Do you want to learn about many problems with ethnic representations in media and laugh while you learn? (It’s the laughing with kind of humor, not the guilt-inducing laughing at kind.) Check out the very “marathonable” Master of None on Netflix and look forward to episode 4 titled “Indians on TV.” In 31 awkward, fresh, and funny minutes, Aziz Ansari and Co. walk you through offensive Indian representations and deftly slay the arguments commonly used to defend those representations. Here’s a taste:
Beginning with a Bamboozled-esque montage of Indian stereotypes in media and the Short Circuit 2 revelation–that the “Indian guy” in the movie is a white guy in brown face–we are privy to the fun house mirror of distorted images that media has shown young Dev. It’s a fun house mirror that adult Dev (played by Ansari) tries to straighten out through his work in entertainment.
One of the first topics adult Dev tackles is Indian stereotyping and accents in the roles he auditions for. Cab driver, scientist, IT guy, and convenience store clerk are his frequent casting calls. I wrote in a previous post that racial or ethnic stereotypes are not always a problem by themselves; rather, they become a big problem “when they are not counteracted by a multiplicity of alternate representations or patterns.” Discussing their limited role options, Dev laments to his actor friend Ravi, “Why can’t there be a Pradeep just once who…does one of the jobs Bradley Cooper’s characters do in movies?”
Dev initially tries a compromise: he auditions for a cab driver role but insists on using his regular voice. When the casting director pushes back on Dev’s refusal to do an Indian accent, citing Ben Kinglsey’s Gandhi Oscar as encouragement, Dev busts this false analogy with the line below:
The episode’s major drama comes when Dev and Ravi think they have an opportunity to escape stereotypes by auditioning for an “open ethnicity” call: a show titled Three Buddies. In an email thread not meant for Dev’s eyes, he learns that he and Ravi were top choices but network executive Jerry Danvers says “there can’t be two” Indians on one show. Danvers then takes his racism a step further by suggesting that the network meet both men again to “see who can curry our favor.” Hey there, microaggression.
This episode challenges the idea that microaggressions (such as the pun “curry our favor”) are simple, harmless jokes. “Indians on TV” takes time to lay bare the broader social context: limited media representations, offensive language use, degrading humor, and power all link up in a kind of reverse Care Bear stare that restricts Dev’s opportunities and perpetuates mediated Indian stereotypes. Busta Rhymes judges the “curry our favor” comment plainly: That is some “disrespectful shit.”
This final racist fallacy I discuss is an epidemic these days and deserves its own category: the relatable fallacy. It is the idea that the word “relatable” is a substantive and meaningful critique or judgement of media. When Dev says, “What if we tried [Dev and Ravi on the same show] and just see what happens,” Danvers shuts him down saying that a show with two Indian actors is not “relatable.” I translate “relatable” as discriminatory code for “doesn’t look like/act like me or doesn’t look like/act like the way I want people to see me.”
Instead of owning that casting and production decision, Danvers blames the public for not wanting that kind of show. We see “blame the marketplace” (a version of false cause) used to defend the use of thin models in fashion, despite the links between seeing the “thin body ideal” perpetuated by models and having a negative body image. Media cultivates our tastes from a young age (see young Dev enraptured by Short Circuit 2) and then tells us they are giving us what we want.
Media cultivates our tastes from a young age and then tells us they are giving us what we want.
But Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have given us what we want: This episode is the successful pilot of the Dev and Ravi (and Anush) buddy show. The scenes are realistic and conversational, the themes are complex, the perspectives are multiple, the pasta and male lactation jokes are fresh. Critics and viewers have rated the “not relatable” Master of None the number one show of the fall.
Cheers to replacing the Short Circuit 2 revelation with the Master of None revelation.