desi representation in media // the do’s and don’ts

Hey, fellow ramblers! It’s still Rania here if any of you are wondering! I gave my blog a little makeover as you may or may not have noticed. Anyways, today I wanted to dive into another discussion post, partly because I love drafting them and partly because you guys seem to like them too! This one is definitely a very important topic which I feel should be talked about more and not ignored.

I’ve tried to read and watch any and all media that I could come across which includes desi representation, and yes, there are a lot of things that are very far from the truth and this post is simply my way of shedding light on them! I’ll only be covering things I’ve noticed that have been happening with the desi community but most of these points also apply to the most marginalised communities and people of colour! And if there’s anything I’ve missed in this post, please don’t hesitate to put it down in the comments, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Firstly, what do you mean by the term ‘desi’?

The word ‘desi’ comes from the word ‘desh’ which translates to ‘country’. It usually refers to the people and cultures of countries from the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Probably the biggest misconception that I would like to clear right now is that all desis are South Asians, but all South Asians are NOT desis.

What do most people get wrong about desi representation?

1) Generalizing the desi cultures: One of the main things that I’ve seen in all sorts of media is that people do not realise that several different cultures come under the desi umbrella and will assume that all cultures are the same and can be represented through the same character. The most common example of this would be Kate and Edwina Sharma from Bridgerton. Sharma is a North Indian surname, they are said to hail from Bombay (the old name for Mumbai, a city in the central western part of India) and are seen to be speaking Marathi, yet they call their father “appa” which is Tamil (a language originated from South India). Additionally, Edwina calls Kate “didi”, an endearment term for a big sister which is Hindi (a language that’s spoken in most parts of India).

So, I think you can all see how the representation was a problem. People need to stop assuming that all Indians are Punjabis or that all Pakistanis are Bengalis and so on. And Indian is not a language, it’s a nationality. Most of the time, it’s a personal attack on the respectively concerned community. The solution? RESEARCH. Ask around, read up articles, and hire people who are desi and from different backgrounds. I assure you, it isn’t that hard.

2) Writing desi characters for the simple reason of diversity points: Of course, this point isn’t only for desi characters, but any and all representation for marginalised communities. And in this case, it’s when white creatives try to write desi characters just to categorize their book as or say that it is diverse but then end up completely butchering the representation. So many white authors use the excuse that “white books don’t have the market anymore” and while some of them don’t mean it in a hostile way, it honestly infuriates me. Instead of promoting books with marginalised representation (that’s not even done correctly) written by white authors, why not promote the books written by marginalised authors that have the representation that needs to be put out in the world in the right way?

And then killing off that character just makes it so much worse. Especially if they were the only non-white character in the piece of media. The same happens with a lot of LGBTQ+ characters too and they honestly need to be given more happy endings.

3) Culture/race-related conflicts are not necessary: This point could be up for discussion, but the way I see it, every conflict or catalyst in a desi character’s journey does not have to rely on something related to their race (and by that I mean hate crimes, racial discrimination, etc). Let them get their time to shine, but don’t fit them in the stereotype that a tragic race-targeted conflict is the only thing that can move the character’s individual plot forward.

That said, it doesn’t mean you completely remove their culture from the equation. There isn’t really any point of the desi character being there if I could just replace them with a white character and not be able to tell the difference. You can always put references to their traditions and culture without making it the biggest thing that’s ever occurred in the character’s life. Yes, it’s important to spread awareness on how people from marginalised communities have to live in fear most of the time, but at the same time, it’s important to portray them as a character with maybe otherworldly problems (in the case of a fantasy genre) or normal high school drama that you would see in any other book the only difference being that a bigger part of the audience would be feeling seen.

4) Stereotyping and fetishizing desis: This is such an important point because I’ve seen this happen way too many times and it’s got to stop. I could never understand why almost every desi character I came across had a surname of either Shah, Singh, or Sharma. And sprinkle in the occasional Gupta and Mehta in there. It’s gotten better over time but I still see one or two nowadays and it’s enough to flare up the annoyance in me. The next one is how so many desi characters are seen as ‘nerds’. Most are wearing spectacles and a sweater vest, have their hair slicked back with oil, and talking to anyone they’re interested in is like moving a mountain for them. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting to watch or read about. If everyone is going to write or show an audience the same kind of representation, it starts feeding into the ‘single-lens’ aspect of storytelling and that’s something a lot of people, not only desis, frown upon.

There are also so many cases where desi people, women especially, are sexualised and fetishized in western media. It doesn’t only affect the people on the receiving side of comments, but also the community as a whole because it slowly turns into how the whole brown community is seen.

5) Orientalism and self-loathing: In almost all desi representations, there’s this sense of self-loathing in the character which gives off the thought that there’s an orientalist otherness in them and they’re repulsed by their culture. It’s most likely a result of them trying to fit in with their white counterparts or playing into socio-economic factors if set in a South Asian country. What’s dicey about this is that there’s usually a desi creative behind this kind of representation and it comes off as off-putting. When desi creatives use these very harmful tools when they may as well be telling their own story, it makes the representation appear bad because, in the end, they’re appealing to a different demographic than their own community.

What does matter, however, is whether the desi creative or the desi character can recognize the “otherness” they’re trying to break out of as being trapped in orientalism and make that part of the journey. This is very rare, unfortunately, and it’s how in most modern media we have this pattern of desi characters hating who they are and aspects of their culture as part of their characterization instead of part of their journey.

6) Portrayal of parents/elders: We all know that there’s a very thin line between the jokes and stereotypes about our elders. Over-protective fathers, over-concerned mothers and conservative grandparents. While this may or may not be common in most desi households, what matters is the way that they’re portrayed. Whether or not desi parents lean into these stereotypes, what matters most is whether they’re fictionalised as the main character’s antagonising or protagonising forces. What strikes as bad desi representation is when the parents are stereotyped as antagonists and are meant to stand against the main character’s white counterparts. It’s not easy to address personal problems with desi parents but to make them the antagonists against the main character’s hero white counterparts is not a particularly good representation.

And with this, the excuse of “it’s the way I grew up” from desi creatives who go out of their way to make horrible caricatures of their parents and elders only makes it worse. There should be another way to portray desi parents/elders and how the main character resolves their issues in other, much healthier ways. A mild example could be the show Never Have I Ever and the way they handled the desi representation through the main character and her family (one of the creators, Mindy Kaling is also desi). Honestly, there were a lot of things wrong with that show which I won’t get into at the moment but if you’re interested in knowing more, you can read about it here and here.

7) Portraying traditions the right way: Don’t step back from portraying traditions, no matter how small they are, without little or no explanation, a good example being the haldi ceremony in the second season of Bridgerton. This helps respect and celebrate desi traditions without having to simplify them for non-natives (which otherwise would give the impression that that particular piece of media was targeting a different part of the audience than the ones that are being represented like “oh the others might not understand what’s happening so we should probably explain it”) and allows those interested to do their own research.

Another subpoint would be the colourism that we see so often in all kinds of media nowadays. This is not something that happens only to desis and it is crucial to include characters of different skin colour and types; it’s almost as important as the representation itself because there have been instances where either a lighter-skinned actor has been cast for a book to movie/tv-show adaptation than is mentioned in the book, or a dark-skinned actor has been recast with a lighter-skinned actor. (this is in no way on the actors, it’s just the twisted truth of representation in media and it needs to change.)

Along with this, adding the usage of native words, even weaving them into the conversations naturally and referencing/showing desi music, food, and other aspects of the cultures is a good way of representing the community.

Moral of the story? RESEARCH IS KEY. DO IT AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Anyways, that’s all for today’s post! I hope you guys enjoyed reading and if there’s anything I missed, let me know in the comments!

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20 thoughts on “desi representation in media // the do’s and don’ts

  1. Really well expressed, I’ve been debating to change my poetry blog name to south Asian vs keeping it as desi. Unfortunately I feel like I am still stuck determining what it means to stay true to wanting to represent a greater south Asian identity


  2. Great post and great blog! I write about the second gen desi experience on my blog and always happy to support South Asian writers 😊


  3. This post has spoken my mind!👏👏👏
    I’d rant about Desi reps in media all day long.Being a South Indian, I’ve always felt we are underrepresented. Beisdes, Tamilians, I haven’t seen any Kannadiga, Telugu or Malayali reps yet. The most annoying thing (for me) is when they play the same hindi songs or speak about Bollywood like it’s the only thing (industry) worth talking about India.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes i completely agree!! a lot of desi cultures are still underrepresented and the bad rep does not make it any better! thank you for reading <33

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hear ye Hear ye
    and also the ‘Indian accent’…like bruh nobody I know talks like that
    I get so mad like maybe only a few people talk like that but that doesn’t mean we all do
    Even in never have I ever, the mother talks in that accent
    and now, I’m pretty sure no Indian has that accent and it just infuriates me when the western media portrays brown characters
    they end up giving me second hand embarrassment
    as if they’re only there for the joke of ‘diversity’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes exactly!! everytime someone with an ‘indian accent’ comes on i want to switch it off because it seems so unrealistic to me! i’m glad you liked the post!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great points here! I am a Singaporean Chinese and I grew up with relatives and schoolmates telling me that liking traditional chinese culture is something to be ashamed of. The word we use in Singapore is “Cheena!” E.g. why are you so cheena?

    When I was reading the part on self-loathing, it reminds me how some of these deep-seated sentiments are more complex, representing both the personal and social experience of a diaspora.

    Fully agree with you doing more research is the way to go! And definitely, for more writers from marginalised communities to speak up and write their stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i’m really glad you could relate with this post!! truly, the self loathing is prominent in so many cultures and it’s one of the main things that lead to bad rep!! thank you for reading <33

      Liked by 1 person

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