It shouldn’t be as astonishing as it is that there is an entirely inoffensive children’s show with a lead character who is both casually Indian and a product of an interracial family. I saw the name of this show, Sanjay and Craig, and assumed it was going to be filled with terribly offensive stereotypes; in reality, it finally gives me a reason to stop being pessimistic regarding depictions of South Asians on American TV.
The title character, Sanjay, speaks English as if he was born in America (because he was), and he isn’t even comic relief like in Phineas and Ferb. He has a crush on a white girl and he even has trouble handling spicy food. You could say that his dad owning a store, being generally awkward, and having an accent is fulfilling a stereotype, but that’s really being picky: Show me one 12 year old kid of any race who doesn’t think his parents are a little awkward and embarrassing. If this kid’s name wasn’t Sanjay, you wouldn’t be able to tell him apart from any other lead boy on children’s TV; he’s literally the most casually Indian character on television right now (even more so than Mindy Lahiri). If that wasn’t enough, there was even casual cross-dressing in one episode: Craig, Sanjay’s snake, dressed up as their female friend; Sanjay asked him if it was weird to be a girl and Craig responded simply, “yeah, a little…but I do miss those shoes.” It never even appears like the show’s creators are trying to represent diversity or be ground-breaking; it really just is what it is – no “other”-ing, no exoticizing, just a typical 12-year-old Indian American boy and his family. This shouldn’t be revolutionary for children’s TV, but it is.
The show itself also happens to be good. Sanjay and Craig is as great as it is not just because of it’s representation of minorities, but also because of Sanjay’s idealism, the relationship between him and Craig, and how the two characters really complement each other’s personalities. Craig isn’t seen as a snake as much as he’s seen as Sanjay’s best friend, just like how Sanjay isn’t seen by his ethnicity as much as he as seen as a typical boy. Yes, it’s essentially just a typical cartoon with a kid and his talking snake and a bunch of adventures. Still, it’s definitely better than anything Nickelodeon has put out since Fairly Oddparents, and possibly even better than anything they’ve put out since their golden age in the 90’s.
Disney did a good job with the half-Latina/half-wizard Russo family with a strong independent female lead, but other than that they recently haven’t given us very much other than regressive stereotypes a la their founder. This is really the first time I’ve seen Nickelodeon as competition to Disney in a while; hopefully Disney sees the threat and raises their own standards.