Inaccurate portrayal of South Asians in media perpetuates stereotypes

Safina Syed, Features Editor

As kids, everyone dreams of becoming royalty. The luxurious castle, the never-ending closet filled with beautiful clothing, the constant service, the incredible food—what’s not to like? Historically, Disney has represented this lifestyle through its many princess movies such as “Cinderella,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled” and “Aladdin.” Everyone had their favorite princess or the one that they felt represented them. Since there were no South Asian princesses, however, I never felt that connection or saw myself on screen. I would often get compared to Jasmine; although she was Middle Eastern, she was what others saw as the closest comparison to me and many other South Asian kids.

Even though Jasmine was marketed as more diverse and representative of Middle Eastern culture, that was not what I saw on the screen. To me, Jasmine is an inaccurate depiction resulting from Disney’s efforts to combine many cultures in the name of being more diverse. The movie was based on the U.S.’s perception of the Middle East, not reality.

Even in TV shows, I saw little to no representation of South Asians. The little representation I did see all fell into stereotypes such as the nerdy best friend. One of my favorite television shows as a kid was “Phineas and Ferb,” but the character Baljeet represents how South Asian characters are there to fill a diversity quota in a stereotypical way. Baljeet is a side character who assists Phineas and Ferb in whatever adventure they embark on. He is depicted as the nerdy kid who’s overly obsessed with his grades, and he retains a thick Indian accent. Phineas and Ferb are just as smart as Baljeet, but because they are white, they are portrayed as less geeky. With the enforcement of these stereotypes, South Asian kids appeared labeled in a certain way, and I felt as if I never got to see characters who I could relate to and feel represented by. As a kid, I wished I could look at the characters on my TV screen and feel more of a connection to them. I wanted to see more than just one token South Asian character with the same personality as every other. These stereotypical characters made me feel like that was how others saw me, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

More recently, Disney movies and shows have become more diverse. Disney has added more representation through shows and movies such as “Encanto,” “Soul,” “Moana” and “Turning Red.” While watching Disney Channel last summer at my sister’s insistence, I was impressed by an ad promoting a new movie called “Spin.” The ad showed the main character discovering her identity as a South Asian American while also following her dreams and handling the life of a teenager. (Still, it wasn’t perfect—although this movie featured a South Asian girl as the main character, it contained some inaccurate aspects regarding the depiction of holidays.) Also, while the character Priya in the Pixar movie “Turning Red” wasn’t the princess I had always hoped to see, she represented another depiction of South Asians that steered away from stereotypical tropes. While I grew up seeing one side of Disney, I am glad that I’ve also been able to watch my younger sister and cousins see themselves represented more accurately on screen.