Is Outsourced Racist?

More importantly, how do we know whether a show is racist or not?

Is Outsourced racist?

To tell you the truth, I don’t really care whether it is or it isn’t.  But that title got your attention, didn’t it?  Yeah, that title got your attention.  Maybe it made you a little uncomfortable.  Maybe it got your blood boiling.  Or maybe it made you shrug.  You know what?  Hell with it.  I’m going to write it again, just for kicks.

Is Outsourced racist?

Since the show started, critics have been debating this question, a question that received significant attention last week in the comments section of this AVClub article.  As for me… well, I was more interested in what some other commenters were saying.  Here and there, people were saying things like this: “I’m Indian, and I like the show.  It may not be extremely culturally-sensitive, and it may not be very good, but my family and I watch it and we enjoy it, mostly because it’s full of Indian people.”

I didn’t really understand this sentiment at first, and I didn’t think it was a particularly good defense against the racism charges levied against the show.  (As Todd VanDerWerff said, just because black people liked Amos ‘n’ Andy, it didn’t make the show not-racist.)  But I soon started understanding the feeling very well when I stumbled across some reruns of The Nanny on Nick at Night.  And then I got it.  Outsourced is going to be for Indian-Americans what The Nanny was for American Jews.

I can’t speak for all American Jews, of course, but, for my family, at least, The Nanny is like the sixth book of the Torah.  The show started airing almost twenty years ago, but every time it’s on in my parents’ house they have to stop what they’re doing and watch.  It’s like Jewish law or something.  We don’t keep kosher, but we watch The Nanny.  It’s funny, and it has Jews in it.  Not fake Jews like the ones on Friends.  Real Jews.  Jews who talk Yiddish and spit on each other to knock on wood.

That's how she became... The Nanny.

Like Outsourced, The Nanny is built around cultural stereotypes.  Some of the more obvious types of “Jews are funny” jokes used in the show are: 1) Jews talk funny; 2) Jews like a good bargain, especially from Loehmann’s; 3) Jewish mothers constantly nag their daughters to marry nice Jewish doctahs; 4) Jews have funny customs; and 5) Jews like eating (especially pastries and cold cuts).

I’m one of those bleeding-heart-multiculturalist-liberal types you hate so much, so my inner racism alarm bells are pretty sensitive.  Take, for example, the past two weeks of Modern Family.  The whole cast making fun of Sofia Vegara’s accent last week made me cringe, but that’s mostly because I’m currently living in a foreign country and mangling my own second language, and the idea of having a bunch of people mock me mercilessly for it makes me wilt in shame.  Even worse was this week’s episode, which passed off an incredibly cringe-worthy bit by playing the “We’re not being racist!  We’re making fun of other shows that use claims of irony to gloss over the fact that THEY’RE racist!” card.  Anyway, Modern Family, if I wanted to watch a Godzilla parody, I would have watched Arrested Development, thank you very much.

So my gag reflex is usually sensitive to cultural insensitivity in TV shows… yet if anyone called The Nanny anti-Semitic or racist, I’d laugh.  The show deals in stereotypes –stereotypes about my own culture, stereotypes that are sometimes negative – and yet I find it charming.  I might even go so far as to say that it’s one of the most pro-Jewish shows that has been on television in my lifetime.

So what’s the deal?  Is The Nanny racist (or anti-Semitic, if you prefer)?  And, if it is, does that make Outsourced racist, too?  If Indians and Indian-Americans enjoy Outsourced just like American Jews enjoyed The Nanny, does that mean the show by definition cannot be racist?  When is it okay for sitcom writers to mock a person of a minority culture, and when is it not?  Let’s look at some theories and see if we can come up with some answers to these questions.

Theory #1: It’s okay to mock other cultures using stereotypes if those stereotypes are true.

My number 1 defense of The Nanny, and the thing I say the most when I watch an episode of the show, is “It’s funny because it’s true.”  Most Jewish mothers DO want their daughters to marry nice Jewish doctors.  Most Jews DO enjoy eating kugel, and finding a bargain at Loehmann’s is like sex to many of us.  I think that’s the main reason my family loves watching The Nanny: the joy of self-recognition.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t find Outsourced too-too racist.  Many of the jokes the show makes about India are true, as far as I know.  Extremely spicy Indian food can give you explosive diarrhea.  I know this is true, but don’t ask me how.  Indians in India aren’t big into PDA – and I believe this is true because Bollywood said so.  Well-off Indian parents are kind of picky about who their kids marry, and I know this because I have met Indian people before.  These stereotypes aren’t always true, but they’re true enough of the time and of enough people that it can’t be racist to simply point out their trueness.  Now, if you ask me if these jokes are funny, that’ll be a different story.  Because Outsourced is not funny.  It is NOT FUNNY.  These jokes about India and Indians are so old they make Apu look fresh.

"But I am fresh!"

Theory #2: It’s okay to make fun of a minority/less-privileged culture if you make fun of a majority/more-privileged culture, too.

This theory is on much shakier ground than theory 1, but I think there is something to it.  Although it is a “Jewish show,” The Nanny doesn’t spend all of its time making fun of Jewish people and customs.  It spends an equal amount of time (or maybe even more time) making fun of snooty, upper-class British people.  “Both cultures are silly!” the show seems to say.  “And don’t they seem even sillier when the two worlds collide?”

I think Outsourced is trying to play this game, too, but it’s not nearly as successful as The Nanny is for two reasons.  First, The Nanny is a fish-out-of-water comedy that pits Jewish people (and their very specific stereotypes) against upper-class British people (with their very specific stereotypes).  Outsourced, on the other hand, is a fish-out-of-water comedy that pits Indian people (with their very specific, if warmed-over, stereotypes) against white American people.  The problem is, the show’s audience is American.  What stereotypes do we Americans have about Americans?  Here are the ones Outsourced has tried: Americans like to eat meat.  Some Americans like to hunt sometimes.  Americans enjoy useless novelty items, especially when they are risqué in nature.

Unfortunately, these are not robust stereotypes, and as such they are not very funny.  Say you’re an Outsourced writer.  You say to yourself, “Oh, no!  People are calling our show racist!  I will mock both sides to be fair, so they cannot make these claims!  Fair and balanced!  Fair and balanced!”  So you go to your computer and write a script that’s 50% Indian jokes and 50% American jokes.  But the American jokes are not funny at all, because you don’t know how to make fun of Americans in general.  So even though you put an equal number of Indian and American jokes in there, an American audience member is only going to laugh at the Indian people.  And voila, your show seems even more racist.

So you go back to the drawing board.  You say, “Aha!  There IS one robust stereotype about Americans that all Americans know.  We’re supposed to be boorish, superior, and ignorant about the world around us.  By Jove, I’ve got it!”  So you, Outsourced writer, decide to make your American characters boorish, superior, and culturally-ignorant so you can make fun of this stereotype.  Fair and balanced, right?

…And your plan backfires.  Why does it backfire?  It backfires because your American characters are the characters the audience is meant to identify with.  That means that when those characters say ignorant or racist things, an audience member has one of two options: 1) Unironically laugh at the culturally-insensitive things the character says (proving to the show’s critics that the show IS racist) or 2) be put off by this smug, asshole protagonist and no longer identify with him.  I happen to be the second type of viewer.  I believe Outsourced would be about a billion times better if they got rid of all the American characters, especially the main protagonist, Todd.  God, he’s such a douche. And, no, Outsourced, making the other American character (Charlie) even more douchey does not counteract the douchiness of Todd.  Sorry.

Douuuuuuche.

Speaking of protagonists, this “we’re mocking both sides” game also works much better if the main character is a lovable low-status minority while the high-status majority characters are the villains or antagonists.  The Nanny works this way, and it works well.  We are meant to identify with and love Fran, a low-income, low-status, minority figure, despite (or maybe because of) her stereotypical quirks.  Rich, snobbish C.C. is the villain, and Maxwell, despite his British charm, is usually an antagonist, too.  It’s funny to watch our woman Fran (along with Niles, the low-status butler) use her wits to undermine these upper-class snobs.

On the other hand, when we watch Outsourced, we’re meant to identify with Todd, the well-off, white American guy.  It’s like if The Nanny were from the point of view of Maxwell, a rich British guy who hated living with a bunch of crazy Jewish people.  This is much less funny, and it changes the whole dynamic of the show.  With Maxwell as the privileged straight-man protagonist, the concept of the show changes from, “Isn’t the clash between cultures funny?” to “Man, aren’t Jewish people annoying and weird?”

Theory #3: It’s okay to mock a minority culture if you are part of that culture.

We Jews believe this one, because self-deprecating humor is our bread-and-butter.  This is true in The Nanny, where Fran Drescher not only mocks her own religion and culture, but mocks herself regularly, too.  Outsourced doesn’t seem self-deprecating at all, mainly because its main character is a smug idiot who thinks the name “Manmeet” is hilarious, and it’s hard to say whether or not it ever CAN be self-deprecating.  That’s because the show is about the foibles of India, but every episode thus far has been written by Robert Borden, a white dude from Kansas City.  In this interview, Borden does claim that he has Indian-American writers on his staff (although he doesn’t name them), and I guess that does help his argument.  But it doesn’t feel quite the same as knowing that Jewish Fran Drescher was the boss on The Nanny.  It kind of seems like a Tea Party rally where everyone’s pointing at the one black guy and saying, “See, we’re not racist!  We’ve got a black guy here!  See?”

Theory #4: It’s okay to mock minority characters if they have other traits besides being part of that particular minority group.

Forget theory #1.  The real main reason I don’t consider The Nanny anti-Semitic is that Fran is not primarily Jewish.  She is primarily Fran.  Her Judaism is the butt of jokes at times, but so are her nasal voice, her inappropriate outfits, and her obsession with marriage.

You could say this about Outsourced’s Indian characters, too.  Rajiv is a sneaky and falsely obsequious second-in-command, Manmeet is a lothario, Asha is the love interest, Madhuri is the quiet nervous girl, and Gupta is the loser.  These are all character types that we’ve seen and laughed at before.  Maybe a quarter to a half of the jokes they make are only funny if you find Indian culture or Indian accents funny, but the rest of the time the jokes are based on their character traits.  That doesn’t make the show GOOD, of course, but it doesn’t make it any worse than any other sitcom.

WARNING: Characters on the left may not be as funny as characters on the right.

So is Outsourced racist?  I think that’s a question that different people will answer differently.  Feel free to tell us your own answer in the comments section below.  But the questions I’m more interested are these: How do you judge whether a show is racist or not?  Do you look at the power dynamics among the characters?  The types of jokes used?  The cultural background of the writers?  A gut feeling?  Or something else?

20 Comments on “Is Outsourced Racist?”

  1. Gab #

    You like the controversial topics, eh, Mlwaski?

    I think you hit my own definition of not-racist in your last point. If there is more to a character than just their Other-ness, even if that Other-ness gets highlighted, I can handle it. I can’t say what my definitive lines are, per say, and it *is* sort of an, “I know it when I see it,” sort of deal, but a large part of it has to do with who that character is. If those stereotypes don’t get in the way of the person being a person, I don’t usually mind.

    I do think having someone a part of the culture being poked fun of as driving force in the creative process helps, too, even if I only figure this out after-the-fact. In what I have seen, the stereotypes are done better under those circumstances, and they aren’t done in an offensive manner.

    An example I thought did a great job but was killed too soon was Aliens in America. I actually don’t know the backgrounds of the writers, but it was warm-hearted and sincere, and even though the protagonist was a nerdy white kid, his nerdy whiteness was 1) extremely true and stereotypical, and 2) made fun of all the time by other characters in a way that made the experience of him and his Pakistani foreign exchange student relatable.

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  2. Sinend #

    I immediately read this post, not because of the controversy, but because I want to know if I should feel guilty for watching and enjoying this show or not. I’m an American who spent time studying abroad in a European country that I later fell in love with (I’m currently looking for a job there so I can move back) but when I first moved there I experienced all the normal symptoms of culture shock, like wanting to compare everything to my first culture and thinking it’s all very, very weird. I knew that reaction was because of culture shock, but I still had to work very hard to want to learn about this new place I was living. It is hard, no matter how opened minded you are, to start a life in a place where you know none of the rules. Does this make it ok to be racist? No. But it does make it hilarious to me to watch Todd be completely baffled by aspects of the culture that are new to him. It’s also funny to see some of the show’s Americans react to Indian culture, because I knew people who were that douchy while I was living abroad (I’d like to count myself out of their number, though I’m sure I had my moments). I don’t know whether it’s appropriate, but it’s funny to me because it’s true.

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  3. Timothy J Swann #

    I haven’t seen Outsourced, but I’ve read a lot about this discussion even in the English media pages (well, of the Guardian, whose readers probably will be watching online/buying the boxsets). One fascinating aspect is that it’s part of a solid block of Thursday night NBC comedy that some would say is the greatest line-up in recent times – Community, 30 Rock, The (American) Office, and then Outsourced. Surely this scheduling suggests some belief of parity, but compare Community’s attitudes to ethnicity with how you’ve described Outsourced, and the level of laughter, it seems Outsourced is way behind on both non-racism and humour counts. NBC doesn’t appear to have another half-hour comedy anywhere else in the schedules – have they just backed the wrong horse and have no choice but to stick with it?

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  4. Tom Houseman #

    Reading this post made me realize just how brilliant a show “The Fresh Prince of Bell Air” was in the way it handled race. It was a fish out of water show that managed to explore multiple aspects of black culture in a fair and funny way.

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  5. JJJ #

    Many fine points! I tried to watch the premiere episode, wary of probable racisms, but ended up turning it off for the humor fails instead. Nicely analyzed here.

    But I mostly came here to say: that Gupta / Richard Kind photo comparison just gave me the willies.

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  6. Howard #

    Is that Jeffrey Weinerslav that I spy?

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  7. Raphael #

    Theory #4 was explored very thoroughly in the “Strong Female Character” flowchart post a few weeks ago.

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  8. slims #

    Just a thought – don’t “fish out of water”/”culture shock” comedies have to have racist comedy in order to fit the genre? Xenophobia and ignorance are what fuel these social interactions in the first place.

    I think that if you are going to accept this trope as a valid basis for a comedic premise, you have to accept the racist bitter with the sweet. And, in this case, the quality of the show strangely but appropriately matters, because the sweet better make the bitter worth it. That’s why you get shows like FPOBA and Nanny on one side, and the mostly unfunny Outsourced on the other, when discussing whether the show is racist.

    Maybe we need to better define racial humor, racist humor, and Racist humor while we are at it.

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    • marmls2m #

      that is an excellent point, and even better, it brings the concept of “racism” away from the popular definition, “arbitrary and personal standard of offensive content involving race”, closer to the real meaning, “any judgment of concept made on the basis of race”. my biggest problem with any discussion of racism is that nearly no one in the conversation has the same definition of racist, therefore, cannot come to any meaningful conclusion on the justification or even existence of racism. a question like “is outsourced racist” is ludicrous. of course its racist. it deals in concepts and judgments based on race. nearly everything is racist. moby dick is racist. aunt jemima is racist. the three little pigs is racist, (the races in question here is pigs and wolves). the real question should be “is outsource offensive?”

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  9. RMJ #

    I only care about this show to the extent that it is keeping the best comedy on network TV, Parks and Rec, off the air. As long as Parks and Rec is not around and Outsourced is, I hate it.

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  10. Charlie X #

    I have issues with Outsourced, but at the same time I’ve been watching it and enjoying some of the show. I think I might be biased as the new, terrible Shatner comedy made me question the output of humanity as a whole and wonder if there was anything at all good or even simply tolerable in the world.
    The characters are mostly endearing, and I think that’s what lets me get beyond the racism. The lack of mercy with any race, I agree, is a half-hearted effort at fighting that view and Todd is too two-dimensional to be interesting or sympathetic. If it dies, I won’t mourn, but my hope is that with time they’ll make the show evolve. We’re used to either much better (Arrested Development and the like, even Running Wilde to a point even though it’s much tamer) or much worse (Everybody Loves Raymond et al). This sits uncomfortably between the two and something will have to happen.

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  11. Will #

    “I happen to be the second type of viewer. I believe Outsourced would be about a billion times better if they got rid of all the American characters, especially the main protagonist, Todd. ”

    This. If not for Todd, the show would just be bad and ill-informed (yes, my wife and I watch it. She’s half-Indian and as was mentioned: it’s full of Indians). By positing this willfully ignorant sexual harassment machine (not for the shoulder-touching, but for the unabashed, insistent pursuing of an employee) as someone we are supposed to root for, the show tells us that the worst America has to offer is better than the best India does, simply because he is not different.

    The Office still wins for best portrayals of people of Indian descent and gets kudos for letting the Sikh guy talk, something Outsourced STILL hasn’t done.

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    • Will #

      …The Office still wins, amongst American comedies.

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  12. Chris #

    I don’t think it is racist, because that indicates some sort of maliciousness toward a race. It reeks much more of racial insensitivity than actual racism. Why? Because it is a very, very lazy show. It’s hacky and it’s formulaic and it just goes for the easiest joke possible. If that boils an entire ethnicity and culture down to a few common stereotypes, they don’t mind, because it helps drive forward their lazy, inane sitcom that is keeping Parks and Rec off the air.

    Also, “I’m very particular about building code!”

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  13. Eli #

    Honestly, I watch Outsourced because it never ceases to surprise in just how much of a standard sitcom it is. I don’t watch it to learn about Indian culture, and I don’t watch it because I’m a closet racist and I think the racist jokes are funny. I watch it cause it manages to take a premise that can be explosively offensive, and somehow manage to come out pretty decently at the other end. Also, I have yet to watch an Outsourced episode that I found bad. No, it’s not the next Arrested Development, but at least it’s not a Big Bang Theory.

    Sure, there are people who call the show racist, just as there are people who think that anything ever created is racist. The thing is though, the humor of the show is based less on how Indian the characters are (or are not), and more on just how quirky they are. Additionally, most of the jokes that are racist don’t use the racism as a punchline, they use Todd’s ignorance as to what is racially sensitive as a punchline. Also, I find it very hard to believe that a company would send a white guy with no experience or education in Indian culture to run an operation in India, but I can forgive something like that, probably because I don’t know enough about this, and that it might actually happen in the real world.

    Admittedly, I do find that the show focuses a lot on how strange Todd finds Indian culture to be, but I don’t think that’s fallen into the racist category just yet. Also, I don’t dislike Ben Rappaport or his character as much as anyone else seems to. Maybe it’s just because he reminds of the main character in Ugly Americans, a show that always manages to impress me in small ways.

    The other thing is (not that this redeems any perceived Indian targeted racism) is that I find the portrayal of Americans (on and off screen) to be much more offensive than any Indian humor. All the callers at the center seem to be TEA Party members, Todd’s boss is American greed and luxury incarnate, and Diedrich Bader is absolutely hilarious/offensive in how American he is (he reminds me of a very obnoxious version of the NRA lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking). Even Todd has his low points, because while he is interested in Indian culture, he makes no effort to learn, and he also makes no effort to change his behavior towards his Indian subordinates as evidenced by his budding and somewhat creepy relationship with Asha (just get with Tonya already!).

    In the end though, to me Outsourced is just a regular sitcom with a bunch of non white/black/hispanic characters. Hell, Rules of Engagement seems to be more offensive with its one Indian character (though none of that is based on him being Indian). I watch it cause I think it’s better than a lot of other sitcoms, and it has some kind of quality that I just can’t put my finger on. Sure, it edges on the offensive, but I don’t think it’s quite crossed that line yet. When it does, I’ll probably stop watching.

    Also, anyone reading this should know that I suffer from being white. Which means that I can be racist without even realizing it, but I can’t ever definitively identify what is racist and what is not. Additionally, I have no authority whatsoever on Indian culture, so maybe there are incredibly racist things buried under the surface of the show that I’m not seeing.

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    • Jon Eric #

      Yeah, I’ve been in the “not racist” column for a while, but each episode bugs me a little bit more than the last in how our ostensibly-likable main character Todd keeps saying and doing terribly insensitive things.

      Look, I’d never heard the name Manmeet before I started watching this program, but after meeting his character in the PILOT episode, I knew how to pronounce it. Why can’t Todd figure it out? We’re supposed to like him, right?

      I mean, I’m totally cool with it when Charlie says and does ridiculously over-the-top culturally-insensitive things, because that’s just what his character is, and we’re clearly not supposed to like him or sympathize with him. Plus, Diedrich Bader rises to the occasion. But when Todd does the same? It makes me uncomfortable, for the same reasons it makes me uncomfortable when he relentlessly pursues Asha (his EMPLOYEE) – in spite of the huge cultural gap between them which neither of them seems very interested in actually bridging.

      But in The Show’s portrayal of Indian people? They’re seen as weird, but as someone in the A.V. Club comments noted, they’re not weird because they’re Indian; they’re weird because they’re sitcom characters. Outsourced, as a whole, is trying like the Dickens to make the Indian characters all pretty likable, and they’re mostly succeeding. In order to do that, they’ve made some rather bland but easily-digestible TV comedy. I laugh a few times per episode, cringe at Todd a few times per episode, but I think the fact that the Indian characters are all better-drawn and more likable than the white characters speaks volumes to whether this show is racist.

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  14. Ez #

    Racial insensitivity is still racism, it’s like how a lot of people make offhand racist comments or only air racist views around like minded people.
    They don’t find the comments racist and no one calls them out on it so they go on belieiving that they aren’t.

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  15. Tyler Christian #

    I don’t know whether to think that Outsourced is racist or not but it definitely portrays Indians in a very downgrading way. And note to NBC: First this and then Chase. Get your crap together! I guess I’ll switch to CBS then.

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  16. Valatan #

    This is invariantly more about the audience than the actual material–look at ‘All in the Family’. Archie is clearly meant to be a completely unsympathetic reducio ad absurdum of boorish, racists jackasses.

    But, when the show got popular, Archie turned into a hero for all racist, insensitive jackasses.

    So is the show racist? I actually wonder if the question is all that meaningful unless you’re discussing something that either doesn’t involve race, or is as ridiculously racist as ‘Amos ‘n Andy’.

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  17. An Inside Joke #

    I have yet to actually watch Outsourced – it didn’t look funny to me initially, and the mediocre reviews haven’t given me reason to think differently. As such, I can’t comment on the actual content, but one thing that has always bothered be is the fact that the protagonist is a white American. There are so few leading roles out there for non-white actors already, the premise of the show seemed to offer a great opportunity to diversify network television, and the fact that Todd exists as the lead seems to suggest to me that the creators of the show don’t trust that American audiences are capable of sympathizing with an Indian character.

    That said, your point that the show is primarily about a clash of cultures provides an interesting counter-theory. I guess I’ll have to watch it myself (although I probably wont – it still looks too not-funny for me to be willing to do that.)

    Reply

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