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.
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.
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.
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.
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?