Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
I read a NY Times story about the new version of the 1990s hit Sex and the City. The main thrust of the article is the introduction of four new characters, all of whom are “of color.”
The story used the term “blinding whiteness” to describe its original incarnation and the explanation of why this was so required a “diplomatic” response from the show’s creator. Other online reviewers have used words like “awkward” and “clunky” to indicate that the changes have not landed well.
Authenticity and agenda: awkward dance partners
It has now become de rigueur to make sure each show has at least one black character. It is considered even better if the show checks as many boxes as possible relating to race, gender, and other “marginalized identities.” Don’t get me wrong… I am sympathetic to individuals (and groups) who are disadvantaged due to an immutable characteristic—skin color, yes, but a lot else besides. In this inclusive and universalist stance, I include people who must deal with major challenges that are often too esoteric to have a label. Examples? A person who wants to have a child, but cannot; a person who is overweight; a survivor of abuse, neglect, accidental misfortune; one who is dealing with a difficult illness, family strife/separation, unemployment, debt, etc.
However, I find myself resisting when I get the feeling that authentic storytelling has been subordinated to other priorities.
It is important to remember that free association is based on shared class, shared interests, and shared values. Even friendships of long standing (where class, interests, and values were shared) develop cracks when one friend becomes noticeably richer or poorer or if other life circumstances shift (like one of the friends having a baby).
In the case of Sex and the City, we cannot ignore class—the main characters in the original show were members of the upper class. Not surprisingly, they had a certain materialist and consumerist mindset. They could get away with being self-absorbed. These circumstances also limited their ability to relate to and interact with those unlike them. Did this make them provincial and insular? Yes. But, maybe the success of the original show meant that that was a feature rather than a bug.
In short, it is harder to make it a credible show if persons of color are added willy-nilly without changes in the main characters’ personalities or situations. Will this remake depict the black characters’ (non-conforming and, frankly, oppositional) inner dialogue? Or will it simply whitewash and flatten them and make them part of the crowd—robbed of texture, of what makes them them, the reason why they were added to the show in the first place?
In my view, doing either is problematic.
On another level, will the tastemakers next require that the friend group also represent gender and other kinds of diversity? Where does this end?
Any Day Now
This was the title of a show on the Lifetime channel. It aired between 1998 and 2002. The show featured the enduring friendship between two women—one white and one black—in Alabama. With alternate scenes that depicted the 1960s and the 1980s, it did a great job of showing how things were and how much they had changed for the better. It was genuine and credible and it tackled difficult topics with grace.
I find it sad and ironic that two decades after the end of this series, we seem to be even further away from Any Day Now having a genuine breakthrough in inclusivity.
Never Have I Ever
The Netflix series is described as the “complicated life of a modern-day first-generation Indian-American teenage girl, by Mindy Kaling’s own childhood.” I found the main character to be shallow and clueless. Fine. Maybe that is how most teenagers are. However, if an Indian-American teenager is depicted as being no different than any other generic teenager and if her character has been flattened to show that she tries even harder than that generic teenager to be as similar as possible to a generic teenager… should that count as representation? I think not.
In my view, worse than the depiction of the teenager was the way the Indian-American adults were portrayed—shallow, cruel to a member of the community simply because she was divorced, lacking integrity (when arranging a marriage, no less), and materialistic. In short, this was far from a representation of either me or the many Indian-Americans I know who are thoughtful, intelligent, and progressive.
I have zero representation, and I am ok with that
As a non-white and non-black (immigrant) person, I don’t expect to be represented in mainstream shows. However, that does not mean that mainstream shows have nothing to offer me.
I seek authenticity in the shows I watch. Well-written and well-made treatments resonate regardless of whether the characters share my skin color or broad cultural values. This has been my experience with shows as diverse as, among others, ET, Everybody Loves Raymond, Mad Men, and John Adams, the biopic on HBO.
Are there aspects of my lived experience that I never see on screen? Of course. Do I wish that it were different? Yes, that would be nice. The good news is that we live in a golden era of truly borderless content availability. I am easily able to find shows that represent some of my most deeply held values and ideals, and that are enacted by people who share my ethnicity. Examples are shows such as “Aam Admi Family” and countless shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Bottom line? I would rather have authenticity than forced diversity.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.