Indian stereotypes are a strange, awkward sort of bird. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and they usually have some truth to them. But what happens when a stereotype becomes outdated? Do new ones appear, or do old ones linger like a poorly written joke?
If Outsourced, NBC’s latest offering is anything to go by, old stereotypes stick around, regardless of how racist they are, and how far we have supposedly come.
Outsourced has been a long time coming--the series is based on a 2006 movie of the same name, and the pilot has been under development for at least 2 years. It’s also in a format that’s worked well for NBC, the slightly dark office comedy rife with misunderstandings and office-conflict, a la The Office and 30 Rock. But where the latter question stereotypes, even in their pilots, Outsourced appears to encourage them.
Better--or worse--the show’s inherent racism goes both ways. Sure, Indians come under the hammer (funny head gear, weird names), but so do Americans, and even Australians. Diedrich Bader, of Drew Carey fame, plays an overbearing xenophobic American manager who brown bags peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; Pippa Black is an Australian manager who’s gone native, eating curry and walking around in a safari outfit, less the hat. Main character Todd (Ben Rappaport) is an average middle America American, full of speeches about the greatness of America, and American novelties nobody needs. And although I take offense at the show as an Indian, I take greater offense at the show as a half-Indian, because the show suggests that people like me cannot exist as the product of an equal, bi-cultural relationship. In Outsourced’s world, a half-Indian, half-American baby would be the end result of a drunken snog at an office party, when the white guy realizes the Indian girl is okay, even if she speaks funny, and the Indian girl realizes the white guy isn’t so bad, even if he hasn’t bothered learning to say her name correctly.
Is it surprising that a show so incredibly racist has actually made it to not just a pilot, but a prime time slot in 2010 America? Not really. There’s a lot of bitterness about India-based call centers and lost jobs, and NBC appears to be trying to cash in on the trend by providing a way for viewers to mock said call-centers and feel good about themselves. Yet even that is backfiring: a quick Google shows so much anti-NBC feeling amongst middle America that some people are actually calling for an all-NBC boycott.
Could the show play to the coasts, like NBC’s actually smart, workplace sitcoms, 30 Rock and The Office? Maybe. But according to US census data from 2000 (reported by South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow), almost 2 million US residents were South Asian, with 1,678,765 identifying as Indian; SAALT reports that the majority of South Asians live on the coasts. While that may seem a small chunk out of the US’ 307 million residents, it’s a key number in the TV stakes. Following the high-rating show The Office, Outsourced pulled in about 7.4 million viewers, as compared to the former’s 8.4.
If only, say, a conservative 50% of South Asians are offended by Outsourced, that’s still 1 million people, or almost 839, 383 Indians. If each one of these possible viewers then tells just 1 friend how awful the show is or that it’s racist, that’s back to almost 2 million people not watching the show. If the numbers are higher, around 80% offended South Asians/Indians, then just over 2.5 million people could be boycotting the show on the coasts alone.
In an interview with Dave Walker of The Times-Picayune, executive producer Robert Borden said, “I think where we approach this is certainly not a mean-spirited place, and a lot of us have a life experience that’s relevant, and a third of the writing staff is Indian. So we’re not going to be wallowing in that kind of stuff that you’re insinuating, but we are going to have a lot of fun with characters who behave like relatable characters in a workplace comedy.”
Although it’s somewhat laudable that Outsourced has Indians on their staff, Borden’s quoting of a fairly exact (and not so high) number smacks of political correctness, an apology as useless as it is condescending. It would have been simpler to get straight to the point and say it: “Hey, look we like you! See, we’ve got brown people too!”
Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times adds in her review that “South Asians are no longer an exotic minority that needs to be sheltered from comic stereotypes; for one thing, there is no easily recognized stereotype,” a view that seems quite naive. Perhaps, though, Stanley’s view is informed by some of the excellent Indian performers out there, like The Office’s Mindy Kaling (also a writer for the show) and Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari--neither of which have resorted to mocking head gear such as turbans or hijabs, or suggested that India, even in a city like Mumbai*, is completely untouched by the US outside of call centers. In one scene, Asha (Rebecca Hazlewood) is confused by mistletoe, and does not get the joke behind a tacky mistletoe belt buckle. Or perhaps Stanley has never been tagged “exotic”, and doesn’t realize just how offensive the term is.
Will Outsourced make it past the first season? It’s hard to tell. Networks have been axing shows for less over the past few years, but as the adage goes, any press is good press. The controversial (read:offensive) nature of the show could be the very reason it survives. But I like to give shows a second chance, so I’ll watch the next episode--about the hi-hi-hilariously named Manmeet (Sacha Dhawan), who is a nervous wreck about employee evaluations--and try not to cringe.
Correction: this piece originally stated the sitcom was set in Delhi. It's actually set in Mumbai.