Priyanka Chopra Is Not My Feminist Icon

By Vrinda Jagota

Priyanka Chopra is the first South Asian-born woman to headline a U.S. network series; she just made Complex magazine’s latest cover. When she was told she’d make a great Bond leading lady, she was widely applauded for declaring: “But fuck that — I wanna be Bond.” She beat Jimmy Fallon in a taco eating contest on late night TV. A veteran Bollywood star, she is now working her way into American award show listicles, #goals Tumblr posts, and “Outfits 2 Try” desktop folders.

And, of course, she is a brown woman doing it in a predominantly white, male space.

In her recent interview with Complex, she spoke about her racial struggles as an Indian woman in the U.S., and about her desire to be taken seriously as a female actor. She doesn’t want to be typecast. She has the anxieties, and drive, and a narrative that I feel compelled to make resonate with me as a fellow Indian-American woman.

But try as I might to “get her,” I am, at best, bored with her interviews, Bonnie Raitt covers, and aggressively depoliticized representations of “her city.” At worst, I’m offended by her portrayal of Indian womanhood. I think specifically of her song “Exotic,” featuring Pitbull. As the music video begins and she emerges, glowing, from a body of water in an ambiguous tropical location decorated with palm trees, it is difficult to not feel excitement. Here’s an Indian woman front and center! She’s confident and hot! This is how I want every crush I’ve ever had to imagine me!

But within seconds, she starts singing, “I’m feeling so exotic. I’m hotter than the tropics,” and I no longer relate. It could be argued that she is reclaiming “exotic,” a term often used by white people to qualify the beauty of women of color. Perhaps the argument is that one (musically, politically) regrettable 2013 single does not a career make.

But, as a viewer, I cannot mobilize behind lyrics, or behind a star, who has casually used the word without explicitly recognizing why, and under whose gaze, it is that Indian women are made into objects defined by their outsider status when they are described as “exotic.” While I admire Priyanka’s desire to be the protagonist in her work, and I am excited to see Indian women playing new, more complicated roles, I still access her with a bitter taste in my mouth. This is not my feminism. This is not my Indianness.

But, it’s not Priyanka’s fault that I don’t identify. Nor is it her duty to appeal to every Indian woman who consumes her work. What empowers Priyanka may not empower me, just as responding to every text with a picture of herself — as I do with many of my relatives — may not be the alternative Indian-American celeb, Mindy Kaling’s idea of celebrating her achievements.

Rather, it is important to examine why I feel pressured to identify with Priyanka, and how that pressure stems from a pop culture landscape that continues to allow only limited representations of people and women of color. A culture that casts white actors for diverse parts, casually stealing bits of their cultures, or failing to allow space for their narratives altogether.

Compared to mainstream white, middle class experiences that are afforded endless nuance via almost unlimited representation, people of color exist primarily in the niche spaces that are carved out for them. Individuals are asked to represent entire groups of people who are united by a few characteristics they share in the eyes of the people in power; the people who categorize them. While the perspectives of these tokenized individuals are not invalid — though often, they are not even portraying their authentic experiences, but rather, are playing a role written by someone unfamiliar with their culture — they are also not able to speak to the varied experiences of any group of people.

Growing up, I consumed these half-truths about celebrities and TV characters that I understood to be similar to myself due to our shared Indianness. The parts of my childhood that felt Indian were the parts I saw categorized as Indian by white people — the curries and accents, the pressure to succeed, the “exotic” music and spices. But all other parts — the strawberry and cream cakes my mom buys every year for my birthday, the way the trunk of my father’s car smells musty from sweaty tennis socks, the Bob Dylan records collecting dust in my basement — these were not allowed as part of my Indianness. These were, I always felt, ways in which my parents were “so white.”

Exhausted by being the punchline of a joke I didn’t write or even sign up to hear, weary of constantly feeling that my personality is already understood the moment I enter a room, of having to provide explanations for the ways in which my experience deviates from the ones that are expected of me, I am hungry always for a wider range of representations of Indian women.

But what happens when one of the very few icons who managed to diverge from the nerdy sidekick role isn’t who I am? As I find myself agitated rather than excited by Priyanka’s work, I wonder if the dissonance is because I am not Indian enough? Not beautiful enough? Not confident enough?

When I am used to my culture, the one with the largest population in the world, being seen as monolithic, it is difficult to accept that perhaps Priyanka and I differ because any two people tend to have differences. That we are allowed to be different while also each being authentically Indian.

Our shared experiences in an environment that will confuse us for one another simply because of our skin color — that will ask us similar questions about “how our English is so good” as if we haven’t been speaking it our entire lives, one that expects us both to have arranged marriages and vegetarian diets — are certainly not ignorable. Still, we also access music, fashion, politics, and Indianness from drastically different vantage points. Priyanka and I are both Indian women, but we are not the only Indian women, and our identities are not assigned based on the answers to “Which successful Indian archetype are you?” Buzzfeed quizzes.

The introduction of one more Indian face into a sea of whiteness is a step. Surely, there are people who are motivated by Priyanka’s confidence, inspired by her fashion choices, and less lonely just at the sound of her voice. But her presence alone is not enough. As people of color are still denied authorship and are still seeing their stories being appropriated and whitewashed, it is not enough to settle for the rise of one Indian icon and call that progress.


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