‘The Big Sick’s disgusting treatment of women of color illuminates the violence of “colorblind” love

Originally published by the amazing blog, RaceBaitR

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To be clear, I am not a fool, and therefore my expectations were not sky-high for a movie about heteronormative interracial love written by Kumail Nunjiani, a Pakistani comedian, and his white wife Emily Gordon. There were some immediate red flags, the main one being that, yes, this is yet another mainstream love story about a man of colour in pursuit of a white woman. This pursuit is the main hook of the movie, which takes off when Kumail, a comedian and Uber driver, meets Emily, a thin blonde woman, at one of his shows.

 

I thought, “Really, Aisha, if you want to witness yet another brown man waste both his and your time chasing a boring-ass white woman around while using women of colour as props you could stay at home and re-watch Master of None.”

But I felt compelled to give it a go as a result of something I am going to call the “Just One More” Effect, aka the never-ending goodwill that people of colour extend to a world that has done nothing to deserve it. Just one more white partner, just one more free explanation, just one more mainstream movie that will almost certainly disappoint you.   

I wanted so badly to be able to support Nunjiani. Blame it on the representation drought or whatever, but here is a Pakistani, Muslim immigrant who has found a way to write and perform his own story for the mainstream. Centering himself in a love story is already radical given the chronic de-sexualization of South Asian men, and so my curiosity won over my skepticism.

The truth is, dear readers, no amount of skepticism in the world will prepare you for how disappointing and violent this film is; how hard it was to watch, as a queer, Muslim, South Asian person; or how desperate Kumail Nunjiani is to be liked by white people.

Before the film even began, my friend Paula and I were shushed by the middle-aged white couple behind us for laughing during the commercials in the theatre. On the one hand, this was a classic white attempt to silence Black and brown women’s joy for literally no reason, and on the other, this was perfect foreshadowing.

In an early scene, Emily heckles Kumail while he is performing. He then approaches Emily, who is with a brown woman friend, after the show. The two proceed to flirt with each other, completely ignoring the woman of colour until she gets up, and silently moves out of shot, never to be seen again.

It was then that I leaned across to Paula’s stiff body and whispered, “maybe they’re making a… point?” proving those who might call me a chronic pessimist wrong. But the scene is reminiscent of a universal experience of tokenism, invisibility and disposal shared by all women and non-binary people of colour, and it is a motif that escalates throughout the rest of the film.

Cut to Kumail’s family. I’ve been waiting for this. One big room, full of South Asians. A western cinematic impossibility I am always hungry for. A mother, father, brother and sister-in-law, all brown, and all perfect caricatures of South Asian Muslim brownness. We see them almost exclusively in domestic settings: around the dinner table guzzling samosas, in their living room drinking chai and—you guessed it, motherfucker—interviewing a montage of South Asian women for the esteemed role of Wife of Kumail.

Most of the women being interviewed are characterized as dumpy, unintelligent losers, and one literally does a magic trick for the family in an act of bizarre South Asian minstrelsy. A South Asian family presented as obsessed with arranged marriage to the point of mania? What? The innocent man of colour trying to escape the clutches of his overbearing, barbaric, ignorant Muslim family so he may lay with his Aryan princess one more time? Never heard of it!

In Hari Kondabolu’s recent documentary The Problem With Apu, he investigates ‘Patanging,’ the phenomenon whereby someone’s South Asianness is exaggerated for the screen to the point of a dehumanizing stereotype, usually at the behest of a white director, for a white audience. This will include being asked to put on a thick, broad Indian accent (as I’m sure the brown women playing Kumail’s suitors were asked to do for this movie), and being expected to embody what are seen as traditional “Indian” body movements such as the wobbling head and the screwing-in-the-lightbulb hands. You know, the ones we were bullied in the playground for.

But Nunjiani isn’t white. Why is patanging found throughout this film? Why is there literally not one moment of nuance afforded this family? Why is the father characterized as some kind of Bollywood-singing-cymbal-banging-monkey-toy, and, more importantly, why is his mother characterized as an evil heartless bitch who is able to disown her son without shedding a tear or ever explaining why?

Meanwhile, the bulk of the plot revolves around Kumail trying to win the affections of Emily’s white parents while poor Emily is in a coma. They are presented as funny, kooky, good-hearted, protective of their daughter, caring, vulnerable, multi-faceted. We learn about their history, how they met, what they like, what they don’t like, how they feel about and relate to their daughter and their changing feelings about Kumail.

Emily’s mother makes an overtly racist comment to Kumail about 9/11 the first time they meet, and this is overlooked completely. She is even given a scene later in the movie during which she comes to Kumail’s defense when he is being racially heckled at one of his shows – some kind of white redemption narrative.

His own mother gets nothing of the sort. In one unnecessary scene, when Emily has woken from the coma, she lies in bed getting her hair stroked by her mother in yet another big screen depiction of the Unbreakable Tenderness of White Women, while we can only guess that Kumail’s own mother is at home making 100 curries, and cursing the day he was born in a very strong but generic Indian accent.

The man sitting behind us, whose wife had shushed us before the movie started, laughed gutturally throughout the film. This is a white liberal’s wet dream: permission from a Muslim to despise Muslims. At one point Kumail even jokes about never crying when hearing about the genocide of Muslim communities, but crying at the film Up. In loaning his identity to this racist film, Kumail Nanjiani gave permission for white people who believe they are good but who are latently bigoted and racist, to laugh openly at a depiction of South Asian Muslims as heartless and backwards and I truly hate him for that.

There is a specific racialized, gendered violence against all the women of colour in this film that is scary. A pivotal moment in the movie is when Emily, who is told nothing about Kumail’s family beforehand, finds a box of photos of the women with whom his parents are trying to arrange his marriage. With next to no information about the situation, Emily goes ahead and absolutely loses her shit, potentially becoming possessed for a second as she screams, cries and breaks up with Kumail on the spot.

This is framed 100% as Kumail’s bad and Emily’s innocence in this situation is never questioned. In an attempt to get her back, Kumail burns the photos of the brown women, puts the ashes in a jar, and literally gives it to the white woman who, of course, dismisses him, but is secretly pleased.

I had to be reminded of this scene by my editor when settling down to write this which indicates to me that 1) there was so much symbolism towards the disposability of brown women in that film that I was able to forget such a big example of it and 2) I may have genuinely repressed it. When I left the movie theatre that day I felt winded and deeply sad, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I am generally a sad bitch, I normally have pretty good momentum through a range of different sadnesses and this is one I have not been able to shake.

It is sad. It’s so sad. It’s sad that a straight man of colour won this platform and managed to turn it into some kind of carnival of the model minority by making a film as devastating and disrespectful of brown women as if a white man had made it. It’s sad that this film signals the last time I will trust a straight man of colour to handle any matter at all with any decency. It’s sad that due to a legacy of systemic racism and acute lack of representation in media for black and brown people, there is a huge onus on the people who do have a platform to handle it with care.

It’s sad that straight men of colour and white women insist on using the fallacy of depoliticized love as a way to enact white supremacist and patriarchal violence, and to further the erasure and abuses of women of colour.

Fuck this smug “we are the future” defensiveness around interracial couples that positions the rest of us as villains for not believing they’re saving the world every time they fuck. If that’s the love you’re choosing for yourself, godspeed. But loving white people is a political choice. The proximity to whiteness not only makes the person of colour involved more desirable to white people and therefore the world at large, it often also makes them more dangerous to the rest of us. It forces us into proximity with the delusion that whiteness can ever be a safe resting place for people of colour, and that white women really are as innocent as they will have us believe.

This film is traumatic. Perhaps that is dramatic, but if white women can be dramatic and still be cute, so can this brown non-binary piece of shit. This is how racial trauma is upheld. Watching photographs of people who look like me burned, stuffed into a jar, and handed to a white woman to apologize for ever having had any contact with them, and then calling it comedy, is the big sick, Kumail, not the flu your white girlfriend had.

I try to laugh but this has been painful, painful to watch, painful to remember, painful to exorcise onto this page. I feel guilty for coming for one of my own, a fellow traumatized person of colour trying to make it in a fucked up industry in a fucked up world. I get it. But if I’ve learnt one thing this year it’s that your trauma is no good excuse to treat others badly. Okay, cis-het men of colour? Okay, Kumail Nunjiani? It’s okay man, you can love yourself without hating the women who raised you.