Marissa Doshi, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor of Communication
Is Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali, the winsome astrophysicist played by Kunal Nayyar on the long-running CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, responsible for the alienation many Indian-Americans experience from mainstream U.S. media?
That may be overstating matters a bit — but according to recent research by Dr. Marissa Doshi and a colleague, “Raj” is one of the most prominent contemporary examples of the disconnect that first-generation Indian-Americans may feel in their adopted country.
“It has to do, I think, with how mainstream media in general portrays ethnic minorities, including Indian-Americans, in very limiting and stereotypical ways,” asserts Doshi, who earned her undergraduate degree in Mumbai, India. “For example, it’s 2018 and Big Bang Theory still has a character like Raj, who has a very stereotypical accent. It’s not very different from how The Simpsons portrayed Apu [the Indian-American proprietor of the animated series’ Kwik-E-Mart], and The Simpsons came out almost 20 years before.”
With Dr. Srividya Ramasubramanian, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M who was Doshi’s mentor during her graduate studies there, Doshi surveyed more than 250 Indian-Americans about issues including the media choices they make. In 2017, Ramasubramanian and Doshi reported on their research in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, and also (along with Dr. Muniba Saleem of the University of Michigan) in the International Journal of Communication.
Their survey findings suggest that Indian-Americans are motivated to watch movies and television programs from their home country not because they have difficulty with English, as had widely been assumed, but because they are engaging in “ethnic performance”: organizations, activities and entertainment that focus on Indian culture.
“It’s a complex relationship they have with media from their homeland in India,” Doshi says. “We found that watching Indian media is related to increased ethnic pride. Watching it may actually make them feel good about their ethnic identity in a way watching American TV does not.”
She is quick to note that Indian-American actors like Aziz Ansari (Master of None) and Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) are featured prominently in American media. However, the number of Indian-American performers is minuscule even compared to other ethnic groups. What’s more, such actors are typically not seen in roles designed to promote or celebrate Indian culture.
“I don’t think the list is short because there aren’t Indian people interested in acting,” she notes. “I think it speaks to the lack of opportunities for actors of color. In Hollywood right now, or in American media, it almost seems like if you want to have your voice heard, you have to be in charge of the production. If you don’t take that opportunity, no one’s out there giving it to you.”
Research for Ramasubramanian and Doshi’s study was centered in Texas. They recruited subjects from groups with high numbers of Indian-American members, such as student organizations and cultural societies. Those who responded were asked to forward surveys to friends. More than 300 people participated, and the researchers found 255 surveys were complete and usable.
The Indian films and TV series that the respondents said they seek out through satellite programming, cable packages and other means go beyond the “Bollywood” phenomenon America first became aware of in the 1970s.
“For a while, Bollywood actually tried to appeal very specifically to Indian-Americans,” says Doshi. “They felt this was a huge audience for them because these were people who missed India, so a lot of their movies targeted Indian-Americans in terms of their storylines. They definitely presented the Indian-American — in India we call it the NRI, or Non Resident Indian, identity — as desirable, aspirational, something to be celebrated.”
Opting for indigenous programming that celebrates their homeland has its pitfalls, though. One of Doshi’s previous research studies (with Dr. Indira Somani of Howard University) found that many Indian-Americans, particularly older viewers, have mixed reactions to India’s extremely popular nighttime serialized dramas.
“They’re like telenovelas, with the most over-the-top storylines — but everyone in India watches them,” Doshi explains. “We found that older Indian-Americans enjoyed the shows, but they also were uncomfortable watching how Indian women were being portrayed. In a lot of ways, the actors were not following the norms of what ‘a dutiful Indian woman’ is supposed to be or do. So the reason they were watching — to recapture that sense of home — was actually being disrupted. It reminded them of how much India has changed since they left. These people don’t truly feel at home in the U.S., and these shows were a reminder that, ‘Hey, you don’t belong back here, either.’ As an older person, you may feel alienated from this ‘new’ India.”
In 2017 Doshi became Hope College’s 20th Towsley Research Scholar; she is receiving summer research funding for four years, plus a semester-long sabbatical to pursue scholarly work. Her term as a Towsley Research Scholar runs through 2021.
Doshi believes research like hers eventually will help expand the media landscape for all marginalized groups. “I’ve been really looking at how marginalized groups engage with media and technology,” she explains. “I’ve looked at Indian-Americans in some of my published research, and recently I’ve been focusing more on women. I’m looking at how those groups sometimes engage with media to make their voices heard, but also how there is a creative and cultural dimension of media use that’s not always taken seriously.”
One reason she became a professor, she says, is because she wants to talk about her research with students and engage them in it. Four students have been involved in her feminist technology research, assisting with a 2016 study of women’s health apps and a 2017 project on gender norms on Instagram. “They are the future; they are the ones who are going to be making all this media eventually,” Doshi says. “That’s where I think I see my research having the largest impact.”