The Spelling Bee, Model Minorities, and American Citizenship
Shilpa Davé / Brandeis University

Kavya awaits

A hopeful speller awaits his next turn

A 2009 headline from the Wall Street Journal reads, “How to Win the Spelling Bee: You don’t have to be Indian.  But it seems to help.” The headline suggests a correlation between being Indian and being a good speller (and hence very smart) in English as the story points out how seven Indian Americans have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the last 11 years including the 2009 winner, Kavya Shivashankar from Kansas. What is presented is another variation of the highly educated Asian American model minority stereotype that is attributed to South Asian Americans, but in this case, being a model minority and a successful American for Indian Americans emphasizes being proficient in the English language rather than being a computer genius or a math whiz. A champion of the Spelling Bee not only represents the best and brightest in our educational system but also accentuates an image of the ideal American citizen who speaks and spells American English well and without an accent. While math and science are being developed as national educational priorities for federal, state, and local school systems to help create homegrown entrepreneurs, the most popular school competition in elementary and middle school (on television and in popular culture) is the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Why is there such a fascination with the Spelling Bee?  Although the first National Spelling Bee was held in 1925 and sponsored by a Louisville newspaper and gained consistent popularity, it is in the 21st century that film, television, and Broadway have suddenly made the event the subject of popular narratives.  The competition was first carried live on television by ESPN and in 2006 was moved to ABC, which catapulted the Scripps National Spelling Bee to celebrity status in the realm of popular culture. ((For an interesting history of the origins of the bee as a means of educational instruction see “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk” by Allen Walker Read. PMLA, Vol 56, No. 2 (June 1941) 445-512.)) The competition now appeals to a wide audience by capturing some of the most core elements of American culture:  American youth (also known as “tweeners”) and their parents, the thrill of competition, and the prevalence and relevance of one national language–English.  The Bee combines family viewing with a sporting educational event that celebrates the democracy of the United States.  Any child in school between the ages of eight and thirteen can participate and win. For those who attended public or private elementary and middle school in the U.S. the school Spelling Bee is a ritual that all of us have witnessed and participated in and can look back on with a sense of nostalgia.

In a celebrity culture filled with movie stars, reality stars, and others known for their outward appearance, kid celebrities who are brainy are a decidedly different kind of hero but one that Americans can be proud of. The appeal of the Bee is universal because it follows a simple formula that is understandable to participants and spectators alike—if you spell the work correctly you move on and can eventually win.  The Bee invites audiences to follow along and cheer for their favorite spellers as they face each new word. Math competitions or general quiz bowls can be more complex or even too hard to watch as a spectator sport but the Spelling Bee offers drama, entertainment, and education in each round with one word. We learn that are strategies and tactics about how to go about spelling the word and also a routine in tackling each word that can include asking for a definition or country/language of origin.  One word can examine the trans-national and trans-lingual origins of American English whether the root word is Greek or Sanskrit or in definition refers to a type of vegetation in South America or Africa.  And yet while that word may have trans-national origins or have a different pronunciation in another language ultimately it is the mastery of the English spelling that allows each contestant to move on.

Almost ten years earlier, the documentary Spellbound (2002, Jeffrey Blitz) followed eight candidates in their pursuit of the championship prize of the 1999 Spelling Bee and also focused on the thematic narrative of how participating in the Spelling Bee was a venue to highlight the American Dream for immigrants.  The documentary was nominated for a 20002 Academy Award and has won praise as critics hale what I see as the importance of an educational excellence as integral to American identity.  Out of the eight contestants, two were Indian American including the eventual winner Nupur Lala, one was African American, one was Latina, and the other four were white contestants from various class backgrounds.  In more recent popular culture representations, being part of the Spelling Bee reaffirms an investment in education by both parents and children as the means to achieving the American Dream.   The film Bee Season (2005, Scott McGehee) is a fictional account of a Jewish American girl and her relationship with her father during one Spelling Bee season. ((The musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, ran on Broadway from April 2005 to May 2008 and garnered two Tony awards including one for Best Actor in 2005. Although one of the characters is usually depicted by a Latino most of the kids in this fictional exaggeration of Spelling Bee competitions do not include Asian or African Americans. One character’s mother is described as living in an ashram in India but the fictional version, like the films focus on the nature of the competition and the show encourages participation where members of the audience are invited onstage to compete in the fictional Bee. Currently, the musical has toured in Australia and Korea as well as around the U.S. and become another means of promoting spelling as quintessentially an American phenomenon but also another version of the American Dream.))  The following year, Akeelah and the Bee (2006, Doug Atchison) was released in Starbucks stores.  The narrative portrays the true story of an 11-year-old African American girl from South Los Angeles who participates in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Like the documentary, the films also focus on the relation between ethnic and racial minorities and their relationship to education. In Akeelah and the Bee, despite the racial, class, and gendered bias of their parents and friends, the film highlights how Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American kids work together to achieve success in the Spelling Bee.  The future that the kids represent is one of racial, ethnic, and gendered harmony and assimilation where everyone is well versed in English vocabulary and committed to education as the means to advancement and personal achievement. ((Education as the means for minority youth to change their class status were featured in the films The Blind Side (2009) and Precious (2009) but both kids were in high school and out of the “tween years.” Also as many critics and reviewers have stated, education was the means for the main character to play football rather than education for education’s sake.))

But what kinds of youth heroes are being groomed as national role models?  What I put forth is that the image of immigrants represented by Indian Americans as master spellers and engaged in competition accentuates citizenship in an apolitical context.  On one hand the Spelling Bee is a competition for tweens and an opportunity to show off the best of America’s youth and yet, on the other hand it is also a way to model cultural values of education—you can be a celebrity and a national hero by being smart rather than speaking up for human rights or social justice.   The two clips below represent both points of view in an interview of the 2009 Spelling Bee winner Kavya Shivashankar by Julie Chen, host of the CBS morning show and Kavya’s appearance in Jimmy Kimmel’s comic recreation of a spelling bee during his late night show which does reveal the some of the politics implicit in the construction of an American spelling bee.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFj1-Iu7UI8[/youtube]

In a 2009 interview immediately after the Spelling Bee with the winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Julie Chen, the host of the CBS morning show, focuses on the integral characteristics associated with Spelling Bee winners but also the fact that Spelling Bee winners can be a bit quirky or strange in their obsession as spellers.  In other words, she first recognizes that a master speller is a young smart person but then she is insistent on discovering how Kavya prepares for a spelling competition.  Simultaneously, Kavya is interested in speaking about her cultural identity as an Indian and also showing how she is a successful Indian American with high educational and professional goals for herself.  Chen first comments on the notion of pronunciation as an important skill of a master speller as she struggles to pronounce Kavya’s name.  What is apparent is that Kavya’s name is not a typically English name.  The English spelling champion is thus already situated as having an alternative and outside relationship to the language in the competition that she has just won.

Julie Chen does not follow up on the social and cultural aspects of Kavya’s life that have already been indicated by her name.  Instead she moves on to the results of the competition—what are you going to do with the money and where does the Bee take you?  The American Dream is about showing the results of the journey for hard working immigrants.  In her answers, Kavya states that she wants to use most of the $30,000 for college and although she has no idea what she wants to study her goal is to go to medical school and become a neurosurgeon.  While this is a laudable desire, her comment shows that she is not committed to an area of study or inquiry that has social or political ideals that she might encounter in college but instead at the age of thirteen has been groomed to think only of larger economic prize and prestige of a profession without necessarily thinking about what she is interested in and how education is also a journey as well as a destination. In a sense, her thinking mirrors the competition of the Spelling Bee which can be interpreted as a series of steps and questions about how to figure out a word (deductive reasoning) instead about learning language and meaning in the context of expression—how do you use the words as part of your vocabulary rather than as a means to an end?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qrEelqLXR4[/youtube]

The comedy clip with Jimmy Kimmel emphasizes the participatory nature of the Bee but also highlights that English literacy is highly dependent on one particular manner of pronunciation that is not associated with an ethnic or regional accent.   He points out he is not a “tween” but “a full grown spelling machine,” and like Kavya understands the game as he asks questions such as “Can you use it in a sentence?”  However, as an adult, he can also take some jabs at the underlying politics of the Spelling Bee.

In his panel (made up of his family), the Pronunciator is dressed as an actual Spelling Bee and delivers the words to Kavya and Jimmy in a heavily accented and incomprehensible manner.  The convenient subtitles provided for the viewing audience allow us to laugh at the distance and disassociation between what he utters and the word we see on the screen.  It is Kavya’s attempts to play the game that I find most interesting because she finds that when the words don’t match her experiences in the Bee, she is the one who insists on normalization of English.  In one segment with the word “circumvent,” Kavya asks for the Spanish pronunciation.  When an off-screen Kimmel remarks that for the Pronunciator, “everything is a Spanish pronunciation,” Kavya replies with a smile, “Can I have the English pronunciation?”  She wants to hear American English.   She then asks for a different pronounce such as Dr. Bailey (from the Spelling Bee) because, although it’s a comic moment, she wants to return to the language she knows.   And of course the purpose of the skit is to contrast the “right” way of saying the word with the wrong way but it is at the expense of someone who has an accent.   Spelling is great for reading but in the pronunciation spelling also has to deal with accent and by emphasizing that even a master speller cannot decipher an accented (Latino) pronunciation, the comedy sketch is explicitly endorsing one way of oral expression and laughing at (and hence “othering”) other accents as not English/not American.

Image Credits:
1. Wumpiewoo’s Flickr

Please feel free to comment.




Re-thinking Indian Arranged Marriage and Matchmaking on American Television

Arranged Marriage

New reality show Arranged Marriage

In the fall of 2009, I was anxiously awaiting the premiere of a new reality show based on the idea of arranged marriage. ((FOX is also developing a reality series on Arranged Marriage that emphasizes the “marrying a stranger” angle and so falls into a more stereotypical mode of talking about arranged marriage.)) According to the Hollywood Reporter, CBS ordered episodes for a series that “extends the Eastern tradition of an arranged marriage (where friends and family select the mate) into the West.” Although many of the blogs offered scathing reviews of a program that would defile the idea of marriage or promote such a hetero-normative agenda or an Islamic practice, others said they would watch it and some mentioned the U.S. already had a history of arranged marriage. ((There were a lot of postings on this topic from ew.com to the HuffingtonPost to private postings.)) The new reality show has the potential to open up an alternative way to think about marriage in the U.S. by utilizing the practices of “the East” to reconstitute cultural and national courtship practices. What I would like to explore in this column is how we currently define and think of the representation of arranged marriages in the context of Indian arranged marriages and matchmaking on American television.

The multiple expressions of the term “arranged marriage” and how it is parlayed in American popular culture allow for fascinating insights into how we view intersections between marriage, cultural assimilation, and national values. When arranged marriage appears on American television, it usually is represented as a practice that is antithetical to romantic love in the U.S. Comedies such as The Office and The Simpsons emphasize the foreign nature of a practice associated with Indians who are also Hindus. There are many variations in the expression of arranged marriage but most television narratives related to South Asians (I discuss this further in my longer project on South Asians in American Popular culture) tend to focus on three aspects, first, the match and marriage is set up by the family and is not an individual choice, second, there is no love in arranged matches, and thirdly, your partner is a stranger.

The lack of individual choice or an individual’s success in finding a marriage partner is often characterized as un-American given our national values of freedom and democracy. Common belief is that all marriages are “forced” because the individual has no choice about the marriage partner. In television shows such as The Simpsons, Apu, with the help of Homer, flees the idea of arranged marriage in the episode “The Two Mrs. Nahaseemapetilons.” He is unsure of his marriage until his new bride reassures him that if it does not work out he can be free because divorce is a possibility in America (the couple has been married on the series since 1997). Another representative form of arranged marriage focuses on the “silliness” of such an arrangement such as the notion that an engagement or a meeting is dependent on matching astrological charts (as seen in the series Miss Match). Thus arranged marriages are shown as something to escape or an irrational cultural practice that the individual can leave behind rather than recognition that arranged marriages are a viable and successful means of marriage. As Bonnie Dow asserts in her work on television culture, “Television implicitly supports a view of the world that discounts the ways in which cultural norms and values affect people’s lives. The medium’s individualistic view of the world implies that most problems can be solved by hard work, good will, and a supportive family.” ((Bonnie Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture and the Women’s Movement Since 1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press 1996) xxi.)) So the participation and adoption of alternative ideas of marriage such as employing practices associated with Indian arranged marriage, for example, is viewed as an individual choice rather than an indication that there might be a more complex system or problems within the system that influence U.S. ideals about the institution of marriage and divorce or the ideal of romantic love as a basis for a long-term relationship.

Apu and Manjula

The Simpsons‘ Apu and Manjula

The proliferation of reality dating shows and dating clubs that include the family in the show and televise the different choices involved in selecting a partner present a convergence of Indian American and American cultural practices. Indeed, many television shows depend on the opinions of friends and family to drive the dating and marriage narrative. The depiction of Indian families who are concerned for their children and see marriage as an alliance of families can be compatible with parents who want the best for their children or friends who are supportive of each other.

In contemporary times, the attitude towards arranged marriage in Indian immigrant communities has been modified to keep up with the changing nature of the community but as a recent article states, “[t] he abiding principles behind an arranged marriage still remain strong—lust does not a lasting marriage make and family knows best.” ((“Arranged Marriage Get A Little Rearranging” by Lizette Alvarez. The New York Times.com. June 22, 2003. This article discusses arranged marriages in the immigrant community in Britain.)) But there is some flexibility on the idea of what an arrangement entails and so currently an arranged marriage can mean anything from a family facilitated first meeting or set up for compatibility to a match set up solely by the family. ((See “’No Life Without Wife’: Masculinity and Modern Arranged Meetings for Indian Americans” by Shilpa Davé in Catamaran: South Asian American Writing. (Volume 5: Fall 2006) 53-66.)) Popular depictions of arranged marriages in films about Indians produced by Indians or independent films by Indian Americans or British Indians often feature both individual and family approval of the match. ((There are many examples such as Monsoon Wedding, Bride and Prejudice and Dilwale DDJ (see Jigna Desai’s work in Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of the South Asian Diaspora, Routledge 2003).)) On American television in the 1990s and after 2000, however, reality shows (which have not featured Indian Americans) are the most prominent examples of matches and arranged meetings including The Bachelor (2002 debut), The Bachelorette (January 2003 debut), The Millionaire Matchmaker (2008) and perhaps the forthcoming series Arranged Marriage on CBS. These reality shows also have started to stress the opinions of family and friends in the dating process and make them part of the decision making process for the individuals.

Miss Match

Alicia Silverstone as “Miss Match”

Secondly, another common aspect of arranged marriage is that because marriage is not based on romantic love (although that may happen later) you are taking a blind leap of faith that will end in disaster. Two dramatic television programs that focused on issues related to marriage and matches were Cupid (1998-1999, 2009) and Miss Match (2003). ((In the 1970s and 1980s dramas such as The Love Boat (1977-1986) and Fantasy Island (1978-1984) were about singles finding love or couples re-uniting under the auspices of true love. In the 1990 and after 2000 there was a change in the dramas and situation comedies that started to feature young people out on their own who were finding it difficult to meet people. Facilitated matches became more of a prime time event as older single people found it more difficult to meet people outside of colleges. Also, Love, American Style and the game shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game were central to 1960s television programming. The revival in the 1990s signaled a new adult population and interest in dating. There were many reality shows including The Love Connection that tended to try and match people up by compatibility.)) While Cupid was more related to relationship counseling and single life, Miss Match attempted to meld family stories with personal stories of love, romance and marriage. Looking at these programs through the lens of arranged marriage brings into focus the distinction between the ideas of a match versus an arrangement. A match implies a certain degree of compatibility that is based on individual characteristics whereas an arrangement can be done without the consent or knowledge of the individuals. The idea of a match fits in with American notions of dating and dating services and also into the more formal arena of the matchmaker. The inherent values underlying the match still align with freedom of choice and individualism. The idea of arranged marriage is automatically set in opposition to a romantic love marriage. Love, however, is an elusive factor in both matches and arrangements. Kate (played by Alicia Silverstone) the matchmaker, in Miss Match tells her client Rashmi that “I can’t find you love in 10 days.” And yet, the show is titled, Miss Match, not Miss Love or even Miss Cupid. The emphasis is on the idea of a match and the show is a form of an arranged marriage although most would not use that term.

And finally, the third aspect associated with arranged marriage is that the person you are marrying is a virtual stranger (engaged when you were children or have only known the person for a short time period). In The Simpsons, we discover that Apu was engaged to an eight-year-old girl and has not seen her for over twenty years. The idea that the families might have known each other for years or the prospective bride and groom have matching astrological horoscopes (and there is no distinction between the two) is shown to tip the balance for a favorable or unfavorable verdict. This representation depicts arranged marriage as foreign and strange. However, in the episode “Diwali” of the series The Office, the boss Michael (Steve Carell) inquires about the cultural practices arranged marriage (such as sati) just as he plans to propose to his girlfriend. While his attempt to ask Kelly Kapoor’s parents if their marriage is one in which the woman would “throw herself on a fire” if the husband dies is slightly awkward, it does signal his hope for a life-lasting relationship such as a thirty-year marriage. ((Actress, series writer, and comic Mindy Kaling plays re-occurring character Kelly Kapoor. She wrote the episode “Diwali.” Her character is unique and disrupts and complicates stereotypes of Asian American women.)) Although he does not choose a marriage like the Kapoors he does recognize that their relationship is “cool” and one to appreciate.

The Office

The happily married Kapoors

The ideas and depictions of arranged marriage reflect generational and social changes of American ideals of romance and marriage and I would be happy to hear about and discuss more representations of arranged marriage, but ultimately I would argue that the idea of matching as seen in shows such as Miss Match and reality television portray an alternative representation of arranged marriage that map the convergence rather than the separation of Indian American and American cultural values and attitudes towards the idea of marriage.

Image Credits:
1. New reality show Arranged Marriage
2. The Simpsons‘ Apu and Manjula
3. Alicia Silverstone as “Miss Match”
4. The happily married Kapoors

Please feel free to comment.




Ethnic Rock Stars and Asian American Stereotypes: Will the real Ajay Bhatt stand up?
Shilpa Davé / Brandeis University

Intel rockstars ad

Intel “Rock stars” print advertisement

In a recent television advertisement in the U.S., the Intel Corporation announces, “Our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.” The tag line creates two distinctive cultures where one world is the people who work for the future in a glass box at Intel and the other is our everyday world. The thirty-second ad (constructed as a window on the Intel world) includes a musical score with an electric guitar, a bass beat, and a collection of visuals that herald a new star—an Indian American named Ajay Bhatt, the co-inventor of the USB. However, the man in the commercial is not Ajay Bhatt but an Indian actor who bears more resemblance to Apu, the animated character from The Simpsons, than the real man. Perhaps with the proliferation of South Asian faces in popular culture that range from Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Governor Bobby Jindahl to American Idol Anoop Desai to host Padma Lakshmi, the fake Ajay Bhatt should not be the cause of so much concern. And yet in the face of so many other images why cast the same image of Indian Americans? Why can’t Indian Americans be rock stars in both worlds?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-8GVi2Fdi4[/youtube]

At first glance the advertisement appears to be a humorous spot that redefines the American definition of a male hero as an Indian American computer engineer. The rapid growth of the computer industry in the 1980s and the information technology boom in the 1990s led to the widespread hiring of specialized labor from India. The Immigration Act of 1990 introduced the H-1B visa that allowed U.S. companies to recruit foreign labor in specialist positions for up to six years. ((See Kavita Pandit’s “The Changing Role of Indian and Indians in the U.S. High Tech Sector” in Directions Magazine. (August 10, 2004). At first about 65,000 visas were available and this amount was increased to a maximum of 108,000 in 2000 before being reduced back to 65,000 in 2003. This reduction in numbers also reflects the change in the industry as outsourcing has become more commonplace.)) A majority of the recipients were programmers and informational technology workers from India and China and so it should not be a surprise that many of the pioneers in technology companies in the U.S. are Asian American. Instead of American musicians or celebrities the advertisement emphasizes that in the world of Intel (and tomorrow) the American hero is an Indian man who sports a mustache and puffed up wavy hair, wears loafers and sweater vests, and invents innovative technology for the world.

A striking resemblance: Intel’s “fake” Ajay Bhatt…

Apu

…and The Simpsons’ Apu

On one hand, the ad suggests that we should be rethinking who we see as the heroes of our generation. In slow-motion frames, people scream, men point to his image on their t-shirt, women swoon, and others take his picture with their phones and cameras as the fake Ajay Bhatt nods, winks, signs autographs, and basks in their attention. But on the other hand, this exaggerated behavior creates a comic moment because the visual of the actor playing Ajay Bhatt defies American audience expectations of who represents a rock star. Has an Indian American man who looks like the stereotype of a smart computer geek really replaced Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Adam Lambert in the American imagination? The ad is not redefining the American hero but in fact reinforcing the idea of Asian American men as a minority who are rarely seen as rock stars in “our world.” If the actor were a different race or ethnicity, this ad campaign would not be humorous or effective because it would not be juxtaposing a fantasy world with the real world or showing something unique. The message behind the humor separates Indian Americans from everyday American popular culture icons and instead confines Ajay Bhatt and anyone like him to a single image and bars him from creating an alternative image of what an ethnic hero can look like.

Anxieties about new immigrants to the U.S. have historically appeared in visual popular culture such as film and television. Depictions of Asian men in American popular culture have consistently cast aspersions on Asian American nationality, masculinity and sexuality. ((There are a number of studies and articles of the representation of Asian American masculinity and femininity. For more on the history of Asian American masculinity see David Eng’s Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian American. Durham: Duke University Press. 2001 and Martin Manalansan’s Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham: Duke UP. 2003.)) Common characteristics associated with Asian men on television include the passive or effeminate but intelligent nerd, the foreign student with an accent, or the martial arts expert. ((Robert Lee discusses these images in Orientals: Asians in American Popular Culture and Darrell Hamamoto’s history of Asian Americans on television from the 1950s to the 1980s details the specific roles Asians were allowed to play in Monitored Peril. Peter Feng in Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video (Duke UP 2002),Gina Marchetti in Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press 1994) and the edited collection East Main Street: Asian Americans and Popular Culture (NYU 2005) also comment on representations of Asian Americans in film and popular culture.)) Indian Americans are typically are depicted as foreign or alien to the United States and in dramatic television this image is consistently invoked and replayed with little variation. There are some exceptions with characters in shows like Lost and Heroes. Reality television is doing a better job at creating popular ethnic heroes who defy stereotypes. The mediated nature of reality television has individuals cast in relation to stereotypes such as the Zen master or the smart one and in general Asian American men appear as objects to be laughed at rather than taken seriously as American heroes.

However, in a 2000 Newsweek story, “Why Asian Guys Are On A Roll,” Ester Pan writes that the rise of the Internet millionaires such as Jerry Yang (co-founder of Yahoo) turns the “traditionally negative stereotypes of Asian males as smart, studious and hardworking [into] positives. They’re practically turn-of-the-century American heroes.” ((“Why Asian Guys Are On a Roll,” by Ester Pan. Newsweek. February 21, 2000. In the article, Pan interviews scholars who mention the martial arts action heroes such as Jackie Chan who have evolved from stars such as Bruce Lee.)) In her argument, the definition of a male hero includes someone who shows innovation and has financial success. Desirable American masculinity is characterized by economic success. Asian Americans as entrepreneurs in American technology are representatives of the American Dream. The underlying message and comic appeal of the commercial relays that technology is sexy (and lucrative) and Indian Americans are the creators of that technology.

Ajay Bhatt

The real Ajay Bhatt

The ad invites us to imagine a different world at Intel and yet the behind the scenes information is that Ajay Bhatt is played by an actor. As it turns out the “real” Ajay Bhatt is the anti-thesis of the image presented in the commercial. The real person is distinguished Indian American gentleman who resembles a polished business executive. Stereotypes make for great comic fodder but when the same joke is told over and over again you are constantly creating barriers of who can be called an American hero and blocking the idea of an ethnic hero. For example, when Conan O’Brien found out Ajay Bhatt was played by an actor he decided to invite the real Ajay Bhatt to his late night show (10-9-09). The show is edited to show how Conan wants to depict Ajay Bhatt as a man who speaks in techno-babble, is merciless to his competitors, and wants to impress young women with his accomplishments. Conan does not ask him about being Indian or being a rock star. Instead he can only talk to Ajay Bhatt in terms of a stereotype of an Asian American computer geek who is shy, passive and unattractive to women even though Ajay Bhatt is an articulate and respectable man. Conan cannot picture Ajay Bhatt outside of the stereotypes he has been given. His attempts to characterize the real Ajay Bhatt in stereotypical terms comes off as awkward and reveals more of a crisis in Conan’s definition of American masculinity. Just by appearing on the show, the real Ajay Bhatt redefines how we think about Indian Americans and local heroes because he challenges conceptions of American masculinity in a way that the actor who is a caricature cannot because he is a two-dimensional construct. In this way Ajay Bhatt (unconsciously) represents a true “rock star” because he defies convention.

While the advertisement promotes a different world where the professionals are Indian Americans or Asian Americans who are boxed in by the continual replaying of stereotypical definitions, the Campaign of the Sponsors of Tomorrow, according to the real Ajay Bhatt, is supposed to promote the people behind the products. Perhaps in telling the story of the actor Ajay Bhatt and the real Ajay Bhatt, he has become a household name in America and in fact may be breaking down the walls between the distinct Intel worlds. ((The same advertisement was shown in India in Hindi with no changes but in the Mandarin version, actor Ajay Bhatt was replaced with a Chinese actor (using the same gestures) and the people around him at work was a majority East Asian cast. It would be interesting to see how these images were received abroad because the image of a rock star is a unique to American culture.))

Image Credits:
1. Intel “Rock stars” print advertisement
2. A striking resemblance: Intel’s “fake” Ajay Bhatt…
3. …and The Simpsons’ Apu
4. The real Ajay Bhatt

Please feel free to comment.