By Meghna Nagpal:
So far 2020 has proven to be an exceptional year. We’re all at home, using the news and every streaming service available to keep ourselves entertained and watching shows we wouldn’t have otherwise watched before.
This year has seen Netflix step into the reality TV genre by releasing a series of shows that explore dating, including Love is Blind and Dating Around. As much as I loved the drama with 24-year-old Mike trying to make a relationship work with 34-year-old Jessica, Love is Blind did break ground by showing the most loveable couple, Lauren and Cameron, be an interracial couple. This is an important step, to normalize interracial dating, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the midst of the summer, a new reality dating TV show emerged on the streaming giant on Thursday, July 16 and by the end of the weekend, social media was buzzing with everyone offering their opinion of Indian Matchmaking. Being a 28-year-old single South Asian woman, born and raised in Canada, I almost didn’t watch the show, but I caved in. After years of watching the Bachelor, I was excited to see South Asian dating practices represented on reality TV. And by Saturday night I had completed the full series. I was hoping to see a progressive representation of arranged marriages in India and the diaspora, but the show reiterated age-old beliefs that have fueled this age-old practice.
Sima Taparia, the matchmaker, was no stranger to Netflix. She was the matchmaker in A Suitable Girl who had difficulty finding a match for her own daughter, who seemed more interested in building her career than settling in marriage. Ultimately, Sima’s daughter Ritu married a man from Dubai and moved there. Sima was shown trying to work her magic on young Indian singles in India and America. Seeing how progressive her daughter was, I was expecting Sima Auntie, as they called her, to incorporate those lessons on her newfound clients on the show. I was deeply disappointed. Right at the beginning of the show, Sima Auntie had already mentioned that an ideal bride would be fair-skinned, a certain height, and educated. I, along with Hetal Lakhani and Roshni Patel, was behind a petition to have matrimonial websites remove the skin complexion filters from their site It did not get better from there.
The petition to remove the skin tone filter stemmed from the publicity generated from the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement has fueled discussion in the South Asian community in what we consider to be ideal standards of beauty, and ultimately, factors in choosing a spouse. As displayed in Akshay’s family, this is a mandatory right of passage for most South Asian young adults. And considering intersectionality, feminist discourse is also brought into the discussion. This show highlighted the double standard held to South Asian women when finding a spouse.
Akshay’s mother was a prime example of this blatant sexism. She has the expectation that her son should marry a girl who would submit to her cultural expectation because that is how it is always done. Even when his educated one day fiancé, Radhika, said she would like to work, his response was “who would take care of the kids?” There is an expectation that a woman be educated but those qualifications are meant to tick off a box for entering a marriage, in which a woman loses her identity. Even Sima told Aparna, the successful but outspoken lawyer, many times that she must compromise, and while I would question some of Aparna’s requirements, she still demonstrated confidence in herself and her beliefs that is not always welcome in South Asian women.
Ankita was another example of female confidence. Sima had already acknowledged that the vivacious businesswoman from Delhi was “not photogenic” (I would actually disagree, I thought she was beautiful inside and out), and sent her to her “more progressive” matchmaking colleague, Gita, which left me wondering what was considered “progressive”.
Gita told Ankita that as a woman, she was more “emotional” and that she should be willing to compromise her successful business if her future husband wishes to move out of town. This was not considering that Ankita’s business would bring finances into a marriage and that as equal partners she too has a say. Ankita did go on a date that she enjoyed, but was shocked to learn afterward that he was a divorcee. While she did not mind that he was divorced, she was upset that that piece of information was hidden from her until a third party found that information after the date. Would that have been acceptable had the situation been reversed, if a woman hid about being divorced? I would imagine that the outrage would have been louder!
I thought I saw progress when the show highlighted single motherhood. Arpana and Vyasar were both raised by single mothers and Rupam was a single mother herself looking for love. I thought Rupam’s story was a good opportunity to display balancing dating and motherhood in a South Asian context. However, within the first few minutes, Sima Auntie told Rupam that she would have difficulty finding a match as a single mother. I mean Auntie, isn’t that why she called you in the first place? Would you have said that to a single father? Rupam ultimately found love on Bumble, a dating app, which signifies she had to go outside the traditional realm of an arranged marriage.
Rupam’s story also brought up racial phobias in South Asian culture. Her father had a problem with a match presented to her because he was married to an American. It was ironic because Rupam’s sister was married to a black man. This would have been a good opportunity to explore interracial relationships, especially one in which a South Asian married a black person because of the dark skin stigma in South Asian culture. Internalized racism was also demonstrated in the show through Nadia’s story. Sima Auntie admitted to Nadia that despite the fact that she was an Indian American, her chances of finding a match were low due to her Guyanese heritage. As South Asians, we might need to question if our internal biases amount to internalized racism.