It’s no surprise that the TV industry doesn’t fairly represent the diverse American population. All too often, Hispanic and Latino men are portrayed as criminals or immigrants, black men and women are given a “token” role, or women represent sidekicks and secretaries.
Parks and Recreation actor Aziz Ansari wrote in a New York Times article in November, “Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an ‘everyman,’ what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The ‘everyman’ is everybody.”
That notion is what inspired Ansari and his co-director, Alan Yang, to put together Master of None, a 10-episode comedic series that makes an intentional, dedicated effort to cast a diverse array of characters and paint issues that aren’t often talked about in entertainment television. Ansari and Yang, a former Parks and Recreation actor and writer, crafted the TV show in a way that shows real issues in a multi-dimensional yet unglorified way. For example, the series depicts real struggles of relationships that aren’t so often portrayed on TV: taking Plan B after an awkward one-night-stand, questioning if you’re ready to marry your long-term partner, and arguing over whether you can handle doing long-distance if you take that promotion at work.
But beyond relationships, the show tackles some difficult social justice issues. Here are 3 social justice issues beautifully illustrated in ‘Master of None’:
In Master of None, Ansari plays Dev, a character similar to himself who pursues acting, primarily in commercials. In the show’s second episode, Parents, Dev and his friend Brian, who is Asian, discuss how different their lives would have been if their parents hadn’t sacrificed everything to immigrate to the United States in hope for a better life for them. They realize that they don’t know, and haven’t asked, many details about the immigration process. All they really know about their parents’ immigration is the same, generalized statement: that “it was hard.”
Brian and Dev decide to take both of their parents out to dinner together to thank them for being great parents, and they learn a lot about what it was like for their immigrant parents to raise children in the US--things they took for granted, like how their moms were scared to answer the phone for weeks, and how much of their parents’ lives were devoted solely to work. Dev and Brian realize that the things they get upset at their parents for, like being forced to take time out of their busy schedules to see a movie with their parents, or having to help them figure out how to work the latest technology, are trivial.
The addition of Brian and his parents in this episode adds to the complexity of immigration. No one immigration experience is the same, and although each the sets of parents had some similar struggles, their experiences were vastly different. Additionally, Brian and Dev both realize that as much as they can learn about their parents, they still grew up in contrasting cultures. A lot of what will make the parents smile is simply learning about and appreciating their dedication to giving their children a better life in the United States.
Social Justice Action: Race Forward launched the Drop the I-Word Campaign. Take a moment to watch their video and pledge to drop the I-word.
2. Racial bias in entertainment
In Episode 4, Indians on TV, Dev runs into his friend Ravi at an audition for a small role as “unnamed cab driver,” and the two discuss how almost all of the roles they audition for seem to be stereotypical Indian roles with thick accents. Dev auditions, but doesn’t get the role because he refuses to fake an accent.
After the audition, Dev accidentally gets hold of an email thread where he sees the producer of the show saying that they can only cast one Indian, and the thread includes racist remarks.
This episode speaks to the lack of diversity that many shows have when it comes to race; according to a 2014 study, of the characters coded for race/ethnicity across 100 top films of 2014,
73.1% were White
12.5% were Black
5.3% were Asian
4.9% were Hispanic/Latino
2.9% were Middle Eastern
less than 1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
1.2% were from “other” racial and/or ethnic groupings.
This isn’t anything new if you think about it; when Indian or Asian men are portrayed on TV, they’re often there for “foreign” comic relief and aren’t much more than that. Women of color are usually portrayed as “exotic” but don’t have much dimension besides that. Master of None combats this racism in the episode. In addition to speaking out about entertainment diversity throughout the plot line, Master of None walks the talk, as they have a diverse cast: one key character, Denise, was not originally intended to be black or gay, but they rewrote the part to reflect the personality of the actress, Lena Waithe, who is black and gay herself.
Social Justice Action: Apply the Bechdel Test to shows and movies that you watch. Here are the criteria for entertainment to pass the test: 1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it… 2. Who talk to each other… 3. About something besides a man. And now try inserting race into the parameters. What do you notice?
3. Women’s Safety
In Episode 7, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dev walks home from a bar in New York City with his friend at night. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” plays in the background as they stroll down the sidewalk, and Dev steps in a pile of dog poop. In an alternate scene, an unnamed woman is also walking home at night by herself, and pre-dials 911 as she heads to her apartment. Suspenseful music accompanies the scene, and a man starts to follow her all the way to her apartment, where he bangs on her door and demands that she “give the nice guy a chance for once.”
In the next scene, the unnamed woman, a fellow actor, and Dev are at dinner. Dev tells their table about his unfortunate night in which he stepped in dog feces and ruined his “favorite sneakies.” The woman is quiet about her obviously much worse night. When Dev later learns that two women in his life have been stalked, he’s surprised. He decides that these are bad guys. But later in the episode, when a man introduces himself and shakes hands only with the men sitting at the table, choosing to ignore the two women, Dev jumps to the defense of the man, not understanding the subtle sexism that he’d just seen.
The cool part about this episode is that it portrays many aspects of sexism. Many men know that women get harassed, but cannot comprehend the sheer volume of it. Oftentimes, men also don’t pick up on every day, covert sexism; this episode illustrates a few instances of the various dimensions of women’s experiences with sexism and harassment. Women--try watching this episode with a man. You might chuckle at the truth of it. Take note on whether he’s taken aback - if he is, what kind of conversation might this spark?
Social Justice Action: End Rape on Campus is an organization dedicated to ending sexual violence against women. They have a list of actions you can take to end violence and oppression. Make an effort to do these on a regular basis.
Master of None is a stepping stone toward a more inclusive entertainment industry. As race relations and sexual assault conversations in the U.S. become more and more publicly visible, tuning into Netflix and giving this show a try is just one way you can educate yourself on some of these issues. Of course, being an ally goes much further than watching this show. Maybe it will be a catalyst for starting difficult conversations with friends, family, or partners.
And keep an eye out for season 2, which is set to come out later this year.