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This is an opinion piece by Kiran Hothi and Sonam Kaur. They are cofounders of NotYourWife, a digital platform celebrating South Asian women and South Asians living in the diaspora. Read the full article below:
The socially awkward, nerdy sidekick. The scientist with a distinct lack of charisma. The thickly accented foreigner. As second generation British Asians growing up in the ’90s, these were the closest things we saw to ourselves on television.
It’s now 2021 and the words ‘diversity’, ‘BAME‘ and ‘inclusion’ are plastered everywhere but what does that really mean in the context of representation on our screens? Apparently not much. According to the 2011 census, South Asians are the largest minority ethnic group in the UK and yet the media hasn’t quite caught up. Why is it that our television screens don’t reflect the world we currently live in? Why is a South Asian protagonist still considered an exception rather than a norm?
Figures show that there are roughly double the number of South Asians in the UK today than there were in 2001 yet we are the least represented in global and British media of any major group, according to Ofcom’s 2018 report on diversity in primetime programming. It also suggested that the BBC was at risk of losing a “generation of viewers” due to diversity issues.
The report, “Representation and Portrayal on BBC Television”, found that people from a South Asian background make up only a small share of BBC One and BBC Two’s onscreen population (3%). It should be obvious that having South Asian stories told, seen and represented is important — for children as well as adults. Television doesn’t just reflect culture, it shapes it. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance that seeing yourself in television, film and print can have on self-perception and identity.
The lack of representation in British television is troubling and, surprisingly, the industry remains a few steps behind Hollywood, which itself still has a long way to go. While the likes of Dev Patel and Sanjeev Bhaskar are paving the way for British Asian actors, compared to the British Asian population, representation is still minimal. Many South Asian characters remain stereotypes imagined through the lens of the ‘model minority’ myth, which perpetuates the idea that South Asians are a less ‘problematic’ minority than others and leads to stereotypical characters like ‘the doctor’, ‘the computer geek’ or ‘the humorous sidekick’.
2018 analysis of BAFTA awards by ethnicity and gender found that just 1.9% of Best Actor nominees – and 0% of Best Actress nominees – since 1969 were of South Asian descent. The study also revealed that where a South Asian actor had gone on to win the award, it had been for playing a racially typecast character such as Gandhi.
What’s worse than being misrepresented on television is perhaps not being represented at all. In a large proportion of mainstream films and television shows, South Asians appear as extras – a token of diversity. There is a feeling, watching British television, that an ‘every brown family is the same’ approach has been employed. Seeing the silk-wearing South Asian extras in the background of the local Asian restaurant feels predictably insulting. These characters, more often than not, are missing the fundamental complexities and multidimensional personalities of real-life people.
Another example is reality TV, which has experienced a huge increase over the past few years, particularly during the pandemic. Delving into the data for one of the UK’s highest grossing dating shows, Love Island, it is not hard to miss the fact that out of a total of 150 contestants, there have been only two female South Asians: Malin Andersson (2016) and Nabila Badda (2019). Knowing that producers are keen to feature attractive people, it throws up some questions regarding how South Asian women are seen. If Love Island is the idealised media image of beauty, where does that leave women who look like us?
Moving forwards, what can be done to increase representation? Does change lie exclusively in the hands of production companies? It’s a solution that starts with inclusion in the writers’ room and behind the camera; it means introducing ideas from the top down and actually having that diversity of thought there to help bring in more varied audiences, to build and construct authentic and reflective storylines and characters.
Ultimately, South Asian people have far more to offer than being restricted to ‘Asian films’ or typecast characters; those who have been born and bred in Britain likely identify just as much with British culture as with their own heritage. Shows created for the nation should represent the nation, and should most definitely be inclusive of – and authentic to – the British Asian experience.
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