The Mirage of the Maheswarans

During the winter of 2011 I got to go to Nigeria for the first time in my life for three weeks with my entire family. We left the freezing cold Washington State weather in the middle of December and stayed in the humid southern Nigeria winter until the year ended. While I was there we visited the villages of both of my parents, and met more relatives than I can count. In my dad’s compound, we stayed in his brother’s house. Tradition states that all of the children come back to the compound that they grew up in and build their own house. There is still a space on that compound for my dad to come back to Nigeria and build his own house. He asked me if I was also going to build a house on the compound. I can’t remember how I answered.

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In the critically acclaimed television show Steven Universe, the character of Connie Maheswaran screams first-generation American child. It’s there in the first season (and only the first season, oddly enough) and the way that she is almost always reading or talking about books. It’s laced in her words: the way she greets adults, structures her sentences. It’s all over the way that she interacts with her parents, from sneaking snacks into the movie because her mom won’t let her buy snacks there to her watching television shows that she normally couldn’t watch at Steven’s house. It’s even in her name; the American future in the English name mixed with the culture of the past in the Tamil surname Maheswaran. Through her name we could hypothetically trace back her lineage to a place in the world, but that is not what the show wants us to look for. Maheswaran means “Lord of Universe” in Hindi. Everything in this show only exists in relation to Steven.

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Outside of elementary school I was never really in the “in-group” with the Asian-American kids that went to the same schools as I did where I grew up. That didn’t stop me from hearing discussion about the “tiger mom” thing. It’s something that I can only really comment on as an outsider, but the language arts teachers that I had just loved to bring it up as a topic to discuss in our classes. Part of that was the mythos that existed around the Asian-American students that shared the honors classes that I attended: the Asian students were always, always, the smartest students in the room and were involved in a billion other activities. (Not that this was actually true at all, but I’m sure if you had asked me back then whether or not it was I would have said “more or less”.) For what it’s worth, most of the discussion of the “tiger mom” that I heard involved how closely their experiences of parenting mirrored that kind of idea. To me, at least, I had always seen it as a first-generation thing.

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A brief synopsis of the episode of Steven Universe that introduces Connie’s parents:

Steven and Connie are at Steven’s house watching Under the Knife, a show that Connie can’t watch at home. Connie’s mom calls, wanting to speak to Steven’s mom. Steven does not live with his mother, as his mother is an alien who only survives through the gemstone on Steven’s bellybutton. After a disastrous interaction with one of the three guardians that Steven has, Connie’s mom refuses to let Connie and Steven hang out together until she meets his parents. Instead of Connie explaining the complex situation that Steven exists in out of fear that her parents would not be understanding, Steven has all three of his female guardians fuse together to be an accurate representation of his entire family. Hijinks ensue at the dinner, which ends as poorly as you’d expect. Afterwards Steven and Connie decide to run away together, only to be stopped by the fusion of the female guardians. The Maheswaran parents are distraught but gain confidence in the parenting of Steven’s guardians based entirely on how harshly they punish him after he tries to run away.

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It’s incredibly easy for pieces of media to create mirages out of their characters. If you look at them the right kind of way, with little scrutiny, you can see all of their facets and complexities, but once you get close to the character at all, the image vanishes. Subtext about character dynamics can only go so far, but the only way that you can truly examine a character is by looking at the text. When all of the depth of a character lives in the world of subtext, eventually the illusion will be shattered, and there will only be a cardboard cutout left, at best.

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A selection of lines spoken by Priyanka Maheswaran in the episode Nightmare Hospital:

You should’ve finished that 5 minutes ago. You’re late for your 7 o’clock study hour…
Do you know how many children I see everyday who’ve cut their faces off playing with swords?! NONE! Because they all have parents who love them, and who don’t let them play around with deadly weapons like some kind of gang member! 
I’ll have a talk with your father to calculate just how grounded you are. And we’re using the abacus!
Mother knows best!
No. No no no no no no. I know my daughter! I know what she’s doing every second of the day. All her activities, all her internets, I know she’s definitely not some sword fighting hooligan!
I just wanted to be a good mother.

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In the very next episode of the show, Sadie’s Song, Sadie has a confrontation with her mother. Her mother is also extremely controlling in certain aspects of her life, and eventually she confronts her mom about that issue. The first time Sadie’s mom is mentioned is in the episode Lion 3: Straight to VHS. In that episode, Sadie talks about her mother in a positive light. At no point in the show does Sadie’s mother need to say that she was just trying to be a good mother.

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Whenever I thought about the character of Priyanka I thought of her story. I thought about the years before Connie was born. I wondered when she learned English. When she got her medical degree. When she got married. I wondered what she would cook at home for her daughter. I wondered about the traditional clothes in the back of her closet, hinted at on the photos on the wall in her house. I wondered about the holidays that her family would celebrate together. I thought about how she probably still had family in India. I thought about how there would be nights that she would speak to her family in a language that she did not use in the States but was still on her tongue. I thought about how often she would talk about taking a vacation just to fly back with Connie, her pride and joy, to meet with all of the family members, to walk through her old neighborhood in India.

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The worst part of mirages is the humiliation afterwards. How could you have been so foolish to think something was real, when it was all just an illusion? You should have seen this from a mile away.

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I had known that Connie’s voice actor was white for a while, but I hadn’t thought about Priyanka’s voice until I read a different discussion about whitewashing voice actors. Even before I looked up who her voice actor was, I already knew. She had always been missing the hint of a second language in her voice. It forced me to re-evaluate all the things about these characters that I had taken for granted. My mirage had collapsed. There was nothing left but sand.

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As far as I can tell there is not a point in the show where Connie makes a single positive statement about her mother.

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The Pizza family is West African, just like I am. This isn’t ever specifically addressed within the show, but you can hear it in Kofi’s voice. Ian Jones-Quarterly wrote that Nanafua was partially based on his grandmother. He also wrote that Jenny and Kiki, like me, are first generation Americans. It’s nice to have a creator confirm that outside of the show, because I know that it will never be addressed on the show. I’m not going to spend my time chasing mirages.