Sweet Valley High vs. South Asian American
When I was growing up, I harbored an unhealthy, unrelenting, all-consuming obsession with the Sweet Valley High book series. I wanted to be Jessica Wakefield, the scheming twin who could get whatever she wanted with a flash of her dimpled smile. I wanted her charisma, her presence and her so-called “All-American” beauty, more than I can possibly explain in words. The books described her and her twin Elizabeth as being “perfect California girls”, complete with blonde hair, blue-green eyes and size-six figures. I could think of nothing better – I could also think of nothing further from my own self.
“Perfect California girls: complete with blonde hair, blue-green eyes and size-six figures. I could think of nothing better – I could also think of nothing further from my own self.”
Growing up as a dark-haired, olive-skinned Indian girl, in a time and place where blonde hair seemed to be the most coveted accessory, is never easy. For me, it was made even more difficult by the fact that all around me, media forms are praising all the things I could never be and slapping the label “conventional beauty” on them. I remember being young and searching for a role model, a person with gleaming jet-black hair who was loved and admired and considered enviable – the only place I found such people were in Bollywood movies, another sure sign that my place in American society was not considered important enough to be captured by our country’s media.
Things have gotten better since then. Even the Sweet Valley book series seemed to catch on to the fact that minorities exist: the spin-off “Sweet Valley: Senior Year” featured a spunky, five-foot-tall Latina girl by the name of Tia Ramirez, a character whom I could relate to so intimately that my perception of my own racial identity was inexplicably altered by the very fact that such a character was even conceived.
But I continued to search for a more accurate representation of myself. For many of my South Asian peers, this reinforcement came with the release of the popular movie “Harold and Kumar”. The latter half of the infamous duo was a young Indian man, and while his race was an integral part of the role, he deviated from so many of the South Asian stereotypes that I grew up with by eschewing his aptitude for medicine, opting instead to play the role of a lazy, debaucherous party boy. But in my opinion, the treatment the film gave this character was still too clinical. References were made to his racial identity throughout the course of the film, and while so many of the South Asians that I’ve encountered appreciate the references to our culture and the somehow universal notions of our people, this disappointed me.
I’ve never felt truly satisfied with the way media portrays a member of the South Asian race until ABC Family debuted a show called “Greek”. The show’s resident troublemaker goes by the name of Rebecca Logan, and she’s portrayed by Dilshad Vadsaria, a girl of Pakistani, Indian, and Portuguese descent. Vadsaria’s character is the daughter of a wealthy and prominent politician. I remember watching the show for the first time with a close friend only to hear her exclaim “why would they cast a brown girl as a politician’s daughter? Like that would ever happen. And why is her name Rebecca?” To her this character made no sense — but to me, she was perfect.
Finally, I had found a corner of American media, however small, that showcased a girl of South Asian descent who didn’t seem to have been the least bit tokenized.
For the first time I got the sense that, when casting this character, the people at ABC Family had zero preconceptions about Rebecca Logan’s race. I felt as though the actress had been selected because of her attitude, her poise, maybe even a little thing called talent, and that she was brown-skinned and dark-haired was simply a physical reality. It seemed as though this opportunity was wide open for her, for all people equally, regardless of things like race — things that should have by now been rendered insignificant.
I’ve heard on more than one occasion that Rebecca Logan’s character is made less credible by the fact that she doesn’t “look the part” of a politician’s daughter: like the Wakefields of Sweet Valley, blonde, blue-eyed, the look that is so commonly referred to as “All-American.” It’s almost as though the fact that she doesn’t look stereotypically “American” makes her unworthy of a prominent place in the American government. But to me, despite all of the controversy that surrounds this casting choice, it is immensely satisfying that the network deemed her presumably dark-skinned father to be a symbol of Americana.
Why is it that we can place our allegiance in the hands of a black president, but we can’t accept a fictional politician who, at least in terms of appearance, is South Asian?
Why are we expected to stand back in society while other races march proudly towards the spotlight? Why is our place — both in media forms and in real life — supposed to be behind the scenes: behind desks on Wall Street or surgical masks in hospitals?
I want the stereotypes to go away, and for media forms to reflect the infinite possibilities that exist for the people of my race. I want my peers to stop telling me that I’m a “rebel” for choosing the only career path that has ever drawn my talent and passion: journalism, over a more “traditionally Indian” vocation like medicine or engineering.
I want to never again hear my father’s cautionary words. He, out of the most pure, heartfelt form of love that exists, fears that his daughter won’t be taken seriously as a journalist — a person who imparts realities of this country’s social landscape to other Americans — because of the color of her skin or the heritage of her last name.
It’s taken me a whole lifetime to understand that there’s more to being “American” than fair skin and light hair. I only hope that media forms evolve so that this lesson is more easily digested for the generation that comes next.
How far have South Asians come in terms of their media portrayal? Tell us what you think below or Tweet us @Divanee.