How to be South Asian on American TV

In this blog entry, anupama jain, author of How to Be South Asian in America reflects on how South Asians are represented in American television.

In a course I am teaching this semester, students pair literary analysis with pop culture projects concerning Asians in America.  Topics have included Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the TV programs Glee and Modern Family, and Jackie Chan movies.  Recently, a student presented on Outsourced, providing an overview of the TV show, clips, and some background information, including that Outsourced is the longest running show to date that has multiple South Asians as major characters.  With over two million South Asians (from India, Pakistani, and other countries abutting the subcontinent) in America, I wonder why the first popular show about South Asians on American TV is set in India.  Also, although the actors are North American or British, they must adopt Indian accents for their roles as call center employees being managed by an Anglo-American boss.  The show is made in America, stars many American actors, and is in many ways about America, or at least the stereotype of the “ugly American” abroad.  Why, then, doesn’t it have any representations of South Asians in America?


I think the answer is that race continues to be such a fraught issue in the country that it takes up all of our attention when thinking of minority groups and we understandably want to avoid the vast potential for discomfort.  Furthermore, given the relative absence of Asian Americans in pop culture, each representation has too much influence and historical stereotypes continue to haunt us such that it can seem impossible to avoid generalizing or caricaturing.  From the few episodes I have seen, I have concluded that Outsourced is not particularly funny because it basically makes the same few jokes repeatedly, but I have not found it racially offensive, as have some other viewers.  Those connected with Outsourced have apparently been surprised by that response, according to an NPR discussion about the show.  Denying that the show is racist, they have pointed out how many Indians are involved with it and note that its aim is to humanize people who might otherwise simply seem to be threats for American workers losing their jobs overseas. 

I appreciate such a goal and I hope the show has that positive effect.  At the same time, I believe it is necessary to “humanize” South Asians in America, as well.  It is true that they are a relatively new Asian immigrant group, but their collective experiences have already become part of that grand narrative of the nation, The American Dream.  This means that their stories are likely of interest to many of us who live in the United States.  Still, TV and film producers continue to feel that there is a limited audience for projects focusing on South Asians in America.  What makes a TV program set in India seem more appealing and relevant for American audiences than a show about Americans?  On the one hand, “going global” can have many positive repercussions and lead to expanded worldviews, thus richer explorations of the human condition.  On the other hand, staying close to home in exploring difference and diversity is also important, however much it may give rise to fears of offending or being offended.

I think it would be absolutely fabulous to have a show on American TV that stars many different American characters, none of whom would come to be seen as representative or interpreted as the only way to be American, especially for those like Asian Americans who are otherwise rather rarely the focus of pop culture.  This would be my pitch:  Golden Gates– A group of ambitious college students in the San Francisco Bay Area discover that learning is a lot harder than they ever expected.  The fictionalized location is one in which there are realistically likely to be multiethnic groups of friends and where a variety of intriguing and unique stories are to be found, for example about West Coast culture, or how to raise a family in an expensive urban environment, or about the nation’s first gay neighborhood (The Castro), or involving the very visible homeless population.  These are just a few aspects of the setting that could provide a wonderful framework for a TV fiction in which Americans of various races live their interesting and complicated lives.  For those who are minorities in the U.S., these lives will usually involve some confrontation with issues of race and culture but they are not reducible to them. 

When viewers watched this TV program, they would not be thinking about South Asians, or other minorities, as people far away but instead as people right here, in America.  Rather than feeling concerned about reinforcing or breaking stereotypes, of offending the groups depicted in the show, people could focus on creative storytelling and solid entertainment.  That’s a show I’d like to see.

The Enduring Appeal of Campaign Advertising

Michael Franz, co-author of The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising, explains why he and Travis Ridout study those dreaded political advertisements, and why they are both important and effective in our polarized political environment.

Everyone says they hate political advertising. When I tell people I study the effects of political advertising on television, the usual reaction is something like, “Oh, I always tune that stuff out.” The problem with believing that such sentiments are widespread, however, is that candidates, parties, and interest groups clearly believe that their ads work, since they spend so much money on them. In the 2010 midterm elections, between January 1 and Election Day, over $1.4 billion was spent on broadcast television spots in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races, not counting local cable, radio, print, or the Internet.

So who is right, the candidates who spend so much time raising money for ads, or the people who usually roll their eyes when I talk about my research? The existing scholarship in political science is pretty clear that ads do move voter perceptions, not in huge numbers, mind you, but in small doses and at the margins. The margins are where the action is in American politics, though, so ads are really important to winning close elections. But what kinds of ads matter? And which kinds of voters are most open to these messages? Moreover, are we more likely to witness advertising effects in particular races?

These were the questions that Travis Ridout and I address in our new book, The Persuasive Power of Campaign Advertising. We look at U.S. Senate and presidential elections between 2000 and 2008, and we make use of survey data and aggregate election results to estimate the influence of political ads. One of the most important findings in the book is that ads seem to affect political novices the most. Voters who know less about politics are the ones who get the most benefit from seeing ads on television, while those who are knowledgeable about politics more easily turn them out. This finding might concern us if ads were driving these voters away from their pre-dispositions, but they are not–Democratic voters still by and large prefer Democrats and Republican voters still prefer Republicans. Seeing a bunch of ads from one side, however, can move you towards higher levels of support and approval for that candidate. It might not change your vote, but it makes the decision in the ballot box a bit more uncertain. That, after all, is what elections are about, and the balance of our results suggests ads are not falling on deaf ears.

More so, we address an important question about the future of political advertising, the increasing presence of online political ads and videos. Are these messages persuasive? Who is seeing them? The data are hard to come by, but one of the things we uncover is that visits to Obama’s and McCain’s websites in 2008 are, as you might expect, largely dependent on where you live, either in a blue or red state. Blue state people tended to visit Obama’s site, where he posted his ads and videos, in disproportionate numbers than people in red states. Vice versa for McCain. This potentially indicates that online persuasive appeals are more likely speaking to core supporters, not fence sitters.

One of our core claims is that while so many people assert a hatred for the political ad, we live in a polarized political environment. The ads you see on television between sports and weather during your local news, however, might be the only times you see a message from a candidate you don’t know anything about or don’t like. It might be the one opportunity you get in an election to hear messages that compel you to reconsider your vote. In that sense, political ads are one of the only means left in contemporary American politics that help bridge the polarization. And for that reason alone, I’m a fan.

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