Unfair and Ugly
August 3, 2020 4:32 PM   Subscribe

'Indian Matchmaking' Exposes the Easy Acceptance of Caste: "Netflix’s popular reality series is a tacit defense of arranged marriages and the role they play in upholding a system of discrimination."
Contrary to what some viewers might think, the caste system is an active form of discrimination that persists in India and within the Indian American diaspora. One of the primary functions of arranged marriage is maintaining this status quo. This can be confirmed by a cursory glance at matrimonial columns in Indian newspapers, which are full of “Caste Wanted” headlines, or at the ubiquitous matchmaking websites that promise to help users find an upper-caste “Brahmin bride” or “Rajput boy,” while filtering profiles from people in lower castes. Marrying into the same caste of one’s birth is not, as Indian Matchmaking might suggest, a benign choice akin to finding someone who “matches your background” or has “similar values.” It’s a practice that helps dominant-caste folks preserve their power.
Netflix's 'Indian Matchmaking' Is The Talk Of India — And Not In A Good Way:
The show lays bare the hypocrisy of many seemingly progressive Indians, says Amita Nigam Sahaya, a gender activist and author of The Shaadi Story: Behind the Scenes of the Big Fat Indian Wedding.

"We've given all the tools [to women] vis-a-vis education, thought processes, financial autonomy," Sahaya says. "But the moment she reaches a particular point in her 20s or 30s when she gets into a partnership with a man, we say now it's time for you to take 100 steps back into a very traditional role."
Casteism, Colorism & Culture: Indian Matchmaking Has A Lot Of Explaining To Do
One can argue — as the Indian Matchmaking creators already have — that this is simply Sima's world, but the producers are none too forthcoming about a practice that has led to honor killings of inter-caste lovers and suppression of women’s autonomy. The latter was explored in another documentary, A Suitable Girl, co-directed by Mundhra. Sima even appears, too — though not as a confident know-it-all, but as the nervous mother of an uncertain bride. In the film, glamour and celebrity is abandoned for real, palpable precariousness. Indian Matchmaking likes to pretend that it's showcasing a more modernized version of the practice, where suitors and their matches go on dates at wine bars instead of meeting one another on their wedding night. But under the watchful eyes of parents, caste and cultural hegemony, and a society that still looks down upon the unmarried, there aren't many options.
Indian Matchmaking Only Scratches the Surface of a Big Problem:
The tradition in India and the Indian diaspora seems to be less about marriage and more about this intense, all-consuming pressure to mold your children. Nothing seems to fuel the marriage complex more than the fear of social stigma, of being somehow outside, somehow othered. In this context, it’s no wonder that matchmaking brings out the worst colorism, casteism, and classism that Indians have to offer. I wish Indian Matchmaking said anything about that. But at least it gives the world a view into the false promise of arranged marriage, even if, by the end, the series is still starry-eyed, committed to a fantasy. Aparna, my parents, all of the frantic parents who catch Sima’s wrist at a party and whisper biodata into her ear; they just want what was promised. They just want to belong.
How the reality show ‘Indian Matchmaking’ hides the reality:
Indian Matchmaking unpacks only selectively what an upper-class, upper-caste Indian marriage entails. It’s no coincidence that both the desi matches Sima Taparia makes are for “boys” ( grooms are invariably termed “boys” and brides are “girls”, even if they are well into their 30s). If the show had included desi girls, the sticky territory of “Kitne ki party hai, lena dena, saas ke liye zevar, nanad ke liye sari (how wealthy the families are, the demands for dowry and gifts)” would have been harder to shove under the carpet. But the show steers clear of un-classy on-camera bargaining, because that would be too “real” for a show which wants to go down easy, even if everything in it is staged.

posted by Ouverture (36 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
It was a bizarre show, clearly Sima and others viewed it as a way to promote arranged marriages but the fact that absolutely all of the “girls” and “boys” are still single is hilarious, not one marriage among them.
posted by saucysault at 4:41 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I watched a couple episodes simply because so many of my friends and family were talking about it and could not stand it. It felt morally obscene on so many levels and it makes me depressed to see so many people talk so positively about it.
posted by Ouverture at 4:42 PM on August 3 [7 favorites]


I thought it was interesting how in some ways the "characters" on the show have become proxies for the views of the commentators I've read writing about them. Like depending on who you talk to, Aparna's strong opinions make her an object to be pitied (she's trapped by expectations), hated (she's stuck-up and difficult), or admired (she knows what she wants and won't settle). Sima is truth-telling Tinder But Better, Sima's perpetuating a damaging classist, patriarchal system. I don't know whether the show is as complex as it feels to me or whether that's me reading too much into it.
posted by schroedinger at 5:01 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]


The person I know who watched it was mostly a) amazed that this was a thing, b) thought the Indians had incredibly lush dwellings, and c) thought people were being incredibly frank in their discussions of desires. I have no interest in seeing it, but that’s what seems to be getting read in it by some folks…
posted by Going To Maine at 5:02 PM on August 3


thought the Indians had incredibly lush dwellings

They are quite wealthy.

Also, side-link, The Creator Of Indian Matchmaking Is Totally OK With All The Backlash.
posted by aramaic at 5:24 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]


I watched about ten minutes before turning it off in disgust. Lots of my non Indian friends have been delighted by this show, and I've had to just disengage, because trying to explain why it's so hateful is exhausting. Thanks for posting these critical articles; maybe I'll send them to my more pleasantly clueless friends.

And yeah, of course she welcomes the backlash. Backlash = free publicity. I'd like to see her donate the proceeds to an organization aimed at dismantling the casteism and colorism she claims to critique.
posted by basalganglia at 6:25 PM on August 3 [15 favorites]


I was really shocked by just how blatant and unapologetic the colorism in this show is. The “they have to be light-skinned”/“can’t be dark” thing came up over and over and over with no pushback or comment, to the extent that it seemed like a serious ethical lapse for Netflix to simply not address it at all.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:04 PM on August 3 [14 favorites]


I've had to just disengage

Just to say: It's completely horrible and triggering, and people liking it (rather than, say, freaking out about how it's all a nightmare) is ... deeply alarming.
posted by aramaic at 7:06 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


Smriti Mundhra's documentary from 2017, which I haven't seen but apparently involves the same matchmaker with a more critical and less "Netflix dating show" framing, got so much less attention.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:07 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]


I find it kinda hilarious that American Exceptionalism even extends to how racist we think we are.

Netflix isn’t commenting because headlines of “American company shits on culture with almost two billion members and thousands of years of shared history” doesn’t play well. Especially when the specific group getting called out is incredibly wealthy and powerful, even by American standards.
posted by sideshow at 8:46 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]


Another perspective is 'media production-for-consumption company enables empty, elitist subculture to show its own ass in public'.
Such is the nature of most 'reality television', is it not?
I haven't watched it, but the chatter I'm hearing about people (outsiders) 'liking' it sounds similar to how they 'liked' Tiger King a few months ago.
Honey, come watch this. This can't be real. Omigod, this might...they're actually serious. I'm making popcorn, this is bizarre.
It might be time for the insiders to talk about how oh no, it's very real for a small group of people, and what that might mean.

Or am I way off, not having watched it, that this feeds our repulsive curiosity about the dirty laundry of the overly priveleged?
posted by bartleby at 9:54 PM on August 3 [3 favorites]


I was really shocked by just how blatant and unapologetic the colorism in this show is

I was, sadly, expecting that. What I wasn't expecting was how stringent everyone was - men and women both - about height. Like, most of the women wanted 6 feet or over, which is definitely above average height, and likewise a lot of the men (or their mothers...) wanted over 5.5" in women, which again, is above average.
posted by smoke at 12:20 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


i had to actively avoid the show, and of course over here we see the hypocrisy of it, because i don't see a single malaysian indian who commented on it (esp women) without caveats or deep reservations or great irony. (it's also driven by the fact that the majority of malaysian/singaporean indians are of southern stock, mostly tamilians, who are looked down on by the people seen in the show) but of course in american pop culture, this felt a bit like... you know, when there's a fawning coverage of an Asian heir or heiress and how it's this is somehow representation and also feminism? very that energy.
posted by cendawanita at 1:58 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


I stopped watching TV in the 1980s - this is not going to make me change my mind.

On the other hand, I read this two months ago and so was well prepared for the unspoken issues

https://thebaffler.com/salvos/apartheid-in-fancy-dress-yengde

posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:27 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I'm not Indian but I am South Asian, but my friends and I who watched this show grew up in a similar social and economic milieu to the "Indian Indians" portrayed on the show (Ankita etc). We grew up very much immersed in and impacted by Indian pop culture and our own society has the same kind of colourism and classism etc that is portrayed in Indian Matchmaking. It all felt extremely familiar to us, esp the parts actually set in India. The conversations around height and skin colour and all that? We have been the subject of the very same assessments. Not fair enough. Too short. Too educated. But from a good family. Etc.

I have seen a wide range of responses to this show among my network of friends, both people who grew up in India/South Asia and people who didn't. People who've been outraged by it, and people who are like, yeah we know it's bad, but Netflix didn't create classism and colourism, that's always been in our societies; and maybe you should be mad at society, not mad at the show.

All I can say is that to me, a person who grew up across a border from India, in a society very similar to the one portrayed, Indian Matchmaking was just like... oh yeah I know this stuff. I recognised in the show things we grew up with in all their ridiculousness and toxicity. It was like watching a car crash, but it was also a car crash I've seen played out in reality many times before. And I think I kind of appreciated that, that it wasn't pretending that these things don't exist in order to be more palatable to a global audience. I felt like for me, it didn't need to hold up to ridicule or question the deep-seated snobbishness and colourism of high society South Asians because we know that already. It didn't need to go out of its way to point out how fucking ridiculous and toxic and harmful this shit is because we know that already. But that becomes problematised when it gets beamed out to a global audience. Then it seems like it is not adequately examining the underlying prejudices and toxicities of the practices it portrays. It really felt like something made for people who are already aware of how these communities work.
posted by unicorn chaser at 5:32 AM on August 4 [23 favorites]


I watched it all and have read every article, twitter thread, and general hot-take I can find about it.

Here's the thing, though, that I think all of us who are not Indian or part of the Indian diaspora need to remember (both on Metafilter and elsewhere)- this is not our culture. Our opinions don't matter here and only serve to distract from the important discourse among people who are affected and are part of this culture. Even light-hearted takes about the people and situations on the show from non-Indians can take up air and space that belong to the people who are part of this culture. So I've kept my eyes open and mouth shut about this one and I would encourage other non-Indian people to do the same (unless of course you are specifically invited to share your thoughts and opinions by someone whose place it is to do so - and even then, remember that you're a guest in this discussion).
posted by cilantro at 5:49 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I'm Indian-American, and while watching the first couple of episodes of the show, all I could keep thinking was that a Southern white lady saying she refuses to be matched with a black man would never be played as casually as Netflix played the colorism in Indian Matchmaking.

Netflix didn't invest casteism and colorism, but it also didn't invent American structural racism; we still all accept that emanations of that racism need to be confronted and interrogated, not swept under the table with funny sound effects and shiny production. I worry that Indian Matchmaking makes Indians and Indian-Americans seem like crazy foreigners with zany exotic cultural practices, not worthy of being held to the same moral standard as white Americans.
posted by rishabguha at 7:19 AM on August 4 [36 favorites]


It was like watching a car crash, but it was also a car crash I've seen played out in reality many times before. And I think I kind of appreciated that, that it wasn't pretending that these things don't exist in order to be more palatable to a global audience.

I think this show, and others like it, is actively trying to BE a car crash in order to be palatable to a global (Western) audience; 90% of reality shows are about watching car crashes and congratulating yourself that you are so much better than those poor sops on TV. Again, I turned it off after a few minutes because I don't need Netflix to tell me what I already know, but from everything I've read, the show has zero self-awareness that it is perpetuating harmful stereotypes. It's like how Fair & Lovely wanted kudos for rebranding as Glow & Lovely -- while still pushing its skin bleaching products.

At least in the US, the general population has an extremely superficial, 1950s National Geographic, perception of South Asian culture. Our lives -- particularly women's lives -- are either exoticized or pitied, there's no middle option. And arranged marriage, for a Western audience, is a twofer on that front, with a bonus of whitesplaining how arranged marriages are superior to love-marriages. One white dude was all "there’s a much better chance that the matches that are made at the end of the season will last;" joke's on you, buddy.

It's interesting because I did not have such a visceral hatred for Meet the Patels, which deals with some of these same issues, but with a self-referential streak. Also, the dad in that one is absolutely Classic Indian Uncle.
posted by basalganglia at 7:24 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


I watched the first episode.

Many of my childhood friends come from basically the social milieu as the Mumbai based characters but a bit more international as the Dubai Indian community is largely socially contiguous with Mumbai.

I have friends, of the generation shown, who had their marriages arranged and to be honest they do not seem to be any different from friends who met their partner through dating. It is worth noting that there is not really a hard and fast line between an arranged marriage and a non-arranged marriage at this social level. All of my Indian friends who met their partners through dating married people who were also upper caste Hindu (and my Muslim friends married Muslim partners), all of them married people of the same economic class, all of them married people who had gone to the same kind of university in the US, UK, or Australia. So it's easy to think that if we didn't have matchmakers then this kind of endogamy would disappear but that just isn't so.

For instance one of my friends met his wife through a Hindu student society at Yale. That sounds a lot more like what many Americans would think of as "normal" but it also reproduces almost exactly the same effect as matchmaking.

I think it is a worthwhile exercise for each of us who come from cultures where matchmaking and arranged marriages do not exist (or do not exist anymore...) and consider the degree of racial and class endogamy that nonetheless exists around us. That doesn't mean just accepting it as totally fine, but I do think that before we overly exoticise this practice we should take a look at what we might put on online dating profiles and whether those are so massively different from this practice.
posted by atrazine at 7:29 AM on August 4 [15 favorites]


Absolutely triggering for me to watch, I couldn't get through even one full episode. I got thrown out/cut off by my parents when I was 20, in my second year of college, because I had a boyfriend who was Indian and (coincidentally) even the same caste as me... but not the same SUBcaste so boom, out I went. I nearly flunked out of school from having to work three jobs to support myself.

But I am nothing but glad that this show exists. This conversation is long overdue, and nothing but this utterly tone-deaf, un-self-conscious parade of casteism, misogyny, and homophobia would have spurred it. There have been exposes of arranged marriage in the past, they haven't had much of an effect. But this show is great in that it showcases arranged marriage proudly... and so at long last the institution is hoisted with its own petard.


I have friends, of the generation shown, who had their marriages arranged and to be honest they do not seem to be any different from friends who met their partner through dating. It is worth noting that there is not really a hard and fast line between an arranged marriage and a non-arranged marriage at this social level.

I could not disagree more, atrazine. Just because the casteism and misogyny and homophobia is discreetly underground, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. While non-arranged marriages may ALSO have socio-economic biases involved in how people pair up, there is a massive difference between mandatory + institutionalized bigotry enforced by threat of actual murderous violence and... mate selection of one's own tinged with non-murderous unconscious prejudices everyone carries.
posted by MiraK at 7:37 AM on August 4 [24 favorites]


I could not disagree more, atrazine. Just because the casteism and misogyny and homophobia is discreetly underground, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

That's what I meant. That just getting rid of "arranged marriage" wouldn't solve it because people will still use those same signals in their dating lives. I should have been clearer that I was comparing my Mumbai/Dubai friends who had arranged marriages with ones who met their partners through dating rather than with, say, my friends in London who met their partners through dating.
posted by atrazine at 7:43 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


That just getting rid of "arranged marriage" wouldn't solve it because people will still use those same signals in their dating lives.

There is a difference between literal miscegenation laws being on the books vs. societal racism ensuring informal endogamy within races. Similarly, there is a difference between literal honor killings of women and men who marry outside their caste vs. societal casteism ensuring informal endogamy within castes. You cannot equate the former to the latter set of people in any way without massively minimizing the sheer scale of violence and oppression inherent in the former condition. You really can't say "they seem the same" and "there's no real difference". There is.
posted by MiraK at 7:47 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


There is a difference between literal miscegenation laws being on the books vs. societal racism ensuring informal endogamy within races. Similarly, there is a difference between literal honor killings of women and men who marry outside their caste vs. societal casteism ensuring informal endogamy within castes. You cannot equate the former to the latter set of people in any way without massively minimizing the sheer scale of violence and oppression inherent in the former condition. You really can't say "they seem the same" and "there's no real difference". There is.

Fair enough.
posted by atrazine at 7:58 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


It's absolutely true that social conventions around "love marriage" enforce race and class-based endogamy. But as we continue to tear down social barriers this endogamy becomes less and less stable. While young people inherit many of the prejudices of their elders they tend to be less intense about them with each passing generation. Most of my friends from college / grad school are in interracial relationships, and to my knowledge relationships based on caste are exceedingly rare in Indian-American college communities.

By contrast, structures of arranged marriage based on the threat of violence result in extremely stable patterns of endogamy: some of David Reich's work has found evidence of strong endogamy in Indian jatis dating back for thousands of years. If we want to start resolving the inequities of caste and color, removing the formal structures of coercion that keep them stable is the obvious first step.
posted by rishabguha at 8:06 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Suddenly all the rants I have inside me about arranged marriage are pouring out at once, but it's apropos. Here I go.

All arranged marriages - yes, all - involve violence; arranged marriage as an institution owes its existence to the violence it commits and/or threatens against all - yes, all - people who live in a society where arranged marriage is the norm.

In societies where arranged marriages are the norm, most people do not have the choice to opt out of the system. In India dating remains a huge taboo. And the norm is violently, and/or administratively, and/or legally, and/or illegally enforced on everyone, regardless of whether we wish to participate. This is reality. We have to quit minimizing and erasing horrific abuses against hundreds of millions of people just to defend our loved ones or friends who are in arranged marriages. Nobody wants to think they are involved in a violent, oppressive, murderous institutions. Nobody wants to believe they partake in it. That's understandable. But if not wanting to admit the truth causes folks to defend the institution? that makes them worse than if they were just not woke enough to know what they were doing when they got arranged-married.

The attempt to paint arranged marriage as totally normal and nothing worse than regular old unconscious social prejudice is so misguided. There's this whole superstructure and another whole substructure - both made out of sheer violence - which allow the institution of arranged marriage to exist, without which arranged marriage would collapse overnight.

Your best buddy's "happy" arranged marriage exists directly because my parents threw me out and cut me off in the middle of my college years. My parents' "happy" arranged marriage exists directly because of this young woman in ICE custody whom I met last year, who had run away from her home in Punjab because her sikh father was threatening to burn her alive, just like he burned her sister alive, for the sin of loving a hindu. No arranged marriage would exist if not for this violence. That's what makes arranged marriage so completely different from run-of-the-mill ingrained or unconscious prejudice.
posted by MiraK at 8:18 AM on August 4 [114 favorites]


I worry that Indian Matchmaking makes Indians and Indian-Americans seem like crazy foreigners with zany exotic cultural practices, not worthy of being held to the same moral standard as white Americans.

Great point and strongly seconded. As an American Malayalee, this is my exact same concern, because I've already seen that dynamic played out countless times during my entire life in the United States.

Even though I'm grimly pleased that people like the horrifyingly everything-ist South Asians I know are acting a fool on national tv, remember that people like me are getting texts from friends like, "Your people are messy lol." (This morning, 12:17am.) It's like yeah true, but the stuff in this show has hurt me my whole life and you're not really helping it hurt less.
posted by el gran combo at 8:26 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


a Southern white lady saying she refuses to be matched with a black man would never be played as casually as Netflix played the colorism in Indian Matchmaking.

Yeah, but the producers of shows like the Bachelor (which has been massively racist for almost two decades) would never allow something so uncouth as one of their contestants actually stating and owning their beliefs and preferences (which coincidentally match those of the producers and much of the viewership). They actively curate a genteel racism that continues to skate by with little to no social or financial consequence.
posted by el gran combo at 8:27 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Adding on to MiraK's excellent list, accusations of "love jihad" have also been the tip of the spear for a lot of Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism within India
posted by rishabguha at 8:28 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


> They actively curate a genteel racism

.... which is definitely not as bad or as harmful as the crass, open, non-genteel casteism, homophobia, islamophobia, and misogyny on display in this show. I don't see how it advances the point of this thread to talk about how white Americans are doing some other less-bad bad thing?
posted by MiraK at 8:36 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


which is definitely not as bad or as harmful as the crass, open, non-genteel casteism, homophobia, islamophobia, and misogyny on display in this show

I completely agree. I didn't mean to derail and thought it was just an informative side-note in the context of the show's other largely followed contemporaries. I'm sorry I didn't read the room correctly, and I appreciate where the discussion is actually centered.
posted by el gran combo at 8:45 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


All arranged marriages - yes, all - involve violence; arranged marriage as an institution owes its existence to the violence it commits and/or threatens against all - yes, all - people who live in a society where arranged marriage is the norm.

That's a good point. I guess it can be easy when one only sees one slice of something like this not to think about what the barely-hidden "or-else" is.
posted by atrazine at 8:53 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Thank you MiraK for sharing so much about the structural violence and oppression of arranged marriages in India, especially since it is so raw and personal. The points about how deeply problematic the extreme parental/family power over daughters, the continued reinforcement of casteism, etc are really important. Any individual arranged marriage might have a "good outcome" but to say that is to implicitly normalize the larger oppression.

I confess when I first heard from my South Asian friends in college about their older siblings getting pressured into marriage, I thought it was in the same general universe as how Korean matchmaking works, in terms of explicit conditions on family background, education, and other status markers. There's been a sea change in dating rules in South Korea over the last few decades, but last I checked (circa 2008) it was still quite normal to be 'introduced' to your spouse via family connections and professional matchmakers. Parents are often way too involved in the process and I know at least one engagement that was called off because of an argument between the two sets of parents.

But in fact, there is no comparison. Nothing like the intensity of YOU MUST OBEY society/religious edicts/father's rules or YOU WILL SUFFER (through physical and emotional violence), and at least in terms of pop culture, many of the Korean dramas show the horribleness of the family "merger" model of marriage.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:16 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


Thank you very much for this thread.

Thank you, MiraK, for your incredible contributions, in particular. And I am so sorry about what your parents did to you.
posted by meese at 7:11 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


A couple of weeks ago on MeFi: a thread about caste where apparently I was singing the same tune with other links and points. SMH I may be a tad obssessed.
...[C]aste is almost entirely maintained and perpetuated by the institution of marriage. Unlike race or gender, caste tends to be an invisible identity marker that is difficult to maintain without the strict segregation imposed by caste-restricted matrimony. This is one reason why arranged marriage is so strongly imposed within South Asian communities in our motherlands as well as in diaspora - the largest desi dating and matrimonial websites all require you to reveal your caste - and some have even been caught using algorithms that segregate by caste, this is why honor killings exist, this is why courts in India sanction the murder of adults by their parents or in-laws, this is why states in India have attempted to impose requirements on adults to obtain parental permission to be legally married.

Obviously nobody's going to be able to get rid of all arranged and semi-arranged marriages overnight, and even if we do, there are going to be residual effects and people self-sorting based on caste, but I just wanted to note that the end of caste *necessarily* requires ending arranged marriage in all its forms.
posted by MiraK at 2:10 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


In "seriously, WTF" news, one of the people on this show is literally a cousin of a guy I went to school with and was actually at his wedding. So I guess I technically sort of met him.
posted by atrazine at 6:45 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


(and given that another person on the show is basically my age, spent part of her childhood in Dubai - when it was a much smaller place - it is basically for certain that she's not more than a few degrees removed from me. I have to stop watching because it's getting too weird)
posted by atrazine at 6:58 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]


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