The ‘Happy’ Brown Girl: Liberation as Proximity to Whiteness in South Asian Media Representation

by Hawwa Alam.

It feels so comforting to simply exist in a space without having to prove the value of your identity. To simply be. No pre-conceptions, no judgements, just yourself and your thoughts. That’s how OSCH spaces always feel, and the ‘Radical Readers Postcolonial Banter Book Discussion’ I hosted in July felt no different. Yet whilst those spaces are so cathartic and empowering, sharing reflections amongst people who understand you and who share similar experiences, they always leave me with lingering sadness. Conversations around identity, belonging, discrimination and representation with other people of colour feels like therapy, in the moment. After the moment however, the more cynical side kicks in. The reality of life. The fact that we can all come together to support each other and share thoughts on similar topics because we hold shared experiences, and mostly not positive.

One key theme that stood out to me during the ‘Postcolonial Banter’ book discussion/workshop was on representation. It’s no secret that visibility of people of colour in the media was, and still is, an issue. Two dimensional characters and tired tropes are familiar flaws we spot in film and television, and projects like The Riz Test now exist to problematise such portrayals (in this case, of Muslim characters). Seeing the stereotypes on screen as an adult is exhausting, and annoying. But awareness of the reason why such characters are problematic is not lost on you. As a child, however, it often is. Those traits and tropes, the ‘oppressed’, the ‘violent’, the ‘backwards’, can be formative in the construction of a sense of self, and identity; you see a fellow person of colour, and you look to see the similarities, and for young girls, the foundation that builds their ‘character’ often relates to freedom. Liberation from parents, from faith, from culture, from the hijab, and is associated with a search for ‘happiness’.  And what does happiness mean? Well, proximity to whiteness. Sara Ahmed argues in her book The Promise of Happiness (2010) that western society holds its citizens to a ‘happiness test’, that part of becoming British is to accept empire (and hence everything that came with colonial rule) as ‘a gift of happiness’. ‘Multiculturalism’ then (in this case utilised simply as a buzzword to support the complete ‘integration’ of migrants into British society) takes part in the idea of what Ahmed calls ‘retrospective fantasy’; the nation is imagined as happily diverse, and to be happy is to embody the stereotypical idea of multiculturalism (Ahmed, 2010). Not too cultural to be alien, but brown enough to tick a diversity box. As the kids call it: a coconut.

The classic film Bend it Like Beckham is the perfect example. Freedom takes form as proximity to whiteness (Ahmed, 2007). A ‘restrictive’ and ‘cultural’ brown family, versus a more open and supportive white family, with a white man placed strategically at the crossroads of this juxtaposition. The film is narrated through a lens of female empowerment and ‘liberation’ within the most British playing field possible: the football ground, and ‘happiness’, of course, is the goal (Giardina, 2003). Yet of course happiness is not found in oneself, family, faith, or culture. The image of freedom is white, not brown. Unequal value is given to Asian and British identities, with the main character’s desire to be a footballer (used in this case as a symbol for a life steeped in British national pride) contrasted against her sister’s decision to marry within her culture as something ‘more’ – not just something different, but something more (Ahmed, 2007). Here, freedom and liberation are desires placed in opposition to cultural identity. The film ties the game of football tightly to the existence of a British national identity whilst portraying the ability to be a footballer and a happy member of the Asian diaspora as almost impossible. The brown girl finds her journey to happiness compromised by her own identity and is saved by whiteness.

During the book discussion, we discussed our similar approach to experiencing Bend it Like Beckham. The first watch when we were young, feeling excited by this representation of a South Asian girl in sports, coupled with the later realisation of all the problems weaving throughout it. In a podcast, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan talks about the problematic idea of being the ‘first’ Muslim to do something, which highlights the conditions – of going above and beyond to prove you are ‘valuable’ – that are attached to Muslims in order to be seen as human, Her reflection, that there exists a societal pressure that you cannot be mundane or complex or multifaceted, but must spend your life disproving stereotypes in order to be accepted, points to a resulting vicious cycle, wherein the highest form of liberation you can achieve is celebrating something a Muslim did that people ‘didn’t expect from them’, hence reinforcing the same stereotypes in the first place. This analogy can be translated to Bend it Like Beckham, and its box office response. In the film, the main character is celebrated by the white characters for being a brown girl who plays football and rebels against her family to do something ‘different’. Her struggles are exoticized by the white gaze as a ‘freedom fight’, where she attempts to challenge the ‘constraints’ of her heritage and culture in order to be ‘liberated’. The film’s critical acclaim, Ahmed argues, is the result of the alleviation of ‘white guilt’ from its audience; ‘you do not have to feel guilty about racism, as you can be uplifted by the happiness of the story of migrant success’ (Ahmed, 2007).

And again, what is ‘success’? Of course: proximity to whiteness.

South Asian representation in the media is – as most of us know, appalling. 1,100 films and TV shows spanning 120 years were individually reviewed and filtered by The Riz Test, with 87% failing. But often we think of the obvious stereotypes straight away: the ‘terrorist’ and ‘female victim’ in Bodyguard, the girl who takes off her headscarf for the white boy in Elite, and without a critical perspective, the ‘happy’ narratives sometimes slip under the radar. The ‘innocent’ coming-of-age pursuit of happiness that Bend it Like Beckham offers is perceived as more harmless than other problematic pieces of media representation. It’s positive, it’s ‘happy’, it’s just a sporting film, she finds her freedom in the end! But what about the girls who all sat together in the summer workshop and mourned the loss of the only film they had thought was theirs for years, that they had believed made them visible? What then?

The ‘happy’ brown girl existing in her proximity to whiteness is a problematic cinematic technique, constructing a western idealist conception of fulfilment. In reality, we’re all just trying to navigate British society in a way that does not compromise the connections with our culture and heritage that we wish to maintain. If that makes us ‘unhappy’ in the white gaze, then so be it.

Reference List:

  • Ahmed, Sara, The Promise of Happiness (Duke University Press, 2010).
  • Ahmed, Sara., ‘Multiculturalism and The Promise of Happiness’, New Formations (2007), 121 – 138.
  • Ahmed, Sara, ‘The Politics of Good Feeling’, Austrian Critical Race and Whiteness Association (2008), 1 – 18.
  • Giardina, Michael D., ‘“Bending it Like Beckham” In The Global Popular: Stylish Hybridity, Performativity, and the Politics of Representation’, Journal of Sport & Social Issues (2003), 65-82.

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