Image description: A picture of an Indian character from Steven Universe. She has medium-brown skin, a slightly hooked nose, and no lips.
That is Connie Maheswaran, a character from Steven Universe. I’ve never seen the show, but I know of Connie. After all, she’s one of the few Indian American characters in animation – which means that a large proportion of Indian Americans (myself included) have been compared to her, physically.
This statement: “You look like Connie!” boggled me the first time I heard it – mostly because I look nothing like her. I cannot possibly over-emphasise how unlike Connie I look. After hearing this a few more times, it hit me that when people said I looked like Connie, what they meant was: “You’re Indian, so I guess I’ll mention the first Indian character I can think of.” My individual appearance and culture do not matter here: Connie and I are interchangeable parts, beings boiled down to a single trait of national origin. Interestingly, Connie and I do share a background: her surname, Maheswaran, is a common male name in Southern India. Traditionally, her last name would be the first name of her father (or perhaps grandfather, like in my family) – but the show’s creators, perhaps afraid of alienating their non-Tamil audience with this confusing naming scheme, opted to call him Doug instead.
Connie is supposed to reflect people like me. But when I learnt about the details of her character – tiger mother, dad named Doug, no references to anything other than the most generic “Indian” heritage – I saw nothing of my own experiences present in her. She’s a shell, devoid of any significance to the people she’s supposed to represent. Do her parents (voiced, like her, by white actors) ever call her “chellam”? Does Connie dread the festival of Pongal every spring, too? Why do her parents look like a poorly coloured-over Midwestern couple, instead of exploring the variety of features which are common across South India – where are the broad noses, the deep brown skin, and full lips I see in my own family?
I’ve never seen the show – but I know people who do, and they’ve confirmed that there are few, if any, cultural references. Connie is representation on paper, in theory, not in practice.
So, to the screenwriters and artists who want to include characters from different cultural heritages in their work: Give me something – anything – which shows an iota of care and research. Give me something to show that you made your character South Indian because you wanted to explore our diasporic culture, not because doing so might get you brownie points for creating a diverse cast of characters. Don’t make a Connie Maheswaran.