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It's Getting Better: Pop Culture's Shift to Multi-Ethnic Characters Instead of Caricatures

Growing up of Indian descent and being a pop culture junkie, the lack of representation in movies, television and especially comic books never bothered me too much. Mainly because, well, I didn't notice. It's amazing how little race affects you when you're a kid; most children simply don't think about skin color and the racial bias that comes with getting a job, or being represented within the entertainment industry, or simply walking down the street. It doesn't concern them, because, why they hell would it? As a kid, I learned to connect to a character based on personality and characterization, regardless of whether or not they looked like me or not. I love Superman because of what he stands for, not because of what he looks like.

As I grew older, though, racial issues became impossible to avoid. I looked around at the world I loved -- the world of fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes and action stars -- and for a long time, I saw that for the most part, Indian characters simply did not exist. And when they did show up, they mainly embodied raging stereotypes, speaking with overly-thick accents or wearing turbans. Many were terrorists. And they were supposed to be funny because of how silly they sounded, or how different they were compared to the "normal" characters.

It comes as no surprise to point out that pop culture has a race problem. We've heard it again and again from numerous different writers, authors, actors, you name it. But what is even more interesting and, frankly, surprising is, despite there still being major issues regarding the amount of representation of non-white people, issues on how these characters-of-color are portrayed and, admittedly, a host of gender problems -- despite all of this, it is getting better.

In movies and television, the improvement is particularly noticeable. As mentioned, for the longest time Indian/Middle Eastern characters in movies and TV basically were either "fresh-off-the-boat" or terrorists/villains. Take the movie "Van Wilder." I actually enjoy that movie -- mainly because of my undying love for Ryan Reynolds -- but Kal Penn played a stereotypical Indian exchange student, accent and all. Here's the thing about Kal Penn, though: he doesn't have an accent. The writers and director just wanted the character to have one in the movie, because "comedy."

Many Indian actors have talked about this before, how one of the first questions they get when auditioning for a role is whether they can do the accent. That Indian characters are supposed to speak and act a certain way is the same as if white American actors were expected to put on a Southern accent and love NASCAR and guns because that's an American stereotype. However, again, things have actually improved. After "Van Wilder," Kal Penn did a film with John Cho where they played two stoners who both also happened to be minorities -- on a quest for some White Castle. Those characters weren't defined by their race.

It took longer for television to come around, but boy has it -- and it's fantastic.

Here's the thing: my name is Kevin. I'm of Indian descent, but my actual name is Kevin. While many people talk about wanting to see a character like them, I can tell you exactly when I saw a character almost exactly like me: October 3, 2011, when Kal Penn played a character actually named Kevin on "How I Met Your Mother." Before that, on "House," there was a doctor named Lawrence Kutner who was of Indian descent, a that fact had nothing to do with the character's actions. Guess who played him? If you guessed Kal Penn, congratulations, you're seeing the theme.

Penn essentially opened the door on television for Indian characters who are not defined by their race. Now, we have amazing characters like Mindy Kaling's Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Lahiri on "The Office" and "The Mindy Project"; Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford (who brilliantly lampshaded his "Parks & Recreation" character's background with the glorious "You're from...." "South Carolina?" bit); Cece in "New Girl"; Ravi in "iZombie"; and pretty much everything Kumail Nanjiani has been doing lately. All these characters have depth, and are fleshed out and fully realized, and their race can sometimes play into their character, but it isn't their single defining characteristic.

My more attractive, more talented celebrity doppelgänger, Utkarsh Ambudkar -- who played Donald in "Pitch Perfect" -- spoke in an interview about what it was like growing up without people that looked like him in television and movies. "I didn't have a role model... I didn't have anyone who looked like me," he recounted. "And by the time I was old enough to have what could have been a role model, they were my peers. Aziz Ansari is my peer. Kal Penn is my peer." Now, a whole generation of actors can now look up to all of these actors and the positive change they've brought to Hollywood.

In comics, they're still working on it, and while they haven't kept up with the changes we've seen in other media, it's still better than ever before.

Comics are sort of like pro wrestling: when you're of a particular race, you're that race so hard. Too often minorities come off as huge stereotypes, and even the good intentions in comics can sometimes be a little off. For example, if you're a minority, it's really important that everyone is constantly reminded about your different beliefs and customs. For Muslim, Hindu, even Jewish characters, the audience must constantly be reminded about their culture. You never hear, "Oh, I'm busy on Sunday. As a Catholic, I have to go to Mass." It's just not a thing that happens.

Yes, religion can be important to a character, but if you're of Indian or Middle Eastern descent, religion seems to be the most important part of the character. Again, race can partially define your character but it shouldn't be the defining characteristic. Or, if you're going to have a character that's super-religious or straight from India, it might be a good idea to balance that out with another character that isn't religious or is Indian-American.

Two big examples that show comics are headed in the right direction are Ms. Marvel and Simon Baz. For both those characters, religion and race plays a role in their characterization, yet it doesn't define them. Rather, it informs them. I will admit that when DC Comics announced a Muslim, Lebanese-American Green Lantern, I was a little nervous -- but Geoff Johns has proven himself an incredible writer, especially when it comes to character -- and as such, I think he handled Baz incredibly well. Being of Middle Eastern decent and living through the horror of 9-11, Baz experienced something I and some members of my family have: Uncertain looks and questions about my background, heritage and religion. I mentioned minority characters reminding people of their differences, but in the case of Simon Baz, it was other people reminding him he was different. Something that happens far more often in real life than the other way around.

Meanwhile, with Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan, writer G. Willow Wilson makes religion a big part of the character, but explores both the positives and negatives that come with that on a personal level. She does a great job of looking at how growing up Muslim and the expectations that come from having a religious family affect Kamala personally, especially during a time when she's questioning her faith. You also see aspects of being Muslim that comics don't normally address, like loving the smell of bacon but being unable to eat it. The struggle is real. But what really makes the difference from what we've seen before is that Kamala is the main character of her book, so we see a perspective we don't normally get to, because traditionally, Middle Eastern and Indian characters are never the star.

Comics haven't caught up to television and movies -- and television and movies haven't quite caught up to, you know, reality -- but it's all getting there. Slowly, yes, but also surely, we're moving closer to where it all needs to be.

In this climate, it's so easy to point out all the wrongs, all the mistakes, and to lash out at them and decry them and demand blood in retaliation. It happens far too often, and that sort of reaction -- rather than properly calling attention to the mistakes and discussing how to actually improve on them -- makes people afraid to even try. It slows progress. Rational discussion is important. Calling out and celebrating positive and progressive changes are important.

Because at the end of the day it's also important to remember: yes things aren't perfect, yes there is still a lot of a ways to go, but it is getting better. Let's work together to make it great.

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