Updated: Dec 29, 2022
By: Shreya Karnik
Image via Glamour
Lily Singh, a popular Youtuber turned comedian has been a topic of trivialization in the South Asian community for as long as she has occupied space on the internet. With her over use of heavy South Asian accents used to represent caricatures of her parents, Singh has developed an online platform based on mocking her own people. However, when we really look at Singh, the problem becomes much larger. The fact that shes the first queer, brown, female to ever get her own NBC late night show, makes it messier when evaluating her sucess. While her and her achievements appear groundbreaking on paper, they somehow manage to only inforce stereotypes, perpetuate harm and deliver horribly unfunny comedy. Through her many failures, Lily Singh has made it clear that as a brown woman, to be taken seriously as a creator, you must give up a part of yourself and your dignity to adhere to the box that white society seeks to keep people in, leaving many to consider what the harm is behind true media success for traditionally underrepresented groups.
To be palatable for white audiences, Asian creators often indulge in, “stereotypes of emasculating men and exoticising women” Kavyta Kay, a fellow at the University of London notes. However, what creators like Singh don't realize is that when they don a purposefully overexaggerated Indian accent and create caricatures of people in their ethnic groups, they're only contributing to the harm that stereotypes have on Asian communities. Further, Qin Zhang, a professor at Fairfield University notes that, “compared with other ethnic groups, Asian Americans are traditionally underrepresented in the mainstream media, but when they do appear, they are often misrepresented with stereotypical roles.” These roles Zhang mentions are ones that are typically written in a room full of white male writers and are expected to come from places that also reflect this same level of ignorance. But with Singh, the parallels get worse since she herself is an Asian creator who undeniably has faced harm at the hands of racism and stereotypes. While Singh rejects certain roles such as the “overly obedient Asian kid” or the “evil dragon ladies”, she isn't to be let off the hook. She is completely complicit in cultivating more harm towards the Asian community than these stereotypes that are formulated in white writer rooms. Since the jokes are written by and coming directly from an Asian woman, the non-Asian people watching her content feel as though they too can participate in the mockery of these ethnic groups. The media space that Singh creates within, provides the materials for constructing views of the world, behavior, and even identities. Essentially, when Singh mocks her South Asian parents she's letting other people, specifically non-South Asian people know, that it is fine to make fun of minorities for uncontrollable things like their accents or non-western mannerisms.
Image via New York Times
Further, her imitations of her Indian parents go deeper than just her appeasing to the white gaze, they also speak to her rise to fame and what it's based on. While Singh’s content reflects her struggle with grappling between what will get views and what will not, when she chooses the former she is actively choosing to surrender a part of herself to fit into tropes that white society has created, an act that can only invoke a sense of deep loss. While not all of Singh’s content is about mocking her parents the majority of it skews that way and though she's worked to step out of the shell in recent years, her mockery worked on white audiences for a reason, it propelled her to fame for a reason. As Kay notes, “an analysis of South Asian [YouTube] videos which have generated the most views suggests that they tend to be the ones that rely on these particular stereotypes”. For Singh, it is not any different. Making fun of South Asian people was enjoyable to watch for a white audience and if a South Asian creator was doing it to their own, it let white people feel at ease with their own micro aggressions against those minority groups. Although some of her sketches have been said to uphold the comedic attempts at resisting the dominant hegemony, Myra Washington, a professor at the University of New Mexico, claims that, “these [acts] are actually doing the opposite by playing directly into the racial hierarchy.” By playing into the hierarchy, Singh’s content was not perceived as empowering as it sought to be but instead it became a convoluted version of several microaggressions wrapped up in cultural appropriation and a heavy Indian accent all delivered to you by a girl from Toronto. Singh, operates in a world that is made for white audiences and somewhere along the way she realized that if she dumped herself down, made fun of her parents and even herself, she would cater to what the masses wanted. She became aware of the fact that, “when white people feel their status is threatened, they will turn their anger on Asians, [...] and view them as potential dominators”. When she’s mocking her own culture there isn't much room for white people to get mad at her success, they instead on some level realize that this is coded in whiteness or her ability to make herself a fool in order to be non-threatening to white audiences. Instead of attempting to counteract this in any way shape or form, Singh accepted it and became the willing puppet in the white man’s game.
Though, her mockery of South Asian people is not the only thing that has aided Singh in her claim to fame. Her brand name “Superwoman” seems very purposeful when you consider what she is supposed to represent: a savior for her community, a woman that is going to break boundaries and launch South Asian people into the stratosphere of Hollywood greats. By adopting the name of a literal superhero, Singh makes it clear that her feminism is rooted in a savior complex or a need to seemingly ‘uplift’ her South Asian sisters, all while riding off of the coattails of their mockery that she herself is enabling. Her username implies that, as a woman, it is her job to save her community. Because of a myriad of factors, namely ones that help her assimilate into white culture, she is able to theoretically carry out this vision. Superwoman is here to save the day, and god save us all if we argue otherwise.
Image via Lily Singh
Nevertheless, when one evaluates simple nuances like her ride to success, it is clear that her “lifestyle feminism” has undoubtedly contributed to this rise. Through her public rejection of the patriarchy, she contributes to a different type of homogeneity within feminism itself, specifically a subsect in the ideology coined as girlboss feminism. This phrase, popularised by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of the multi-million dollar brand Nasty Gal, defines a woman “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream”. It is worth noting that Amoruso’s version of the ideology is synonymous with white feminism or the concepts it lies in, which is the rejection of intersectionality and the use of feminist tropes only when it seeks to benefit the ‘girlboss’. Much like Amuroso, Singh has adopted girlboss feminism with her book “How to be a Bawse”. In this, she attempts to teach young women that they too can escape the cyclical nature of the patriarchy if they just work hard enough and stomp on enough people on their way up. When expressions of the dominant ideology, such as her catchphrase be a bawse, are sometimes reformulated to assert alternative, often completely resistant or contradictory messages to the patriarchy, Singh is able to calculatingly let her audience forget that her feminism lies directly in conjunction with capitalistic gain. What Singh fails to realize is that by using her feminism to support her own capitalistic advancement, she is attempting to destroy the patriarchy while simultaneously functioning within the very system that enables it, rendering it near impossible to be a savior for any of these women that she thinks so desperately need it. Only acting as a feminist or a Superwoman when it is most convenient for her, like when she wants to sell books or other merchandise, is key to her brand. Rejecting the patriarchy only when it is convenient and looks good is one of Singh’s fatal flaws.
It's also worth pointing out that aside from her username, her real name Lily is also imperative to her success and her ability to adapt to white culture. If Singh was named Radhakrishnan Goppalan, a name that is synonymous with Indian culture, it is hard to imagine her rise to success looking the same. This is because her palatability with white audiences would be reduced. A European name like Lily sits better in a white mouth than an ethnic name does. Though her birth name is not a factor Singh can control, it doesn't mean that she did not profit off of her ability to perfectly assimilate.
Image via Huffington Post
Lastly, it is impossible, ignorant, and almost borderline offensive to talk about Singh and not mention her appropriation of black culture in her brand image. While Singh argues that she grew up in Toronto around a rich background of Caribbean and South Asian people, her cultural appropriation remains completely unacceptable. In Singh’s youtube videos from the previous decade, before her ‘groundbreaking’ NBC show, of course, she can often be seen wearing cornrows, backwards hats, chains, braids, and using African American vernacular as a regular part of her jargon. However, as soon as she steps on to the cover of magazines, goes onto late-night talk shows, or simply is hosting one of her own, this costume that she has created off of Black culture conveniently is taken down, and instead, a more feminine and South Asian version of herself props up in its place. The type of cultural appropriation Singh is conducting, “tak[es] advantage of the power imbalance between groups [...] essentially say[ing] ‘We want your stuff, but we don’t like you’”. In her adornment of black culture, Singh conveys that to be relatable, cool, and funny in mainstream media, one must occupy Black space without actually being Black. “A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation [provides a] particular power dynamic,” one where Singh is able to conveniently code-switch as soon as she needs to be palatable for a different audience. However, Black people are not able to switch in and out of their identity. Instead, they are left bearing the pain of the power dynamic, where those like Singh commodify their Blackness to gain fame and opportunities.
Meanwhile, this same fame and opportunity becomes less and less available the more Black people act like themselves. Popular culture itself becomes the vehicle for unchecked cultural appropriation like Singh’s. As bell hooks describes, pop culture and the media act as “the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference”. With the exoticness of her Indian culture coupled with the interest that her black persona draws in, Singh is able to craftily create a space that shows what Hooks is talking about. A space where Black culture is regarded as exotic, and those who are not Black but act like it, reap the benefits of society’s obsession with the commodification of Black lives. Leaving Singh to prove once again that, to grab fame and opportunities, one must be able to simultaneously slip into the standards of western “professionalism” and fulfill the societal fixation on exoticness.
Whether it is through her blatant cultural appropriation, capitalistic feminism or caricatures of South Asian people, it is undeniable that Lily Singh’s existence on the internet has caused great harm to several marginalized communities. Yet, this is not the most harrowing detail about Singh, perhaps the worst part is her complete ignorance to the harm she is perpetuating. Ever blinded by her achievements, Singh hides behind the mask of empowerment and advocacy, proving to women and people of color everywhere that sometimes, the enemy can lie within.
Written by Co-Editor in Chief Shreya Karnik