The films and TV shows Zoya Patel loved growing up were a consistent reminder that ‘real life only happens to white people’
Remember that seminal scene from 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You, when Cameron first sees Bianca?
She’s walking through the school quadrangle, ruminating on whether one “can ever just be whelmed”. According to the camera angle, she’s the focus of our attention. But look to the right of Bianca. Who do you see? That’s right, her best friend Chastity.
Played by Gabrielle Union, Chastity has that all-important role in 10 Things: the token ethnic/black friend. Her job is to lay the groundwork for Bianca to deliver her best lines. She’s there to add texture to the otherwise totally vanilla reality of Bianca: a vapid, conventionally attractive young white woman whose primary role is to be the object of male fantasy.
When I was a teenager, watching 10 Things and identifying way too hard with the sarcastic feminist rage of Bianca’s sister Kat, I couldn’t avoid the niggling sensation that I was projecting in a direction that I wasn’t really meant to. While my white friends could lean into empathising with Kat as a fellow misfit and edgy alternative to Bianca’s bland popularity, I was aware that, if this movie was real life, I’d be the Chastity. Except I wasn’t hot and cool, so I’d actually be Extra Number 23: the ethnic girl who sits in the library behind Cameron and Bianca while they study French.
Again and again, this same construct was thrown at me by pop culture: token ethnic friends in movies and shows that I loved, reminding me that real life only happened to white people. As a brown girl I was support, not the leading role.
Gabrielle Union as Chastity and Larisa Oleynik as Bianca in 10 Things I Hate About You. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
This message was everywhere – in series like The Big Bang Theory (Raj) or That ’70s Show (Fez); and in movies such as Pitch Perfect, where there are numerous non-white characters in the primary cast, but they are all tokenised and stereotyped – Cynthia Rose as an angry black lesbian, Lilly as the strange, quiet-talking Asian, and even Donald as the Indian rapper (though he is a total highlight, and at least gets sex appeal).
Despite the ubiquity of this message, there was a small, stubborn part of me that resisted being put in the corner as a result of my ethnicity. I still stubbornly tried to identify with the white lead over the token ethnic friend.
Case in point: Lane Kim, the token ethnic friend of Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. Lane’s role is entirely and unequivocally to make Rory seem more interesting.
But looking a little closer. Lane is a smart-talking, incredibly cool Korean American girl. Lane wants to play rock music, date boys, go out at night and not spend all of her time handing out flyers for her mother’s Seventh-Day Adventist church. She hides her CDs and edgy clothes in an elaborate floorboard storage system, takes drumming lessons in secret, has secret boyfriends, and tries to straddle these two different worlds until it all comes crashing down and her mother kicks her out of home.
Lane’s is a fascinating story. There’s adversity, secrecy, intrigue, romance, a passion for music – it’s a freaking goldmine of adolescent angst and drama.
In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty pissed off about this whole Lane situation now. But back in the day, I didn’t really care about Lane. Like Lane, I spent almost a year not speaking to my parents because of my white boyfriend and atheist ways. Like Lane, I have to constantly navigate the awkwardness at gatherings with my extended family, where I stick out like a sore thumb as the most westernised member of the tribe.
But when I was watching Gilmore Girls, I almost aggressively held Rory up as my role model instead. I became a caffeine addict. I wrote for my university newspaper. I interned at a newspaper office. I wanted to be her. And when you see what happens to Lane, it’s no wonder why: she marries a deadbeat, gets pregnant with twins and stays home supporting the kids while her musician husband lives out her dream.
As of the 2016 census, 49% of Australians were either born overseas themselves or have one parent who was. Yet the culture we consume is still centred around white characters and white stories.
And when you grow up seeing the only people who vaguely resemble you as the subplots to the more exciting white lead character’s tale, it doesn’t take long for that message to become the norm. We accept our marginalisation because we can’t see a way out.
Imagine if the Gilmore Girls’ camera panned away from Rory and zoomed in on Lane.
Imagine if, instead of watching Rory go from slight misfit in public school to slight misfit in private school, we instead got to understand the relationship between Mrs Kim and her daughter, and watch Lane’s star rise as a musician.
Imagine if the star of 10 Things was black, and the movie had used its platform to showcase an interracial relationship, instead of relying on stereotypes of black characters.
Imagine if ethnic characters in film and TV were given the space to be complex and interesting and diverse, without being relegated to just another side plot.
Imagine if girls like me grew up seeing fellow migrants given this weight in the culture we consumed, and received the message that migrant identities are complex, and constantly changing, and most importantly, just as valid and interesting and real as white identities? It would be something of a revolution.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Zoya Patel at Sydney writers’ festival 2019
• Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman, and founding editor of Feminartsy