The face of the media in Indonesia and America has changed greatly in the past few decades. No longer are the billboards on Sunset Boulevard filled only with white beauties of blond hair and blue eyes. No longer are the posters of Indonesian cinema filled only with Javanese actresses of straight hair and light skin.
The days of a single uniformed depiction for an entire nation of people are way behind us. Minorities, particularly those from a different race and background, are starting to step up to the front of the screen; taking on lead roles and stepping away from the shadows of their majority counterparts.
In Tinseltown, Hollywood, about 27.6% of lead roles in films in 2019 went to minorities, with about 32.7% of all acting roles in general going to minority actors and actresses (Hunt and Ramón, 2020). Whilst these numbers may not seem huge in comparison to the fact that minorities make up 40% of the U.S. population in 2018 alone, these numbers are a huge step in the right direction when compared to the smaller numbers from the previous years, especially the 13.9% in lead roles for minorities in 2016 (Hunt and Ramón, 2020).
With TV shows, minorities have even better percentages. In 2017 alone, minorities make up about 21.5% of lead roles in broadcast scripted shows to the 19.8% of lead roles in films (Hunt and Ramón, 2020). The percentages of minorities for broadcast scripted shows in 2019 are expected to still be higher than for films though the report has yet to be released.
In Indonesia, whilst no conclusive data exists in relation to the representation of minority both in films and TV shows, it is still safe to say that nowadays minorities are more visible more than ever. This can be seen in today’s Indonesian movie posters which have minority faces on them. It is also evident in many minority actors and actresses who are enjoying immense popularity right now. There’s Dion Wiyoko and Joe Taslim who have starred as the lead roles in many Indonesian films. There’s also Susan Bachtiar who, just recently, starred in the Box Office film Nanti Kita Cerita Tentang Hari Ini (2020).
There is now a plenty of minority faces everywhere. Even so, the roles and portrayals given to minority actors and actresses aren’t always flattering or in line with their ethnic background. Minority actors and actresses who can “pass” as part of majority groups—look white in America’s case or look Javanese in Indonesia’s case—will be given white or Javanese roles with no mention of their actual ethnic background. This erases the actor’s ethnicity and upbringing, giving the viewers the idea that one must “pass” in order to get somewhere in life. This type of roles and portrayals are not a good representation.
Other times, minority actors and actresses are even simply hired in order to perpetuate stereotypes or re-enact certain traumas their communities have faced. In America, Asian actors are subjected to the model minority myth. They have to play roles that perpetuate the idea of Asians being the “good” minority—smart and coming from a good family background—in contrast to the portrayal of other minorities as the “bad” ones—troubled, academically bad, and coming from a toxic family. (Deutsche Welle, n.d.).
African American actresses at the same time are often only left with the “Mammy” roles in which they have to portray a dark-skinned, overweight caregiver who cares for white families. In fact, the first Black actor to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, won her Oscar for portraying the Mammy character in Gone With the Wind. The same goes with Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar in 2012 by portraying the caregiver role in The Help (Jones, 2019).
In Indonesia, Chinese Indonesian actors and actresses are given roles that are tied to identity politics. They have to settle for roles that require them to re-enact the 1998 riots or the sinophobia Chinese Indonesians are victims of. In some cases, they even have to wear red for their roles, and be the butt of offensive jokes (Widianto, 2018). These stereotypical roles are no good when it comes to minority representation in the media, as minorities are shown as stereotypes of them instead of actual living, breathing human beings with complex personalities and stories. These types of representation lead to the need of having greater representation. Not only should the actors and actresses on the front be minorities, but the people behind the screen should be minorities too. This way, minority representation can be ensured to be as proper as possible.
The #OwnVoices movement was born out of this need.
#OwnVoices: Taking Back the Narrative
The #OwnVoices movement started with a tweet. Back in 2015, author Corrine Duyvis tweeted out: “#ownvoices, to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Soon enough, the hashtag became viral with readers posting their #OwnVoices book recommendations and authors of colour promoting their works.
Now, the movement is no longer a small movement. It has encompassed the whole publishing industry. The idea of the movement itself—to have diverse stories be written by people from that same diverse group—was born out of poor representation of minorities in media and the idea that the people with lived experiences can better portray them. This logic is not false, as stories written by people who have lived them tend to reflect the truth better and have deeper meanings within them.
Another point made when talking about the #OwnVoices movement is in the fact that minorities are rarely able to tell their own stories. Instead, they are usually spoken for. #OwnVoices gives minorities the chance to take back the narrative of their stories and for once, tell their own tales without anyone speaking over or for them (Whaley, 2016).
The core idea of the movement has transcended the book publishing industry and seeped into other media such as films and TV shows. Just two years ago, we see the rise of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. Almost everyone involved in the films—both behind and in front of the screen—are from the same diverse group as the characters in the story: African descent for Black Panther and Asian descent for Crazy Rich Asians.
What’s even better is that #OwnVoices can be felt not only in first world countries but also in the third world. In Indonesia, films featuring mostly minority actors and producers like Ngenest The Movie and Susi Susanti: Love All were released to critical and commercial success. These films have taken back the narrative for stories of minority and have brought us to the question: how exactly do minorities tell their stories? Or more specifically, how exactly do minorities two worlds apart (Indonesia and America) tell their own stories? For the purpose of this essay, we will be looking into an Indonesian film Cek Toko Sebelah, written and directed by Ernest Prakasa, a Chinese Indonesian stand-up comedian and actor-director; and an American TV show Never Have I Ever, written by Mindy Kaling, an Indian American TV writer and actress to see how minorities take back their narratives and tell their own stories.
Cek Toko Sebelah: Chinese Indonesians Inside Comedy & Outside of Trauma
Cek Toko Sebelah is a 2016 Indonesian film written and directed by Ernest Prakasa—a Chinese Indonesian stand-up comedian— about Chinese Indonesians and their lives. This film is essentially an #OwnVoices film in which almost everyone involved is of Chinese Indonesian descent. It tells the story of Koh Afuk and his two sons, Yohan and Erwin; along with Yohan’s wife, Ayu, an Indonesian woman; and Erwin’s girlfriend, a Chinese Indonesian named Natalie.
The film opens with Koh Afuk standing in front of his small grocery store, Toko Jaya Baru, as an old school bread seller passes by with his cart. The scene then cuts to Erwin on his way to work in a seemingly modern background before shifting to show Yohan and Ayu, in their small home, tasting Ayu’s latest green tea nastar creation. In the scene after, we see Erwin and Natalie eating lunch in a restaurant and talking about Erwin’s chance at a promotion at work. Efficiently, we have been introduced to the main characters of Cek Toko Sebelah within the first few minutes of the film. We see that Koh Afuk is an old school Chinese Indonesian who still owns a store. He seems to fit the stereotypical Chinese Indonesian: a business savvy individual who owns a grocery store in his neighbourhood. We can also see that Erwin, the youngest son, is an extremely successful person as he is said to be a candidate for promotion that would make him “Brand Director South East Asia”.
Another thing that we can see is Yohan and Ayu, an inter-ethnic husband and wife duo. Ayu is coded to be of Javanese descent whereas Yohan is Chinese Indonesian. Their dynamic is a new one in Indonesian cinema, as it is uncommon to see a Chinese Indonesian and an Indonesian be portrayed as husband and wife or a couple. Especially when both their families do not seem to be against the match. To see such relationship portrayed positively is a breath of fresh air. It shows that Prakasa is not afraid of talking about the taboos in Chinese Indonesian communities and that he is not constrained by the stereotypes and expectations usually put on Chinese Indonesian individuals to marry only other Chinese Indonesians.
This also breaks the idea of Chinese Indonesians being an exclusive community that is not open to Indonesians. To illustrate, Koh Afuk interacts with his Indonesian employees, customers, and neighbours in an open manner and respectfully. Ayu and Yohan also aren’t the only Chinese Indonesian-Indonesian couple around as one of Koh Afuk’s Indonesian customers also has a Chinese Indonesian boyfriend.
As the film progresses, the conflicts start to unveil: a developer wanting to buy Koh Afuk’s store, Koh Afuk’s tense relationship with Yohan as opposed to his warm relationship with Erwin, and Koh Afuk’s poor health condition. Koh Afuk’s poor health leads to the main conflict: Koh Afuk wants Erwin to continue the store despite Erwin’s obvious reluctance, clearly passing over Yohan, the eldest who is willing to take up the business. Koh Afuk reasons that he doesn’t trust Yohan with the store due to Yohan’s inability in managing his own life, having to ask Koh Afuk for money a few days prior. Easily, Erwin is favoured most by their father. This creates tension between him and Yohan.
Through the plot and problems, Prakasa is able to show a family conflict without using a stereotype. After all, inheritance, family legacy, sibling rivalry and favouritism are universal ideas that can be found in almost every family in every country.
Prakasa shows that a Chinese Indonesian family is no different than any other families. Whilst Chinese Indonesians may hold on to age hierarchies and family businesses, they can also deviate from these norms (Koh Afuk giving Erwin the family business, Erwin not wanting to continue the family business in favour of his office job). After these problems are introduced to the equation, Koh Afuk tries to reach a compromise with Erwin, asking him to come work at the store for a month before making a decision on whether or not he wants to continue the store. Erwin agrees after promising Natalie that he’ll return to his office job after the one-month period is up. At the same time, Yohan makes do with the fact that the store won’t fall to him.
We also see the rivalry between Koh Afuk and Pak Nandar, the owner of the store next door. We learn that their rivalry is a result of Koh Afuk relocating his store to the current neighbourhood after the 1998 riots. This mention however is merely a footnote and not brought up again for the remainder of the film, showing that Cek Toko Sebelah is not a film about Chinese Indonesian trauma, but about celebrating Chinese Indonesians. This is also something new in Indonesian cinema, as previously, films involving Chinese Indonesians used to feature Chinese Indonesia trauma as its main plot, reducing it to a sad story about discrimination and trauma. Meanwhile, this particular scene manages to retain the ugly history that Chinese Indonesians have had to face without reducing Chinese Indonesians to their trauma. Prakasa is able to pull off such a tasteful scene only after living the Chinese Indonesian experiences himself.
Next, the film shows Yohan visiting his mother’s grave with Ayu. The name on the grave reads “Tan Kim Fong (Liliana)” with two crosses on either side of his mother’s portrait. This, and the previous celebration of Christmas in the film, shows that Koh Afuk’s family is coded to be Christian, something in line with Prakasa himself who is also a Christian. The two names written on the grave are also on point as Chinese Indonesians do usually have a Mandarin and an Indonesian name and that usually the older generation still uses their Mandarin name for their day-to-day life. Since Chinese Indonesians having two names has a lot to do with the discrimination they faced during Soeharto’s regime, this illustrates Prakasa’s attention to details, the authenticity and social critic he wants to bring to the story without reducing the plot into a typical trauma story.
Meanwhile, Erwin is gradually adjusting to the store environment. He goes as far as asking Natalie about whether she’ll be ashamed of dating him if he becomes a small grocery store owner. Natalie answers that she isn’t necessarily ashamed, just not mentally ready for the change. The dialogue shows the effect that Chinese Indonesian stereotypes have on the community. The fact that the business that Chinese Indonesians used to manage and own proudly has become something to be ashamed of due to the onslaught of stereotypes and jokes is concerning and very real. It’s a simple dialogue that carries a lot of baggage.
At the same time, Ayu is given a business proposition to open a cake shop in Yogyakarta by her ex. Erwin starts to get more and more involved with the store, introducing his father to the tablet in order to organize the store’s receipts better and even winning a store decorating contest. He also finds out that a developer has been trying to buy his father’s store for some time and that he’s been promoted to the brand director position. He tells Koh Afuk that he won’t continue the store, breaking Koh Afuk’s heart. Ayu also turns down the business proposition from her ex, choosing to stay in Jakarta instead.
Koh Afuk decides to finally sell his store to the developer, giving his employees their last paychecks and emptying the store’s content before collapsing and being brought to the hospital. The two siblings then fight, accusing one another for disappointing their father before being mediated by a security officer at the hospital and apologising to each other. The two then devise and execute a plan to buy back Koh Afuk’s store. Their plan is a success. They are able to buy the store back and fixing their sibling relationship in the process.
In the end, Koh Afuk ends up giving his store to Yohan, coming to an understanding with Erwin over his office job. Erwin is free to pursue his career. Natalie is supportive of Erwin, telling him that she would not have minded him taking over the store. Yohan turns Koh Afuk’s grocery store into a cake shop for Ayu and a photo studio for himself. He, Erwin, and Koh Afuk repair the previously fraught relationship. At the end of the movie, all conflicts are resolved and the ending brings a new portrayal of Chinese Indonesians in media—Koh Afuk does not tie his sons to his store and instead lets them explore themselves, and the family’s bond is stronger than ever.
In the end, Cek Toko Sebelah as an #OwnVoices film manages to portray Chinese Indonesians in a multi-dimensional way, neither reducing them to their trauma nor playing to the stereotypes available. Ernest Prakasa manages to put a lot of authenticity and nuances into the film through the characters, giving them drive and complexity. None of the characters are caricatures or embodiments of stereotypes. Instead, they are complex human beings with lots of stories to tell. Cek Toko Sebelah also sets a precedent on how minorities can be portrayed in Indonesian cinema as leads and not as comedic value, trauma, or stereotypes. It shows the Indonesian film industry that a Chinese Indonesian film can be critically and commercially successful without having to be centred around stereotypes or the 1998 riots.
Never Have I Ever: Indian Americans’ Coming of Age & Culture
Never Have I Ever is a 2020 Netflix series written by Mindy Kaling, an Indian American writer and actress. Also an #OwnVoices film, the film centres around Devi Vishwakumar, a fifteen-year-old Tamil Indian American and her life following her father’s death from a heart attack and her being paralyzed from the waist down the year before.
The series starts with Devi, now a sophomore at high school, praying to the Hindu gods at the altar in her home, asking for various “American things” in slang and American phrases. In this first scene, there’s already a juxtaposition present: Devi is praying to her Hindu gods—honouring her Indian culture and the Hindu religion she firmly believes in—and at the same time asking for very “American things” that a typical Indian back in India wouldn’t ask for. She asks for an invitation to a party, for her arm hair to thin out, and for a boyfriend to “rock her all night long”. This is the arc of Devi’s story: her effort to find a balance between her Indian and American side whilst living in Sherman Oaks, California. In a way, Devi’s arc mirrors Kaling’s own story as she too grew up in America as a first generation Indian American and was trying to find a balance in her life.
After her praying, a narrator’s voice comes in. It’s the voice of a legendary white tennis player named John McEnroe. He will be narrating the entirety of Devi’s story. Using a white narrator to narrate people of colour’s story is quite new. Usually, either the actor or actress narrates the stories themselves or people from the same diverse group are hired as the narrator. Some people might consider this people of colour being spoken for. However, it isn’t Kaling’s intention to do so. Instead, she wants to show that an Indian American’s story should be treated like any other stories. There is nothing wrong with having an American narrate it, especially when it ties into the story later on. (Spoiler alert: John McEnroe is Devi’s father’s favourite tennis player and she even ends up meeting him at the end of the story.)
As the series progresses, we are introduced to Devi’s mother, Mrs. Vishwakumar, who barges in whilst Devi is still praying. She tells Devi to hurry up and not drop her geography textbook (it has previously been blessed at the Hindu temple). We also meet Kamala Vishwakumar, an Indian who is currently staying with Devi and her mother in order to finish her PhD at CalTech. Kamala is described as perfect because she is extremely beautiful and fits the “model” Indian daughter. Both Mrs. Vishwakumar and Kamala speak in Indian-accented English as opposed to Devi’s American English.
We now see the environment Devi grows up in. Her family is an Indian family who immigrated to and makes a living in America. We see that her mother and cousin are quite traditional: Mrs. Vishwakumar goes to the Hindu temple and Kamala is studying engineering—a field with which Indians are heavily associated. In contrast to them, Devi is not as traditional. She is not highly religious as she only prays to the Hindu gods when she wants something from them. She also does not show much interest in the traditional fields Indians are usually associated with.
We also meet Devi’s best friends: Asian American drama enthusiast Eleanor; African American robotic team’s leader Fabiola; Devi’s academic rival, Jewish Ben Gross; and Devi’s crush, a Japanese American Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Through her academic rivalry with Ben, we can see that Devi is an academically smart person. She is constantly at the top of her class and is set on entering an Ivy League college. Kaling uses a stereotype of Indians on Devi, choosing to picture her as a smart kid, in line with the idea that “all Asians are smart”. However, this stereotype is countered by Kaling’s characterization of the other Asian characters—they are not as academically gifted.
The story progresses. By the end of the first episode, Devi asks Paxton Hall-Yoshida to have sex with her. This is quite interesting as it breaks a taboo and a stereotype at the same time. The Indian community often views sex as a taboo and something that should not be talked about, but by having Devi talk about it, Kaling normalises sex and breaks the taboo. On the other hand, Paxton Hall-Yoshida’s portrayal as an extremely desirable person breaks the stereotype that views Asian men as effeminate and therefore undesirable or sexless. Even though in the end Devi does not have sex with him and only pretends to be, this scene is still very important.
In the next two episodes, we get to explore more of Kamala’s character. She is put into an arranged marriage by her Indian parents whilst she herself has an Asian American boyfriend. We see that Kamala is also trying to find a balance as an Indian currently living in America. She has been raised in India and turns out she’s not so traditional after all, having adapted to the American life. She’s trying to find a way to both be herself and appease her parents. Whilst her struggles are different from Devi’s, it is still a very real problem faced by Indians and Indian Americans.
At the same episode, we see Devi juggle a lot of things at once: trying to navigate high school, seeking Paxton’s attention, and attending a party (where she gets bitten by a coyote). She is portrayed as a normal American teenager and her ethnicity does not seem to play much part in her high school life. This sets an example that shows concerning POC does not always have to focus on race and ethnicity or be political.
The next episode, however, reads like a social critic on the Indian American community. Devi, her mother, and Kamala celebrate Ganesh Puja with the Hindu community of Sherman Oaks at Devi’s high school. The three of them wear saris for the event. In public, non-Indians pester Devi into taking a picture with a little girl because to the girl Devi looks like Disney’s Princess Jasmine, even though Jasmine is in fact Arabic. Through this scene, Kaling addresses the age-old presumption that all brown Asians are the same. Kaling subtly urges non-Asians to learn the difference between Indians and Arabs. She shows the audience how frustrating it is to be mislabelled as another ethnicity. In the end, Devi still grudgingly takes a picture with the little girl, though for us the audience, we can clearly see the annoyance in Devi’s face and the wrongness of the situation.
Still in the same episode, Devi meets an old friend. They used to hate on Ganesh Puja together, but apparently this old friend has turned over a new leaf and decided that he likes the celebration. He has realized that he should be proud of his roots after all. Devi finds it weird but it is understandable as she is not at that point in her character arc yet.
Kamala also meets a new friend at the celebration, an Indian American who married a Muslim after forsaking her arranged marriage. This new friend claims to regret her marriage as she is now divorced from her husband and is ostracized from the Hindu community. This makes Kamala start questioning her choice, leading to her welcoming the match her parents have selected for her and breaking up with Steve in the ninth episode.
Meanwhile, Devi accidentally meets Paxton in the hallway. He tells him all about her identity confusion and how she’s not super Indian. Paxton comforts her and tells her that she looks good in sari. This scene shows us Devi’s true feelings about her identity, how at the same time her culture defines and confuses her. The juxtaposition is shown again.
After Ganesh Puja, Devi goes back to her life and starts to spiral out of control. Paxton finds out that she has been pretending to have had sex with him. Her friends refuse to be friends with her after she leaves them instead of being there for them. Not long after that, she makes up with Paxton and her friends as well—and then ruining their friendships once again by choosing Paxton over her friends. This is a normal high school drama, only this time with diverse characters as the epicentre of it all.
In the ninth episode, Kamala meets her match and breaks up with Steve, choosing to appease her parents as she finds out that her match is not so different from her and that they’re both trying to figure out where they stand in America too. In the same episode, Devi’s mother reveals to Devi that they are going to move back to India. After the death of her husband, she feels like there is nothing else left for them in America. Devi gets angry at her mother and wishes that her mother has been the one to die instead of her father. She leaves home and stays at Ben’s house (who Devi is now partially friends with).
The moving back to India bit is in line with the way most Indian Americans—or first born Indian Americans—feel about their supposed motherland. To many Indian Americans, India is a country that they know nothing about. And yet, at the same time, Indian Americans are also supposed to call it home. Devi’s reaction here is a reflection of every Indian American stuck between two countries and two “homes”. Devi is scared as she has spent her whole life in America. She has only known America. Even from the very start, she has always felt more American than Indian, so moving to India is a big deal for her.
In the last episode, Devi reconciles with her best friends and family. She scatters her father’s ashes at the beach in Malibu where she meets John McEnroe. However, her reconciliation with her family is left open, so it is not known whether they will actually move to India or not. Her character arc is also still far from finish.
All things considered, the takeaway from Never Have I Ever is obvious. The Indian American characters written by Mindy Kaling are as much Indian as they are American. Mindy Kaling strikes a balance in the way she writes each character. The struggles are a reflection of reality and the way she writes them is incredibly light-hearted without diminishing in any way.
Devi’s story is the story of a sophomore year high school student dealing with personal trauma, but it is not a story void of identity. Her identity makes up a huge part of her character, but her being Indian isn’t treated as the main plot. Her cultural identity is an important part of her and is part of her story but it is never the main point. Kaling, being an Indian American herself, does not reduce her characters’ stories into simply about their race or their ethnicity. She does not make them go through extreme racism or torture or hate based on their cultural identity like most TV shows and films do. She treats their ethnicities as a part of them that can never be erased and makes them unique. At the same time, she also makes sure that their stories do not always have to be about race. Mindy Kaling shows that diverse characters can exist in an everyday story setting instead of solely in a racial story.
In the end, the way minorities portray their stories in two countries are not so different after all. Both minorities in Indonesia and America just want stories in which minorities are seen as everyday people instead of something unique or a rarity. Minorities want to be portrayed as complex human beings, with many stories to tell, without those stories being 100% written around or void of their trauma, race, or ethnicity. Minorities want a balance in which their identity and their own personal story can exist at the same time.
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