Did you see the “First Time I Saw Me” campaign on Twitter a few months ago? Black Girl Nerds and Netflix collaborated earlier this year and started a campaign centered around diversity and representation in the media, and pushed the use of the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe to collect stories from people sharing the first time they saw themselves. (Two of the most popular videos/stories came from Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee. Also, here are some great videos.) It got me thinking about my own experience with the “first time I saw me” on television or in pop culture. And I realized that the first time I saw me… hasn’t happened yet.
Lots of South Asian American guys I know or have talked to about this share that they got their #FirstTimeISawMe moment in Aziz Ansari’s Dev on Master of None (or in Kal Penn’s Kumar, or in Kumail Nanjiani’s Kumail). But for me and for many other South Asian American women, we’re still waiting for our #FirstTimeISawMe moment.
South Asian American woman who isn’t a stereotype or embarassing caricature? Honestly, the #FirstTimeISawMe hasn’t really happened yet.
— Dr. Punita Rice (@punitarice) August 1, 2017
I wanted so, so badly for Mindy Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri to do that for me. This was partly because I’m a Mindy Kaling fan, partly because I found The Mindy Project to be hilarious, and partly because there was something thrilling about seeing a Brown woman on television refuse to adjust her (sometimes nonsensical) dreams that are usually reserved for white characters.
In an amazing piece for Vulture, Mallika Rao puts this into the right words and makes plain why Mindy Lahiri has been, while comical, a genuinely inspiring character: she wants the best for herself, which, as a woman, as a Brown person, as a minority, is inspiring:
“This is the root of Kaling’s appeal, how she and her fictional self push buttons by wanting the best for themselves. Her otherness matters, in this context. Her position outside the bounds of a classic heroine makes her self-love provocative.”
But she’s not me. For people who insist that Mindy Lahiri suffices as representation for Brown women like me, I have to say — nah, that’s not how this works. As Sujata Day (screenwriter and actress on HBO’s Insecure) says, in Mallika Rao’s piece:
“No one brown girl will ever be able to tell a universal story for all brown girls.”
But when there’s such little representation of ourselves in the mainstream narrative, it can be so tempting to want to latch onto a halfway decent depiction of ourselves in order to feel like we’re represented, and seen. This tumblr post beautifully points out that when there is such little representation of yourself in the mainstream narrative, we get to a point where we may even feel pressured to accept a caricature that barely resembles ourselves (or doesn’t even do that). Here’s the post (below):
“Imagine being a kid in school. Your teacher comes up with an idea for class picture. Every student will draw pictures of their friends.
Everyone starts drawing enthusiasticly, and can’t wait to see what they look like in the drawings. When pictures are ready you notice that popular students have more pictures than rest, but nobody has done a drawing of you. The teacher notices that too, and asks if someone would do your picture. To your horror the class clown takes the job, and comes up with a caricature of you. Others are laughing, but you’re not. You feel awful. The teacher notices that. and asks again someone to do a drawing of you. One of the ‘good students’ starts drawing, but the result is forced. It’s just a drawing of a generic child wearing a shirt of same color as you a wearing. There’s no spirit, no soul in it. You start sensing that the class is geting frustrated with you. They want to be done with this. You ask quietly the teacher if you could do a drawing yourself.
After school your classmates confront you. Why did you have to make such a big deal out of it? The first picture was funny. The second picture was just fine! The drawing you did yourself wasn’t right, do you think you are that good-looking? There were other kids who got only one or two pictures of themselves. Who are you to demand special treatment? Maybe there would have been a picture of you if you weren’t such annoying baby, nobody likes you anyway, and nobody’s going to if you keep on being like that, you don’t deserve a drawing!
This could be story of bullying, but it’s also about how I see portraying LGBTQ+-people and PoC in mainstream entertainment.”
Mindy Lahiri is one of my favorite characters, but she’s not me–or, really, a serious character most of the time.
(You know who else isn’t a good reflection of South Asian Americans? Yeah… Apu. Last month, I got to write about why Apu encompasses a variety of harmful stereotypes about South Asian Americans for The Establishment. You can read more about that piece here if you’re interested.)