I have representation fatigue. Somewhere between Kamala Harris running for US president and Kamala Harris being nominated for VP, I went from excitement, to boredom to anger. In the wake of Joe Biden winning the 2020 US election, I scrolled wearily through at the tiny Black and brown girls on Twitter, adorned in Kamala merch. "My VP looks like me!" was one popular catch cry, while the South Asian diaspora was typically extra in their response.
Don't get me wrong: on one level, I definitely want one of these hoodies. But on a deeper one? I'm tired. Tired of how, as South Asians, we have to make do with moments; our ephemeral stints in the sun. Be it Mindy Kaling, Master of None and now, Kamala Harris – who (in my opinion) was a superior Presidential candidate to Biden by every metric, had to settle for being his nominee. Who, despite the desi fever dreams of Kamala brewing chai in The White House, actually works down the road. As South Asians, we're meant to celebrate, but each token of 'representation' comes with a sting in the tail: is this all we get?
It's with that confluence of emotions that I experienced the latest win for 'representation': namely, that the second season of Bridgerton, the sumptuous Netflix period drama featuring a very hot, multiethnic cast, would be led by British-Asian actress Simone Ashley, known mostly for her role in the Netflix series Sex Education. The first time the news splashed across my Twitter feed, I was filled with disbelief. "Ashley will star as Kate Sharma," I read, clocking the distinctly Indian last name. I instantly called foul, tacitly assuming the actress playing her probably wouldn't be Indian at all.
There is a reason for my scepticism: namely that the West has a tendency for not casting South Asian actors for parts very obviously meant for them. Take The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani's otherwise smart rom-com let down by a mean-spirited portrayal of Pakistani women. Hilariously, the only Pakistani woman character who wasn't completely caricatured in the film was played by Black actress Vella Lovell.
Or what about going for an actress from another 'brown' country, like Iran? That's what panned out in Netflix's 2020 thriller Extraction, where their casting director considered Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani for the part of South Asian mercenary Nik Khan and I guess thought: "Close enough."
And as an Australian, I can't not mention the TV adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap. While Tsiolkas describes the character of Aisha as Anglo-Indian, both the Australian and US adaptations of the book enlisted Black British actresses for the role: Sophie Okenedo and Thandie Newton, respectively. And this is to say nothing of the part of Vice Principal Gupta being filled by Sandra Oh in The Princess Diaries. (As a Gupta who is also a big fan of Sandra Oh, this casting will haunt me forever.)
That's why the casting Simone Ashley, an actress of actual South Asian heritage as a character with a South Asian name, came to me as such a shock. When it comes to the West, something that basic: ensuring that South Asian roles are filled by South Asian actresses, is a duty that – despite the subcontinent being one of the most populous regions in the world – is somehow nearly impossible to fulfil.
And while South Asians come in every skin tone you can imagine, the TV and film industry of course has a tendency to favour those on the lighter side of the spectrum, particularly when slated to play a love interest. Notably, Bridgerton's first season also had an obvious problem with colourism – it's darker-skinned women were mostly extras. With the exception of Mindy Kaling, this is probably the first time I've seen a dark-skinned South Asian actress play a love interest in all my time on this cursed planet.
It's safe to say, then, that the casting of actress Simone Ashley in the second season of Bridgerton is, to be sure, huge. Groundbreaking. Maybe even prototypical. But I refuse to lose my mind for one paltry example of what should have been the norm all this time. For this to happen in the 2020s is at best, nothing to celebrate. At worst, it's a disgrace.
Written by Reena Gupta [no relation to Sandra Oh], a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her at @purpletank.
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