Leading with humour is great advice to offer someone that’s entering an unfamiliar space filled with people they don’t know.
The key to landing a joke however, lies in knowing your audience.
Lilly Singh was one of the few prominent brown creators on Youtube back when she made her debut in 2011. Her videos were made through a comedic perspective, and often featured other brown people including her own friends or rising South Asian stars like Humble The Poet.
There was a collective awe in her once primarily South Asian audience to see a young brown woman do so well for herself on a platform where most did not look like her.
Today, nearly ten years after starting her journey, Lilly’s star status goes far beyond just her humble Youtube beginnings.
Over time, Singh has garnered over 15 million followers on Instagram and Twitter, but her most recent accomplishment is by far her most remarkable; being the first brown woman to host an American late-night talk show.
Having a talk show certainly broadens an entertainer’s horizons, and their reach, so having compelling and buzz-worthy content is crucial. It is the ultimate test for an entertainer to push the bounds of creativity while cultivating a niche, and then to be collectively recognized and celebrated for it.
At the same time, I imagine that when Lilly, who is an openly bisexual South Asian woman, pitched her talk show “A Little Late with Lilly Singh,” the need to be accepted by her primarily white network and white audience, was at an all-time high.
So much of Singh’s content from her YouTube channel centers around stereotypical portrayals of South Asians, and Lilly has created and continues to create several skits that star caricatures of “Desi parents”.
Videos featuring “the parents” she refers to on her Youtube channel embody the clichés of heavy accents, being cheap, and the classic anti-dating sentiment, particularly in regards to dating outside of one’s race.
Generally speaking, her material can often come across as if it was created for an audience that is unfamiliar with South Asian culture, or rather, familiar with it for all the wrong reasons.
But this makes sense when you recognize that mainstream media definitely relies on and centers the approval of a white audience -- especially if you look at the people who run networks like NBC.
As a result, it appears that someone like Singh relies on these stereotypes to pander to white audiences, in order to maintain her status in Hollywood, and appease her viewers.
This is incredibly frustrating because Singh has propagated the idea that stereotypes can be conflated with culture.
Far too often you will see hackneyed representations of BIPOC in mainstream media. These portrayals often present themselves as the antithesis to the idealism, success or happiness that one can experience if they were to be more accepting of western culture.
In a nutshell, while her show was a win for representation, when you actually watch it you recognize that “A Little Late with Lily” perfectly encapsulates the status quo of acceptance and representation in Hollywood: good enough to seem inclusive, but still meant to be comfortable for white people.
An example which demonstrates issues in Singh’s comedy that services white audiences but hurts her Desi viewers, is when she had referred to the towel turbans on her guest Jessica Alba’s children, to be reminiscent of her Punjabi friends.
Many who had seen the clip voiced their outrage on Twitter, highlighting the hurtful parallel of towel turbans to instances in which wearing an actual turban had resulted in them being called ‘towel head'' or “rag head”.
What is truly ironic in Lilly receiving public backlash for a turban joke is that the first video that appears on her Youtube channel is a tutorial on tying a turla pagg (a type of turban worn on Bhangra dancers).
The platform Singh has achieved often feels like a missed opportunity to showcase an experience that is more reflective of the first-generation immigrant experience.
Her content has forsaken the idea of creating for South Asians or anything that resembles of the South Asian experience. It is as if her only consolation for her tired shtick is that she just happens to be brown.
What I would hope to see from brown creators moving forward is a more nuanced storytelling of South Asians -- especially those growing up with Western culture.
These stories should be attuned to their culture and how that cultural connectedness can add to, or make universal experiences like friendships, relationships, or careers more interesting for others to get a glimpse of.
An example that I feel captures this well is Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.
What Kaling does well with her protagonist, Devi, a Tamil teen grappling with the awkwardness and complexities of being a teenager is that she does not portray instances of her culture ostentatiously.
Any cultural references exist within the scene without any explanation, and without pandering to a white audience.
It should be good enough for other viewers to laugh along with or empathize with BIPOC characters as they navigate everyday human experiences through the lens of their culture, without needing a “translation,” and this is what I would like to see on a show like Lilly’s.
Stereotypes have and always been the shallow safety net for a quick laugh in the media, and BIPOC characters often have their story told with no input from them.
Now, even with a South Asian woman taking center stage on her own show -- the representation still feels hollow.
It is a disservice to dilute South Asians down to an accent or other tired trope, and we need to demand and expect better. BIPOC should be entitled to representation that is created for their comfort and relatability and no one else’s.
About the author: Reya Rana is a UBC grad who studied Poli Sci and English language. She is really interested in writing and reading rhetorical analyses, and she enjoys all kinds of music, fashion and books that make her cry. Her pronouns are she/her.
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