The Big Sick Backlash

The Big Sick is a universally lauded film, which got a standing ovation at Sundance and has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of writing this at least). But haters gonna hate, right? My Facebook actually had a bunch of articles that were less than pleased with the movie. The truth is, I completely related to those articles.

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Let me start off by saying that that all of those backlash-y articles had positive things to say about the movie. I watched it last weekend, and I think it was a good movie too. But despite it being a good movie, a certain demographic felt put down by it. And I was so glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, that I searched out every single article on the topic. If you want to read, take your pick.

I didn’t list the names of the author, but they’re basically mostly written by brown women. So why was it that we brown women are so butt hurt by this movie?

I wouldn’t say we’re butt hurt actually. Because, like I said, we all still agree we like the movie.  Personally, I really liked the discussion about why would people move to America and then try to force their kids to pretend like they don’t live in America. This is something almost all children of desi immigrants have to deal with.

(Full disclosure. I am not a child of immigrants, but I have several cousins and friends who are. I’m the immigrant myself and I don’t have kids, but who knows maybe I will some day. I grew up with Western media, so I still feel like I am part of this conversation.)

Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, I got the sense that many of these kids of desi immigrants were resistant of desi culture, found their parents “uncool”, wanted to be more American perhaps as a rebellion against parents who were forcing them to appreciate their roots. My cousins and friends fell at various points of the spectrum, but this view was reinforced by media. Take the movie American Desi as an example, where the main character actively tries to distance himself from his heritage (but eventually comes to appreciate it). And The Namesake where one character makes a spoilery poor decision because she was desperate not to end up like her mother.

(And it’s also true that these kids lie to their parents and lead double lives…to various extents. But this isn’t true only in America. Back at home, kids also lead double lives, lying to their parents about dating, drinking, etc. What you see in The Big Sick actually applies to an extent back in South Asia as well. But I digress.)

An underlying theme in the brown community is the idealization of whiteness. Let’s not even go into the Fair and Lovely industry and South Asians trying to make their skin as light as possible. There is an underlying theme of trying to emulate whiteness in our community and let’s not pretend there isn’t. I recall two books, The God of Small Things and A Good Indian Wife, which have a secondary and a primary character respectively who fall in love with white women and idealize them only because they were white.

Yes, you can’t help whom you’re attracted to. But attraction isn’t determined genetically (at least not when in comes to race or ethnicity). I’m going to hazard a guess and say attraction towards particular races or ethnicities are determined by nurture and not nature – but the culture and environment in which you grow up.

So brown kids growing up in an environment where whiteness is idealized, where they are a minority in a sea of white people, etc., probably gravitate towards white people. It’s only natural. (Turns out this phenomenon isn’t limited to brown communities. Here is an article on The Root that bluntly explores this issue in the black community.)

And I think we’re seeing some of this reflected in today’s media with brown stars –  Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, Aziz Ansari in Master of None, Ravi Patel in Meet the Patels, Aasif Mandvi in Today’s Special, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, and to an extent Hasan Minhaj in Homecoming King (this here is the only show which features a successful romance with a brown partner, but the overarching theme of Homecoming King is about Minhaj’s experience with the white girl he asked to homecoming and the impact that experience had on him later in life.)

In recent years, however, I have sensed a shift. You can say people are more “woke”, or you can say people are very much into identity politics these days. But yes, people are embracing their minority status. And people are clamoring for representation on screen, in politics, etc.

Until the past few years, we only had white heroes on screen in Hollywood. Yes, brown folks could always turn to Bollywood, and they have. But perhaps the rise of brown talent has played a small role in brown American kids embracing their brown identities more. But my point is, they finally have brown heroes at home. And for people like me, who grew up in South Asia, but preferred Hollywood entertainment, we can move away from the idea that good entertainment comes from “white” media, because Hollywood doesn’t have to be white.

So, we brown women are big fans of the rising brown talent – Hasan Minhaj, Aziz Ansari, Riz Ahmed. And we’re rooting for them. But when they decide to portray their personal stories on screen, on many of these occasions, we see ourselves being rejected. They don’t want someone who looks like us. They want the white woman. And yes, that does hurt.

I recognize that it’s much more nuanced than I how I described it above. It’s not as if these actors outright reject white women. Kumail (in The Big Sick) and Ravi (in Meet the Patels) were already in love with someone, so they couldn’t make it work with brown women. Aziz Ansari’s Dev (in Master of None) goes on dates with brown women, but it doesn’t work out (imo mostly because the show was so invested in the Francesca storyline that they decided to quickly write out Priya).

I think what bothered people the most about The Big Sick was the trailer. Please watch the trailer and tell me that brown lady didn’t make you cringe. Yes, I get that a rom-com needs its comic relief, but at the same time, brown women are turned off by the fact that this is how they are being portrayed. (Thankfully none of the other Pakistani women Kumail meets are as bad as this one.) I remember seeing this other trailer for When Harry Tries to Marry (haven’t watched the movie) which also annoyed me by its portrayal of the brown woman. I get that in a rom-com like this you need to compare one option to the other, and establish that one is definitely better than the other. But yeah, you’re putting down some people in the process.

“Fat” people have been put down for ages in movies. Once, they could never hope to be leading men or leading ladies. But Seth Rogen, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer have been challenging that notion (note that they’re not actually “fat”, they’re just considered fat by Hollywood standards). So now, as male brown actors are on the rise, as they reject tradition and embrace their individuality, they reject brown women onscreen. And brown women who are rooting for them feel slighted.

This will go away if there are more up and coming brown actresses in Hollywood. Right now, who else can you name besides Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra (who really is more Bollywood, though, isn’t she?)

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