The right representation of a culture is as important as practicing it. Most indigenous cultures face the dilemma of not being perceived and portrayed the right way, and are thus increasingly stereotyped. This is mostly true for the indigenous cultures of the Global South because as the bitter fruit of globalization has it, all people of the world are expected to uniformly adopt the West’s way of life. So whatever is a deviation ends up being portrayed and misrepresented as something low, less respectable, less humane, and more out-of-the-world. The rules are set by the First World, and the Global North, and the misrepresented are the people of the Third World.
West’s Entertainment Media & Cultural Misrepresentation
Nowhere is this misrepresentation of indigenous cultures and values more evident than in Hollywood. Latin Americans, South Asians, and Africans all are victims of fallacious representation in Hollywood movies and TV shows which in response has multiplied identity crises for respective immigrants in the US and Europe. Accent, appearance and some supposed socially awkward characteristics are the main elements of this (mis)representation in Western media. These portrayals are costing the South Asians the real essence of their culture and have instead ended up creating large groups of people who aspire to practice Western culture and do not feel comfortable practicing their own.
The rules are set by the First World, the Global North, and the misrepresented are the people of the Third World.
The native culture of an individual is her/his primary identity in a diverse and multicultural world. According to Barry Buzan’s Theory of Securitization, it is important to securitize your identity in the international world in order to survive. Out of the many ways to securitize identity, one way is to preserve the culture and its accurate representation; something of which most of third-world cultures are deprived. The stereotypical generalization of cultures is a big dilemma in the era of globalization. With the increasing usage of words like diversity, heterogeneity, and inclusiveness, the real meaning and utility of these concepts have faded away. Be it Latinos or South Asians, they are stereotyped and shown in the character of a person with a thick accent, no intellect, and at best someone with religious fanatic tendencies (especially Pakistanis are portrayed this way). People of dark skin are mostly shown as sportspeople (footballers, often) or rap singers.
The stereotypical generalization of cultures is a big dilemma in the era of globalization.
Misrepresentation in Some Famous Shows & Movies
Many examples in the history of cinema can be found to prove this point. Mr. Khan in the sitcom “Citizen Khan” is shown as a low-IQ Pakistani immigrant living in the US with three kids. While Mr. Khan’s daughter tells him about her best friend becoming her bridesmaid, he replies: “Shazia, we Pakistani don’t have bridesmaids. In our culture, your bride becomes your maid.” Just the way Pakistanis are generalized in their core beliefs and values, the historical essence of India is also misquoted. In the movie “Eat, Pray and Love”, Julia Robert visits India embarking on her spiritual journey, and attends yoga classes over there. India is shown as a country with a history of yoga and peaceful spiritual inclination. But this is not quite the case. Yoga has been instilled in India some half-century ago, prior to which only a few of its founding leaders could be spotted practicing yoga.
“Shazia, we Pakistani don’t have bridesmaids. In our culture your bride becomes your maid.”
From Seinfeld’s 1997 “The Backward Episode”, where India is shown as one of the most unhygienic, wildlife countries to “The Simpsons” episode “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” where the boss of Mr. Homer, Mr. Burns, sends him to India for the training of employees; a very exciting thing, which is analogous to the White savior mindset, happens. The episode shows India as a hub of hard-working employees who look forward to Homer for their needs and direction. They provide their cheap labor to him and to compensate for it, Homer teaches them how to stand for their rights by forming a union. It is analogous to what colonizers did two hundred years back in this region by imparting and imposing culture on the indigenous people.
With many more examples of misrepresentation of South Asian cultures and the unsafe space along with identity crises that it creates for the indigenous people of the culture, it would not be wrong to draw misrepresentation, globalization, neo-imperialism, and neo-colonialism as contributors to the phenomenon of culture stereotyping. The responsibility also partially lies with indigenous people as well. It is puzzling and demands attention that most South Asians know more about Western literature than their own. A Pakistani will know more about Shakespeare, John Keats, and Sylvia Plath than Waris Shah, Ghani Khan, Amrita Pretam, Hamza Baba, Rehman Baba, Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib, and Bulleh Shah. Indigenous people of South Asia can make the East meet the West, on the East’s own terms by practicing their languages, learning their literature, and taking pride in their cultural values. Draping a dupatta around should be as normal as wearing it on shoulders. A Balochi shalwar should be as normal as any jeans pants, because as Mother Teresa said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.