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

By Aisha Mirza

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 Nanjiani, 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 Nanjiani. 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 Nanjiani 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 no reason at all, and on the other, this was perfect poetic foreshadowing.

In an early scene, Emily heckles Kumail while he is performing. He then approaches her, 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 persistent 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. 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 Nanjiani 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 and 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 parents make an overtly racist comment to Kumail about 9/11 the first time they meet, and this is overlooked completely. The mother 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 mother is at home making 100 curries, and cursing the day he was born in a very strong but generic Indian accent.

The white 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 Kumail’s 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 this 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, as is the case with Kumail. 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 learned 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 Nanjiani? It’s okay, man, you can love yourself without hating the women who raised you.

Aisha Mirza is a writer and social worker from East London living in Brooklyn. They are the author of White Women Drive Me Crazy. Follow them @workinhardmummy

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  1. perfectly worded. I knew it’d be crap when I saw the preview, but it being written by a man of color makes it at least 5x worse.

  2. I would implore the people who are responding so defensively to this article, attacking the author and dismissing her opinions as sad pessimism, to consider where her “pessimism” is coming from. Telling her to relax is no different from dismissing women’s accounts of sexual harassment. When women of color consistently say that their representations in media are degrading maybe we should listen to them.

  3. Amazing article. Kinda got that vibe from the previews, but I’m glad I decided not to see it.

  4. As a white non-binary AFAB dating a Pakistani man when the film came out, I still decided that I didn’t want to see the film due to the disrespect shown to South Asian women in the trailer. The examples listed are really horrifying and I’m glad not to have supported the film. Thanks for a great article.

  5. So, let me break this down piece by piece:

    This is based on Kumail’s real life. I don’t think he could really help who he fell in love with the same as anybody else. And this movie is a retelling of that story. If his wife had been Pakistani, the story is completely different and its a different movie altogether. Not every movie is going to portray every group of people perfectly.

    Yes, this story isn’t flattering to the women of color in it. But they aren’t defined by the fact they’re South Asian or women of color. The fact that you want to define them as purely that is baffling to me and I’d argue makes far less sense than just treating them as people. And as I recall, one of the women that he met with (I think the magic lady) was a well rounded person who was really a catch and they had a honest, realistic conversation about why it didn’t work out and how it was basically his fault.

    There are people out there such as myself that can relate to his movie so so much. I’m an Indian guy who came to the US when I went to college in the Midwest. I’ve lived here ever since and I’ve tried my best to assimilate into American culture while retaining my Indian identity. When I started working, I tried the whole arranged marriage thing at the behest of my parents. I met/talked to some other Indian women. It didn’t work out with any of them for reasons that had nothing to do with them being Indian (mostly we had nothing in common. A not so surprising problem with arranged marriage) At the same time, I was trying online dating and I met someone who is white. Cue the shock and horror of me betraying my people 😛 Oh, and did I mention that I live in a small Midwest city where there really aren’t many Indian women to go around. So, really as a function of the demographics of where I live, I met and hit it off with a white woman who will probably be my wife in the near future. I don’t love her because she’s white. I love her because of who she is. Basically, my life mirrors a lot of the movie’s talking points which is part of the reason I love it.

    Your overall point still stands though. This movie doesn’t speak to you. I can see why and that is something that definitely needs to change. But this movie and even Master of None are steps in the right direction. For someone like me, this was the first time I ever felt represented in Western mainstream media and it was moving and emotional. I remember watching Master of None and hearing Aziz talk to his parents in Tamil (same language I speak) on an AMERICAN TV SHOW! These are moments worth treasuring for me and I sincerely hope that you can feel the same about a tv show or movie some day.

    • You made a lot of the points I wanted to make, but you said it a lot more eloquently. I understand after reading this piece how a South Asian woman would be upset by it, but as a white woman who remembers the feeling of hurt when my partner kept me hidden from his family, and how when I finally did meet them they said (in English, to be sure I would hear) that his relationship with me couldn’t be serious because we weren’t from the same culture, this movie meant a lot to me.

  6. So much racist invective posted toward the author. Seemingly proves many of her points.

    It seems so hard for people (likely mostly whites) to simply hear and allow for Aisha to have and express her own experience.

    As a white, cis, het male, I can still choose to listen and believe her experience, even if it might not fit with my own narrative. Even more, I can choose to gain new insights by hearing someone else’s feelings, and not immediately invalidate them simply because some of them might threaten my white privilege.

    I see so much overt racism in comments around the web, and it’s clear that I, and other white people have a long way to go towards educating ourselves and waking up to the suffering that POCs have faced (and continued to face) since before the founding of our country.

    How about listening and applying some critical thinking to your own reactions instead of always reacting and needing to be heard?

  7. This is a great piece! Thank you.

  8. You truly don’t get it, do you?

  9. I respect how you perceived the movie. As a white male, I saw a different film. I saw a film in which several of the women proffered by the family were actually more physically attractive and appealing than the woman he chose. The point, I think, is that love and chemistry are hard things to quantify. You can’t help who you fall for. You can’t help whether or not you want to be a part of the culture or religion you were born into. You can’t help if you want to rebel against the norms of that culture. You have to be who you are. Just as Ms. Mirza can’t help feeling as she does, the actor/writer of THE BIG SICK can’t help being who he is. THE BIG SICK is one story, one narrative. Ms. Mirza can create a wonderful story of her own. I understand how she might feel. When I saw THE HELP, I was ready to explode. It bugged the shit out of me. But others loved it. That’s just the way it works…

  10. Your article upset me at first, but I’ve tried to put my defensive feelings aside for a moment and hear yours.
    For context; I’m a white American woman in a relationship with a Muslim immigrant, and this movie was important to me because it did reflect a lot of my experiences pretty closely.
    But of course we had different experiences of this movie, and I do respect your experience of it.
    The symbolism of burning those pictures and giving the ashes to a white woman is something that didn’t even occur to me through my own cultural lens.
    Something I do think we experienced differently that (if for some reason you’ve chosen to wade through all the comments here that range from defensive to hateful) I would be interested in hearing your response to, is the girl who did the magic trick.
    It didn’t seem bizarre to me. It seemed like a cute party trick, and what I saw in the face of Nanjiani’s character when he looked at her was genuine interest.
    But more than that, I think her character served the purpose of shining a light on the shitty side of Nanjiani’s behavior.
    Of course the way he was treating the women in his life, both Emily and the women is mother tried to set him up with, wasn’t okay, and she called him out on it.
    He was disrespectful to those women, and that was a problem.
    It wasn’t the main crux of the film, but I do think him realizing that he was being shitty to the people in his life was an important part of his character development.
    I still love this movie, but I respect your feelings about it.

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