Dear Asian Youth,
When I first saw the words Indian Matchmaking sprawled across my Netflix home screen, I was immediately intrigued by, but also cautious of, the South Asian representation. As someone whose reflections of themself in Western media growing up mainly consisted of the occasional hyper-stereotyped side character (*cough cough* Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb), I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Little did I know, Indian Matchmaking would go on to gain immense global popularity amongst South Asians and non-Asians alike. The show documents the work of matchmaker, Sima Taparia, who travels back and forth between India and the U.S. to find the “perfect match” for her clients based on the lengthy qualifications proposed by them and their families. Soon after the show’s debut, the internet was flooded with memes of Sima’s famous one-liners and endless Twitter rants about the characters.
The show used classic tropes and followed the structures of many other romantic reality TV shows, making it a highly entertaining watch. There were fan favorites like Nadia, the underdog who everyone was rooting for in the end, Vyaser, and of course the villains, like Aparna, who were portrayed as “stubborn” and “high maintenance”. Despite the show’s popularity, Indian Matchmaking provoked major controversy, receiving both glowing praise and searing criticism from the audience.
Many were shocked by the blatant colorism, sexism, and fatphobia expressed nonchalantly by Sima’s clients, especially in an era where many Caucasians are just beginning to become more racially cognizant amidst the heightened resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. There was clear favoritism shown towards women with “slim figures and fair and lighter skin,” largely from the aunties and uncles.
However, this is a relatively realistic portrayal. It is true that South Asian cultures are deeply steeped in ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’. Eurocentric and parochial standards of beauty have existed and been internalized within South Asian communities for generations, heavily exacerbated by colonization. The skin lightening industry continues to flourish in most Asian countries and, as an Indian, I have first hand experienced this ugly truth when visiting my relatives. While I applaud the producers for not sugarcoating or minimizing some of the darker realities of South Asian culture, the show was still deeply problematic in the ways it perpetuated racism and casteism.
This can be seen simply in who is being represented by the series. It's supposed to be “Indian” Matchmaking, yet the show's only characters were upper caste, wealthy Hindus. This is a harmful homogenization of Indian identity and by no means an accurate depiction. It neglects the large population of the country that does not fall into this demographic including individuals of other castes as well as Muslims and other religious groups. The show communicates to its white audience that “Indian culture” is really just that of high caste Hindus, actively erasing so many people from the Indian community, and undermining their identity. Many people are also unaware of how prevalent casteism is in India today. The caste system is essentially an exclusionary and hierarchical social structure that has existed for thousands of years, originating from a Hindu notion that people were made from different parts of the body of the God of creation, Brahma. People are ranked based on their ritual status, purity, and occupation. Caste, much like one’s racial identity, is something you are born into. It is inescapable, impacting all aspects of one's life, including marriage. In the show, being of a higher caste was included in the qualifications of virtually every client, although they used polite phrases such as “similar backgrounds” and “shared communities” to code for this preference. In doing so, they subtly minimize and normalize the hierarchical oppression that so many Indians continue to face today.
Caste-based oppression in India is still an active agent of discrimination, inflicting violence on many Indian communities. Dalit, or “untouchable” communities that fall outside of the 4 castes, especially women, continue to face harmful prejudice from killings, to domestic abuse, to being unprotected from workplace intolerance both inside and outside of India. The very concept of arranged marriage this system is rooted in, function to uphold socio-economic hierarchies and maintain “pure” bloodlines. Understanding this cruel structure and how it operates has forced me to interrogate my own privilege as an Indian American from a family of upper-caste Hindus and critically examine the slivers of South Asian media that integrate into Western popular culture. How are the mirrors I’m starting to see of myself and my own identity in American culture hurtful and discriminatory towards so many others?
Indian Matchmaking, Never Have I Ever, and other TV series with similar representation are becoming increasingly popular here in the U.S., yet the socio-political climate in India continues to violate the basic human rights of many Indians that don’t receive representation. Just recently, the government passed the Citizen Amendment Act in 2019 which has been declared unconstitutional by many for its discrimination against Muslim communities, denying them the same rights to citizenship granted to other religious groups. By neglecting to represent marginalized groups in India, these shows are complicit in upholding casteism and Hindu nationalism. The juxtaposition we see between Netflix and current events call into question how truly “representative” TV shows like these really are.