The rise of diaspora comedy has brought a new wave of South Asian performers to the forefront. From Lilly Singh to Poorna Jagannathan and Pinky Patel, these entertainers pay homage to Brown moms in their work. But as they do so, they face a challenge: overhauling cultural stereotypes without reinforcing them.
One of the most notable examples of this trend can be found in the hit Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. In the show, Poorna Jagannathan plays Dr Nalini Vishwakumar, a single mother raising her teenage daughter, Devi. Nalini is a force to be reckoned with, and her tough-love approach to parenting is instantly recognizable to anyone who has grown up with a Brown mom.
In one memorable scene from the show’s second season, Nalini catches Devi kissing a boy in a car immediately after scattering her late husband’s ashes at sea. She responds with fury and humour, knocking her daughter on the head and muttering insults in Tamil. It’s a hilarious and relatable scene, capturing the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter in a brown family.
Jagannathan acknowledges that her portrayal of Nalini is rooted in her experiences growing up in a South Asian household. “That opening scene is right out of my amma’s handbook on how to deal with any tough situation: hit your kid on the head and call them a water buffalo,” she said in an interview. “Her favorite was ‘avk,’ which is [Tamil for] a donkey broken free from its leash and now unhinged.”
But while this kind of humour can be entertaining, it also runs the risk of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Brown moms have been portrayed as overbearing, controlling, and quick to resort to physical punishment for years. These tropes reinforce the idea that South Asian families are patriarchal and oppressive, perpetuating stereotypes that have real-world consequences.
But why do diaspora audiences find comfort in this portrayal of Brown moms? For many, it’s because these characters remind them of their mothers and the sacrifices they made to provide a better life for their families. It’s a recognition of the challenges that many South Asian families face in navigating cultural identity and assimilation in a new country.
However, there is also a risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes about South Asian families and perpetuating harmful cultural norms. This is particularly true when these portrayals focus only on the negative aspects of Brown moms and fail to recognize their strength and resilience.
At the same time, there is no denying that the portrayal of Brown moms in popular culture has come a long way. South Asian entertainers increasingly embrace these figures’ complexity and diversity while challenging cultural stereotypes. From Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s portrayal of Devi in Never Have I Ever to the work of comedians like Aparna Nancherla and Hasan Minhaj, Brown moms are being portrayed in a more nuanced and authentic way.
As more South Asian artists and content creators pay homage to Brown moms through diaspora comedy, it’s essential to balance acknowledging the challenges of being a Brown mom and celebrating their strength and resilience. It’s time to move beyond tired plotlines and overcooked accents and recognize the complexity of Brown moms as individuals with their own unique experiences and stories to tell.
Ultimately, the portrayal of Brown moms in diaspora comedy can be a powerful tool for bridging cultural divides and building understanding between communities. It’s up to content creators to use this tool wisely and respectfully while also recognizing the diverse experiences of South Asian families and the importance of representation in media.
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