are made by and for white people, who are expected to be diverse in their multitudes, not easily summed up in 2-3 hours of footage. In contrast, Nandjiani, Aziz Ansari, Nazeem Hussain and Mindy Kaling have to get it right every time they create any art, because as the tiny handful of famous South East Asian creators, they have a duty to somehow offer a complex and diverse insight into the lives and cultures of the billions of people within their ethnic group.
If I were to take Freeman’s critique of The Big Sick seriously, though, it still wouldn’t ring true for me. I felt Nandjiani clearly constructs his interactions with the women his mother sets him up with as being skewed in their favour. They are funny, smart (one of them is a magician!), and the only real factor that may be seen as demeaning is that they willingly participate in a process – arranged marriage – that the movie regularly points out as being archaic and bizarre.
But that’s one man’s opinion. If the film were made by Nandjiani’s brother, perhaps the portrayal of Nandjiani himself and his girlfriend would have been less than complementary. That’s what happens when people make art from the perspective of a central figure – it’s biased to that person’s values and beliefs.
When a white person makes art, we see it as a projection of their opinions, values and experiences. When a POC does, though, we see it as a blanket statement on all POC issues, and hold them to account as unwilling ambassadors for their race.
Why should the onus be on POC to be accountable for addressing the woefully whitewashed media through their work, and to produce diverse, balanced and complex portrayals of every POC, instead of on the media institutions and gatekeepers who are responsible for the extreme lack of diversity in our pop culture landscape to begin with?
POC artists have already had to work twice as hard and be twice as talented as their white counterparts just to exist in the pop culture sphere, and to have their work produced for a mainstream audience. Now we’re going to tear them apart for not appeasing all of the well-meaning left-wing critics who have their magnifying glasses out, looking for any possible ‘problematic’ aspect of their work?
Not only is this frustratingly unfair to the artist, to judge a handful of characters in one film to be representative of a broader cultural group is also disrespectful to that culture. In the case of The Big Sick, it essentialises Pakistani women and implies that Nandjiani’s depiction is entirely relevant, when in fact it’s just the development of one man’s creative work, based on the plot he devised and the character tools he chose to use. Actual Pakistani women are hugely diverse, complex, and interesting, good and bad in their multitudes and they can not be summed up through three or four bit-parts in a movie. I would warrant that Nandjiani knows this, and is clearly not trying to offer a well-developed insight into their lives through his film.
Imagine if instead of having to critique The Big Sick, we as the audience could just choose to watch it or a different film or series about interracial love, with a different view point? Imagine if there was enough work being created by Muslim women themselves that we didn’t have to think twice about Nandjiani’s female characters because we had so many other reference points?
Something I loved about The Big Sick was the way in which Nandjiani’s character is very American. He plays video games to pass time while pretending to pray, he sleeps on a mattress on the floor in his shitty sharehouse, and uses trashy pick-up lines to get the girl. He is not tortured by his past lived in poverty. He does not dwell on every racist slur while remembering his treasured homeland. He fulfils none of the tropes we have come to associate with POC, especially from South East Asia, around noble beggars and slumdogs. He is flawed, he is privileged, he is funny, and he is real.
Literally – he is an actual Pakistani American comic who is enjoying a really big success in his career, one that should be relished by those of us who truly care about diversity in the media.
But instead, his success confuses us, and his film troubles us. We don’t know how to let go of the need to pick it apart and look at it from every woke angle. We can’t see how it serves the narrative of the left of POC as being silent sufferers, subjected to constant marginalisation, unable to enjoy their lives as fully as their white peers. We want a Lion or a Slumdog Millionaire. We want a Dev Patel, always playing an Indian from India with Indian experiences, instead of Dev Patel as a London born and raised Pom, with all the first-world comfort and privilege that implies.
Nandjiani’s characterisation of Pakistani Americans in The Big Sick might not be perfect, but he is being held to standards higher than those set for any white artist.
He is not a slumdog, and you won’t be able to feel sorry for him. Please don’t turn that sympathy to the women in his film. Please don’t seek a way to enact your woke-saviourism through The Big Sick because you can’t allow yourself just to sit back and enjoy it for what it is..
Just take it as the POC creator of it wants you to – as a love story, and as a laugh, and as something real. It doesn’t always have to be problematic.