I’ve been hearing about The Big Bang Theory for a while now, and it has been recommended to me a few times by associates within my academic circle–by friends with both Asian and non-Asian backgrounds.
Interesting… I thought to myself. A clever comedy? That could be refreshing. And of course, I was also interested to see how they would play out the character of Raj Koothrappali, as East Indians are rarely favourably portrayed (or even included) in American sitcoms.
I’ll have to admit I was less than impressed with the initial episode I watched. What had been sold to me as a “smart sitcom” seemed more like a series of dull, mildly depressing and unintelligent ramblings of grown-up Superbad characters. But it’s alright for light-entertainment before bed, I convinced myself, slightly out of desperation as there are so few quality shows on the air nowadays.
Still, there was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about the show. I even felt mildly uncomfortable watching it. After a few more episodes, I started to admit to myself that I really disliked the show’s attitude toward Raj, but once again, the critic in me acquiesced to the more naive part of myself, and I told myself that I was just being hypersensitive.
Then the racist element really started to get under my skin, and I started documenting the evidence for social observance purposes. That and blog fodder.
The first moment that I probably felt that internal burn that we all feel when we know we are being discriminated against is during the first episode, when Penny (the show’s token “hot girl,” who actually is pretty adorable) addresses Raj, and he doesn’t answer her. Her immediate response is, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”
This problematic assumption is worsened by the fact that it is sidekick Howard who steps in and speaks for him, explaining that he cannot answer her because he is “a nerd.” Great, I said to myself, so the one time an East Indian is cast in a lead role in an American sitcom, not only is he part of a group with questionable attitudes towards women, a group so pathetic, so painfully nerdy that even I want to give them all wedgies, but he also has to be silenced.
Raj Koothrappali is robbed of his voice: a key feature of colonialism, sexism, slavery, and oppression in general. Is it the tale of Columbus, or of the scores of humans he slaughtered, that we are taught of with semi-folklore status in our history classes today? Is it the women or the men who are noted as the prime social reformers and philosophers of their time? When we discuss politics, both national and foreign, ancient and modern, who has their say? Certainly not those whom it would be most relevant to hear from. And let’s face it, in American history, it’s the Anglo-saxon version that dominates despite the myth of the melting pot. This is what subjugation is all about.
Is Raj’s inability to speak a comedic aspect of his character, or a symptom of something more insidious in The Big Bang Theory? Why couldn’t it be the socially inept Sheldon, the uncouth and sexually repulsive Wallowitz, or even lame Leonard who is rendered with this ignominy?
Relax! You say to me. You are over-analyzing it! It’s just a show. And anyways, Wallowitz is Jewish. He is also a member of a minority group that has faced extreme discrimination in American society. So what if he spoke for Raj in this instance? He does not have the agency to be racist.
Okay, let’s agree to disagree and say that Raj’s fleeting loss-of-voice isn’t racist. But it isn’t only Wallowitz who speaks for–and even defines–who Raj is. In The Precious Fragmentation, (S3 E17), it is the leading-nerd Sheldon Cooper, a Texan of Anglo-saxon ancestry, who distinguishes Raj as “the foreigner who tries to understand our culture and fails.”
This instance draws parallels to the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, wherein the slave, through systemic oppression, is (at least initially) only able to see himself through the eyes of his oppressor. His oppressor ends up being the one who provides him with his identity. Moreover, why is Raj’s character forever seen as an outsider incapable of assimilation? He is a smart, functional (aside from his encounters with women) member of society who speaks fluent English and almost seems to abhor anything remotely “Indian.” Yet he is not “one of them.” He is not an American, and in the eyes of Sheldon, who emblematizes not only the dorky Anglo-saxon, but also small-town, white American nerd-dom, he never will be.
The show doesn’t stop there with Sheldon’s sense of entitlement to speak as the wiser, more advanced counterpart to his foreign comrade. In The Gorilla Experiment (S3, E10), after Penny cutely throws and catches food in her mouth, Sheldon makes a condescending remark about how he dislikes when she acts “willy nilly” towards food without concern for its equitable distribution. He then addresses Raj with an uncalled-for and inaccurate attack, stating “Raj, this is essentially why you have famine in India.” This is an instance of the classic “ruler-knows-best” colonial symptom.
It doesn’t take a self-proclaimed genius like Cooper to know that India, a major exporter of the world’s food, hasn’t had a famine since after the British left. Under British rule, millions Indians died of starvation during at least 25 well-documented famines, while the colonists gained inspiration for their later behaviour in Ireland by inducing Indian famines through looting the country’s food and goods and taxing people for everything (see: The Bengal Famine, which killed 1/3 of the population, or 15 million people). Interesting how colonial thought enjoys distorting these basic facts.
In The Jiminy Conjecture (S3 E2), Sheldon even reminds Raj of his ancestral colonial connection during a disagreement where Raj remarks he would be “kicking [Sheldon’s] butt” if this argument was in his Native tongue.
“English is your Native language!” Sheldon quickly and thoughtlessly repudiates, met by the laughter of the audience.
So Sheldon can state that Raj’s Native tongue is English, however Raj is still far from an American, “failing” to comprehend its cultural norms. This attitude is typical of the British Raj, who forever tried to Anglocize India, while never agreeing that India was “Anglo” enough. For example, Sir Babington Macaulay, a hailed reformer of the Indian education system (whose role in the outlawing of all homosexual activity is conveniently ignored) and a fierce proponent of English-medium schools despite his inefficiency in the English language, had this to say about India: “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic, but […] a single shelf of a good European library are [sic] worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.”* Even after Macaulay had done his damage and outlawed homosexuality, Vicery Elgin still referred to homosexual amour as “special Oriental vices.”** Macaulay’s “reforms” reveal an example of the British colonial view that although India was English-speaking, it’s still not English. Their so-called “backwardness” was basically an inherent “Oriental vice.” Similarly, Raj may speak English, but Sheldon will never see him as on-par with his fellow Americans.
It’s not racist, it’s funny! you protest. Raj knows he is “the foreigner” and he plays upon it, calling his friends out on their racism and coming back with witty remarks whenever he’s faced with it! This show is far from depicting Raj’s role as that of the inferior immigrant.
Not always. Again in The Jiminy Conjecture, when the nerds meet with a cricket expert (who has just been fired) to settle their asinine dispute, he lashes out at them with comical irrationality–at least, until he gets to Raj, where his anger takes on a racist turn.
“What’s your deal?” he says to Raj, as he gives him the cat-eye. “Are they out-sourcing my job to Bangalore?” Again, this question is met with audience laughter. Raj’s retort is simply, “I’m from New Delhi.” Although this response does elicit the sense of incomprehension that educated people when confronted with extreme ignorance, I was disappointed that none of Raj’s friends stood up for him, and I was left with that same uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
Further, I would argue that Raj’s homeland is seen as subordinate to The Land of Opportunity. In The Pirate Solution (S3 E17) when Raj faces deportation, he whines incessantly about how he doesn’t want to go back. After all, India is “hot, it’s loud, and there are so many people! You have no idea–they’re everywhere!” He rebukes the McDonald’s in Mumbai for not selling beef, degrading his culture while glorifying this ethically questionable MNC by going on and on about the wonders of animal flesh. As an animal rights activist, frankly, I was horrified to watch this episode.
Yes, this is just Raj’s opinion of India I’m discussing here, but none of the other characters even attempt to cheer him up. Rather, Sheldon suggests becoming a pirate as a suitable alternative to living in India, contending that it’s what he would do in Raj’s position. To the Big Bang nerds, India is a strange, uninteresting, faraway land they wouldn’t visit even for one of their closest friends. Howard remarks that India is a very far plane-ride away, and that instead they should “Skype.”
(I could probably find even more instances of racism in a show that is so chock-full of it, but as you can probably tell, I only watched Season 3, and I feel that that is more than enough for a lifetime.)
So overall, this is The Big Bang Theory‘s stance on India: boring, far, hot, and inferior. A place undeserving of even fact-checking before you throw a few reproachful comments its way. In fact, India is so unworthy that even Howard wouldn’t go there for his best friend, with whom he shares a latent but palpable bi-curiousity.
* Quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education can be found here. PS–Why Macaulay took an opportunity to diss Arabia when he was supposed to be commenting on education in India will always be beyond me.
** Suparna Bhaskaran. “The Politics of Penetration: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code,” in Queering India, ed. Ruth Vanita, p. 17. Routledge, 2002.
***Other great posts about The Big Bang Theory here and here.
****Update May 3, 2016: I love that this blog post continues to get visceral reactions from people years later. I am also amazed at all the hypersensitive people who got offended at my being offended all the while missing the irony in that.