Ashton Kutcher's 'Raj' Ad: Where Do We Draw the Line?

What part of Ashton Kutcher thought it would be a good idea to put on "brownface" and play a creepy would-be Bollywood producer named Raj, all in the interest of selling PopChips?
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Ashton Kutcher -- what were you thinking, dude?

I know it's hard to stay grounded when you're constantly surrounded by celebrities and security. But what part of you thought it would be a good idea to put on "brownface" and play a creepy would-be Bollywood producer named Raj, making dubious use of a video dating service, all in the interest of selling PopChips? I have a sneaking suspicion that you don't need the money. Or the potential cringing of Demi Moore when she sees you in an ad that's based on the idea of you as a single man looking for love in all the wrong places? And in some offensive faces. As tech entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote in his blog, "If you find yourself putting brown makeup on a white person in 2012 so they can do a bad 'funny' accent in order to sell potato chips, you are on the wrong course."

I saw the controversial segment of the ad -- which has now been pulled -- on a Today show segment this morning which reported on the outcry from Indian-American groups after it first ran. I felt so embarrassed for all concerned -- Kutcher, anyone named Raj, all the Indian people I've ever met, the guy who invented TV -- that I almost left the room to get away from the mishegoss.

But then I wondered if I might be the pot calling the kettle brown. See, my novel, Other Waters, is about Indian-Americans and the conflict they feel as a result of being bicultural. It's written in the third person, but it's a close third, largely written from the point of view of the protagonist, Maya Das, an Indian-American psychiatrist who thinks that her family has been cursed. The book hasn't generated any outcry from Indian-American readers. In fact, it's gotten a fair amount of praise from some of them, such as Michelle d'Mello, who wrote in the Bamboo Online, "The ultimate twist is that Ms. Gage, who writes with such authenticity about the 'desi' experience is not, herself, South Asian."

So what's the difference between me and Ashton? We both "pretended" to be Indian in a way, so how come I'm an author who gets a pass for her "authenticity" and he's just a big, fat racist? (OK, no one is calling him big and fat. He's a handsome, buff racist, but he is being called a racist nonetheless.)

And I'm not the only non-South-Asian author to write from an Indian perspective. Nell Freudenberger's new book The Newlyweds also has a South Asian woman as its protagonist and a white woman as its author. (I have yet to read the book but am eager to; I went to college with the author and met her a few times and she seemed wicked smaht, as I used to say when I was growing up, even then.) In a review of The Newlyweds in the New York Times' Book Review, Mohsin Hamid wrote:

At stake here isn't -- or shouldn't be -- the question of authenticity, which is a red herring: nationalities, ethnicities, genders and even species do not 'own' the right to fictional narratives spoken in what purport to be their voices... No, the more pressing issue is that of verisimilitude, truthlikeness, the illusion of being real, a quality without which fiction that adheres to the conventions of what is commonly called realism (a problematic term, but useful shorthand for the more cumbersome 'let's try not to draw attention to the fact that this is all made up'-ism) starts to feel to its audience like an ill-fitting and spasmodic sock puppet.

So are we not big, fat racists, or literary colonialists because our stories seem "truer" than Kutcher's bad accent, phony complexion and cheap achkan jacket? Or are all three of us just embarrassingly on-trend and everyone wants to be Indianish these days? When does something stop being an homage and start being a stereotype?

I don't think these questions have easy answers. But I suspect the media involved (TV versus novels) has something to do with the distinction between exploring another culture and mocking it. Maybe it has to do with the time needed to produce a novel as opposed to an 18 second piece of an ad. But I think it also has to do with the amount of time it takes to read a novel rather than to watch an ad.

When the Pulitzer committee failed to give a prize for fiction this year, novelist Ann Patchett (one of my favorite authors) wrote, "Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps."

I couldn't agree with Patchett more. She wrote her op-ed weeks ago, so she clearly wasn't commenting on the "Raj Upset." (Although she is right on point with her disdain of Twitter -- Kutcher got into hot internet water when he tweeted to protest the JoePa firing, without being aware that a child abuse scandal was involved, and the backlash to the Raj ad has largely played out on Twitter.) But I think she couldn't be more right about empathy, and, to extend her thought, I suspect that one of key differences between stereotype and characterization is the act of taking time to imagine what a person -- and the ethnic group they identify with -- feels. As readers we are forced to imagine what it's like to be someone else. As viewers, it's all too easy to laugh at a person as you would at a cartoon character. It's the difference between trying to get inside someone's mind, and just slapping on their makeup.

Maybe this experience will cause Kutcher to slow down and take some time to think before he tweets or applies foundation that doesn't complement his skin tone. Maybe he'll even take up longer-form writing, extending his range beyond 140 words. And if he does find himself with time on his hands, I've got a few good novels I could recommend.

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