Dear Disney Channel,
550 million viewers. That is how many children watch your channel. 550 million little kids learning how to conduct themselves, how to acclimate to society, and how to engage with others through your screen. 550 million children idolizing your characters and absorbing their behavior. I would expect with such preeminence one would be more attentive or at least conscious of the impact their characters and plot have on the cultural, personal, and social development of our youth, yet almost the opposite has been happening.
I, like the majority of my generation, grew up watching shows like Jesse and Phineas and Ferb which attempted at displaying a diversity of cultures, namely mine, Indian culture. One of my first encounters with Indian representation was with Ravi from the show Jessie. There was so much excitement when I first saw him, for the first time ever, someone who looked like me on the screen. I watched as he was always the outcast and portrayed with the most typical Asian stereotypes: extremely smart, weak, and socially inept. In addition to his stereotypical character, he was the laughing stock of the group, always being mocked or used. Looking back, the bigotry is overwhelming. At such a young age, unknowingly, I accepted the anti-Indian sentiment of your shows to be how all of society views my culture and the rightful way to treat ethnic cultures. I had unintentionally become conscious and embarrassed of my ethnicity. I never talked about my good grades, played dumb, and hid when my mom packed me Indian food because I was too scared to fit into the deprecating stereotypes you had accentuated.
This fear of becoming the Asian stereotype was not all in my head. Your shows had and still do create an environment in which micro aggression towards ethnic cultures are normalized and accentuated. Growing up as one of the only South Asian students in the classroom, one of my many experiences of these microaggressions was having different academic expectations than my peers. It was presumed that I always had my homework completed early and my classmates could convince me to share answers.
It is intriguing to think about the similarity between Ravi and the character Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb. The issue with having the only two South Asian characters in your
network be portrayed as perfectly fitting into the Asian stereotype of awkward and smart, having thick Indian accents, and being disrespected is that it creates connections
for the viewer that leads to unconscious stereotyping and groupings of South Asians.
One of Ravi’s greatest characteristics was his accent. Perhaps if you had glorified Indian accents as you do French or British, mocking Indian accents would not be normalized and tolerated. What particularly angers me is that with the misrepresentation of my culture, with the mocking of our accents, and with the belittling of South Asian religions, you couldn’t even correctly pronounce your characters names- conveying to an entire generation that the bare minimum of respecting one's name is unnecessary.
Now, having a corrected perception of Indian culture, I am able to recognize the direct
impacts of your channel to my life and equally to that of my peers. I have talked about
Ravi from Jessie but the show contains many other stereotypes as well: Emma is
presented as the shallow, rich, dumb blond, Zuri as the loud, sassy black girl, and Luke
as the popular but dumb and messy white boy. It doesn’t stop there, the spinoff, Bunk’d,
has Tiffany Chen who is an asian that plays violin, is always worried about her studies,
and has strict parents. And this is just one show. I simply can’t understand why it is
acceptable to have shows that perpetuate such stereotypes that terrifyingly overpower
and categorize our youth by their looks and ethnicity, stunting their individuality and
creating unnecessary apprehensions.
So Disney Channel, as a fifteen year old Indian American I have experienced
normalized microaggressions and direct stereotyping an unacceptable amount of times
and I blame a large portion of this normalization on you. It breaks my heart that my
journey to becoming proud and confident of my identity was so long and full of doubt.
When I told my friends about this letter, they had their own experiences and thoughts to add- all my friends, of different cultures and backgrounds, had faced some sort of mistreatment that they correlated as a result of what your network presents.
My hope is that you can work towards more respectful and correct representations of all ethnic cultures so future generations don't feel the need to hide parts of their identity to fit in. I do recognize these efforts in new shows like Mira The Detective; I appreciate how it displays the beauty of Indian culture and there is a South Asian main character
that is well rounded. But in order to move past shows that were not as cognizant, I feel it is necessary to recognize the faults and ignorance of them- these shows are still widely available and still do affect our youth.
- Raina Koshal
This piece was meant to be a way to reflect on industries that perpetuate deprecating stereotypes that constantly affect underrepresented ethnicities. I specifically wrote this to start a conversation about microaggressions that are normalized through Disney channel and have affected mine and other Asian youth's lives.
Biography: Raina is a sophomore at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago. She enjoys painting, playing lacrosse, and educating herself and others on social justice issues. Raina is interested in both medical and business fields and her end goal is to lead a global non-profit for child orphanage trafficking.
Cover photo source: https://elestoque.org/2020/09/12/special/special-features/indian-misrepresentation-in-media/