Thinky Post: Why So Many ABCD Teenage Female Stories in American Popular Culture All of a Sudden?

Another thinky post! I’m spoiling y’all! Someday I may actually review a movie again and it will be too much joy to handle.

I say “All of a sudden”, but really this has been a trend for a while. There were a few hit teenage coming of age books. Ms Marvel started back in 2013. And then “Never Have I Ever” hit Netflix in 2020, but was a bit of a continuation of the crafted persona Mindy Kaling had been using for years. And now Disney Channel has it’s first desi heroine of a teen movie.

Get Ready to Meet the Family in The Disney Channel Original Movie 'Spin' –  The Nerds of Color

The entry of the desi minority into popular culture through youth focused products is not unusual. Disney Channel in particular has quietly led the way in representation for decades, at least since I was a child. Partly I like to think because they are good people, but largely because they are smart people. Kids will watch something they can relate to. And then kids will nag their parents to buy things related to that thing. It’s real straight forward.

If you are selling to children, you can afford to “narrowcast” a bit, and also be less focused on socio-economic standing. If you are selling a TV show for adults to a broadcast network, the network is gonna say “okay, only a small percentage of people are gonna watch this show, and an even smaller percent of that are going to buy the products advertised. So we want to aim at the rich white young folks with disposable income, so we can sell as much as possible”. But if you are selling a TV show for kids, you can say “look, kids will watch almost anything. If you make this show with a Person of Color in the lead, I guarantee you will still get a massive audience even if it is just kids who match that same demographic. And kids aren’t buying big ticket items anyway, you get kids from every economic strata watching this and put up your cereal ads, your cereal is going to SELL”.

Anyone my age or younger (I think I was the first Disney Channel generation) knows that Disney represents every community and represents it well. Weirdly, this is something people outside that demographic don’t necessarily know. I remember in college I was assigned an article in a Communications class about the lack of Black families on television in the 2000s. I was reading it thinking “wait, what about That’s So Raven? And Smart Guy? And The Proud Family?” Disney was and is FULL of representations of Black families. And Latinx families and a whole variety of Asian families. Andi Mack, which is FABULOUS, not only dealt with teen pregnancy, coming out of the closet, and non-traditional family structures in a sensitive sympathetic way, it also happened to have a mixed race family at the center with a Central Asian mother and a variety of casual references to Asian traditions.

That's So Raven cast: Where are they now? | Entertainment | Heat
That’s So Raven, most successful show in Disney Channel history. Which means not only a bunch of Black children were watching it, but children from every group

As the Desi demographic rapidly grows in America, representation is going to grow as well, and the young adult market will lead the way. That’s understandable through standard media studies rules. But what I find interesting is that it is specifically the FEMALE young adult market.

Now, there’s a simple answer for this which I am going to present just to reject it: Asian manhood is threatening and scary, Asian women are seen as soft and tender and less scary, so of course it is Asian women who will be the focus instead of men.

I REJECT this!!!! First, just being logical, in America Black manhood is seen as way WAY scarier than Asian manhood, and there are loads of young adult focused products about young Black men. So you can’t say that same fear of the adult translates to fear within child focused products.

Second, the desi community in particular in America does not fit within the Asian stereotypes. Half the time, American culture forgets to include them at all when it says “Asian”, instead going for more of an “Arab” stereotype vibe. There’s historical reasons for this, the Central Asian immigration to America was massive due to predatory labor practices etc. etc. But during the same time that China was a weird not-protectorate of America, India was a British colony. Those same predatory labor practices were sending desis to Malaysia, Kenya, etc. etc. Not to America. So the Central Asian stereotype in America is the weird effeminate “sneaky” Asian man, and the dangerous seductive Asian woman. From the era when Asian women were likely to be forced into sex work, and Asian men were forced into doing the female structured labor (laundries and cooking). But the desi community missed all that lovely stereotyping. Instead, the desis arrived post-1960s as part of the big brain drain wave. So you have the desi doctor, and the desi housewife. And eventually the desi college student. That’s the stereotype, they are people you see in the grocery store, in the hospital, or your fully assimilated classmate in college.

Stereotypes are always way way behind the times of course. In my experience, the “desi housewife” often was a doctor herself. And the classmate in college wasn’t necessarily fully assimilated, there was a massive community that brought their culture with them into the mainstream. But these are the stereotypes.

Okay, if this is the stereotype, why aren’t we seeing stories of young Desi men in pop culture? That ABCD generation, that’s 50/50 male and female, no reason you can’t have a desi boy being the hero of some coming of age drama, dealing with family pressure versus the greater culture.

Hasan Minhaj on Telling Jokes Without a 'Safety Net' - WSJ
Yes yes, there’s people like Hasan Minhaj. But that’s adult ABCD male stories, not childhood

I’m going to suggest 4 possible reasons, and maybe some of them are wrong, and maybe there are others out there I haven’t thought of.

  1. The desi/Arab/Muslim stereotype blurring in American culture. Since the 90s, we have had this big focus on the “oppressed woman”. So showing a young girl dealing with the pressures of tradition and family and breaking free/respecting them is a conflict we are primed for, much more than the same conflict in a young desi man.
  2. ABCD women are more encouraged to assimilate, speak out, and write. This is general gender bias, language is a “girl” thing, and communication and socialization and so on are also “girl” things. And emotional intelligence is a “girl” thing. So someone like Mindy Kaling has been primed her whole life to be able to articulate her experience growing up ABCD much more than, for instance, Sanjay Gupta.
  3. It is the ABCD girls who are most looking for representation of their particular situation. There is a stereotype of ABCD girls being trapped at home etc. etc., but there is also a little bit of reality. The life of an ABCD boy is not as different from the life his father had as the life of an ABCD girl. The boys still have their struggles, and some male ABCD comedians have done a great job expressing that (The Big Sick, for instance). But their struggles start later. They breeze through childhood and teen years and college, and only in adulthood does the pressure ramp up. For girls, as soon as you hit co-ed high school and all that entails, your life becomes very VERY different from that of your mother.
  4. ABCD girls are less likely to find that representation in desi focused artwork. South Asian movies, from every language and country, almost all have boy heroes. If you want someone who looks like you to be the lead of a story, you will end up gravitating to “Never Have I Ever” and “Ms Marvel” before “Dil Chahta Hai”.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got! What do you think?

17 thoughts on “Thinky Post: Why So Many ABCD Teenage Female Stories in American Popular Culture All of a Sudden?

  1. Okay, I have a lot of things to say, but I also have to get to work in 5 minutes, so this is just a note saying that I love this post, have been thinking along these lines for some time, and will post a well-thought out response later!

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      • Yay, awesome, okay! I have time now!

        I think it’s a bit of all the reasons that you described above. Desi women are more likely to notice the differences between not only them and their American peers, but also themselves and desi boys. That, combined with the fact that they’re taught/encouraged in languages & reading and “keeping quiet”, means they’re more likely to turn to media for comfort, rather than big, brash activities. Also, in the case of Disney, Disney has been for girls for a very, very long time. So we’re more likely to see desi female representation there as well.

        Netflix is also targeting women in a big way, with all their (sigh) reboots and rom-com movies, and for Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling is a safe bet guaranteed to bring in viewers, one thing that Netflix is taking more and more of, as the number of shows on the platform spiral out of control. She brings in Office fans, Mindy Show fans, desi fans, and women, esp with her #girlboss energy. As Mindy breaks the ceiling, it’s clear that Netflix, seeing the demand, will keep making more desi-young women-centered shows/movies, especially since it knows that the Indian market has gotten way, way, bigger, with the advent of cheap data and cellphones everywhere. Looking back, I’m a bit surprised it took so long. There was about a 10-year gap where casual TV went back to the “status quo”: white suburban family, with white suburban problems, and beginning 2016-ish, we’re beginning to see that splinter again.

        In other areas (and this might just be my bias speaking), we also see a lot of ABCD/NRI authors who are female: Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee, Sonali Dev. They could exist more on this side because of the whole idea that women aren’t to be seen on the public stage (unlike Kumail or Hasan). If desi men are to be meek, by society’s standards and by NRI standards of assimilation, desi women have to be meek by the standards of desi, American, AND NRI society. So you’re more likely to take refuge, again, in books, writing, media.

        It’s part of the reason Lilly Singh broke out in such a huge way and has spawned several imitations: she was new for desis – brash, funny, a little inappopriate – PLUS she was a woman on the public stage. Of course, her talent and her drive and charm had a lot to do with it, but she recognized what the desi + North American market lacked and used it to build her base. Very, very new.

        Also, I’m pretty sure I’m leaving something out here. It’s niggling away at me, but I can’t remember it.

        I’m really glad these things are around now (and more than a bit envious). None of these desi coming-of-age shows were around when I was growing up, so while I’m glad to see them now, it also causes a slight twinge in my chest to see the characters going through what I went through and to know that my childhood and adolescence could have been less confusing if these shows existed when I was growing up. But that’s neither here nor there.

        I hope this long essay makes sense!

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        • I forgot about Lilly Singh! I haven’t seen her recent show or anything, but her early stuff had all those little touches of specific desi female experience, acknowledging how the whole ABCD experience doesn’t fit with the fantasy of Indian womanhood. Which reminds me, with Mindy Kaling, her first few bits in The Office outside of the writers room were all modest and quiet and stereotypical. It was only after she got comfortable, and won the staff over, that she built up her loud crazy brash persona.

          I’ll throw out another thing about writers which I’m not sure of but maybe makes sense? There’s the Big Serious Respected Novel and then there’s the light fun quick book. It feels like maybe there is a big of a gender thing where it is okay for a man to write if he writes the Big Serious Respected Novel, but he can’t write a light fun quick book. Salman Rushdie, that’s dignified and stuff. But Sonali Dev isn’t. So if you are an ABCD man, you can go all the way and write a comic book after doing stand up and really putting yourself out there. Or you can write a Big Serious Book. But just doing a “I wrote something small for fun in my spare time” book is out. Does that seem possible?

          This isn’t comparable AT ALL, but when I was a little kid I was desperate for fantasy/magic books that were age appropriate for me. And then just as I aged out, Harry Potter hit and all of a sudden there were a million child aimed fantasy/magic books. SO UNFAIR.

          On Mon, Aug 16, 2021 at 9:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Here’s a good video (and it is a good channel! I recommend a subscription) about the Disney Channel and representation thing. As someone who grew up with the 2000s Disney Channel (been there for almost every milestone it set and proud of it) it is interesting to look back and see it with a different view. The video is over an hour-long so just look up the name and watch it on YT.

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  3. These are all great points. Just two thoughts to add:
    – You allude to this, but just to say it explicitly: I think one reason entertainment for kids can be more representative is that everything about the world is new to kids so they don’t have the same kind of “other” or “not relevant to me” filter that adults do. If the main character is a girl who has friend issues and family issues, kids tend to look at that through their own experience and find commonalities instead of focusing on the differences.
    – Looking around, one reason for better representation of female stories is there are more desi female creators. Why that is I don’t know. I do think you might be onto something with female self-actualization being an easier genre/cultural preconception fit than some of the canonical boy stories.

    This made me think of a few boy stories I know as books, maybe they’ll start to make their way into other media
    – Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions – looking forward to this one! Coming out next year. Coming of age, questions of assimilation vs. received values, plus romantic complications. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/624074/sunny-gs-series-of-rash-decisions-by-navdeep-singh-dhillon/
    – Blue Boy – coming of age as a gay desi boy in Cincinnati https://lambdaliterary.org/2010/06/blue-boy-by-rakesh-satyal/
    – The Best at It – also a story of a boy trying to find his place in a place where he doesn’t seem to fit https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-best-at-it-maulik-pancholy?variant=32117966897186

    (And side note, I would love to see this book as a movie – a girl baseball player story set in 1940s California with a Mexican-Indian family fighting to keep their farm? C’mon, please somebody make this! https://www.leeandlow.com/books/step-up-to-the-plate-maria-singh)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adding on to the point about the coming of age talky introspective thing being coded as “female”, two of the books you link to are about Queer kids. So there’s another coded thing, it’s okay to be emotional and introspective if you are going through a journey of coming out as a boy. Does that make sense? Both that you are already being forced to be more emotionally intelligent about yourself than other boys might have to be, and that by already breaking the gender rules you might be more open to breaking other rules and being talky and creative and stuff.

      Also, that Sikh prom book has an AMAZING set up and I want it to be a movie.

      On Mon, Aug 16, 2021 at 2:55 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, it makes sense. I’m trying to figure out what boy coded coming of age looks like. Fighting? Adventure? (My kid is reading Tom Sawyer as his choice for summer study.) Business? Family and romance does feel more female, but it’s also more universal in a modern, urban setting, right? Maybe it’s just that the dudes haven’t figured out their modern template and they’re adapting to the female template instead. But they’re still behind in terms of numbers.

        I know, right! So excited for that one.

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        • I can think of several boy-coming-of-age books I read, and I think the theme that was consistent was friendship, dealing with the fantasy of their lives versus the reality, and getting in over their head and having to find their way out of problems. Also general lessons about honesty and stuff.

          Hmm. Now I am realizing that the boy coming of age books get movies! Holes, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. NOT FAIR!!! The girls get TV shows, but the boys get movies.

          On Mon, Aug 16, 2021 at 10:32 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. It’s so true that kids watch everything regardless of who the protagonists are. Of of my son’s favourite shows lately is Family Reunion. The show is about Black family of 6 who move from Seattle to Georgia to be closer to extended family. They talk about black history and about racism, about living in a joint family. All things my son doesn’t know directly but still he likes the show a lot.

    Like

    • Family Reunion is really nice! I watched it too a bit on Netflix. Fun humor, slapstick, family love, and some nice lessons too. Netflix seems to have learned the same lesson as Disney in terms of making nice family sitcoms that hit ALL demographics because kids can relate to any other kid.

      On Tue, Aug 17, 2021 at 1:54 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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