the impact and importance of representation

How the casting of Simone Ashley in Season 2 of Bridgerton erased decades of cultural conditioning for me

the impact and importance of representation

By now, either you've finished watching Season 2 of Bridgerton or you have no intentions of watching it ever. Either way, very minor plot spoilers follow in the next couple of paragraphs, so I must warn you.

Having said that, it is a given that romance stories must have happily-ever-after endings. So it is no surprise that Kathani (Kate) Sharma and Anthony Bridgerton end up together at the end, despite the numerous seemingly insurmountable hurdles they face in their journey, the most influential one being that Anthony is engaged to be married to Kate's sister in a high-stakes wedding that none other than the Queen is hosting.

But what I came here to say today, after having binge-watched Season 2 over the weekend, was that the casting of Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma, a deviation from Kate Sheffield in the books, has left a deep and lasting impression on me.

It is only now that I truly understand, for the first time, the importance of representation in movies and books because works of art are so instrumental in shaping our culture, which influences how we view ourselves as individuals and as part of a larger community.

I grew up in an India obssessed with fair-and-lovely skin. Dusky-hued women were referred to as having a 'wheat-ish complexion' in matrimonial ads. It was considered a severe drawback to have dark skin. It was the 'complexion that shall not be named'!

I received a lot of negative subliminal messaging about my dark complexion from very early on.

In early childhood, during our annual visits to my grandparents in Chennai for the summer holidays, their first remark upon seeing me was either a joyful "Oh, you've grown fairer," or the more dreaded "Oh, you've grown so much darker since your last visit."

It didn't help that the ads for Fair & Lovely, a skin-whitening cream, were ubiquitous on TV.

In my pre-teens, or perhaps even earlier, my brother regaled me with tales of how Michael Jackson transformed his skin colour. Remember this was in the 80s, we were living in India, access to information about American celebrities was severely limited, and my brother did not curtail his imagination when it came to giving me suggestions on how I could achieve what Jackson had supposedly achieved – don't talk for the next half an hour, don't eat for the next five days, spend two full days lying in a special light-equipped box. (I should have known back then itself that he was giving me tips not to become fair but to become pale and bloodless like a vampire. Instead, I truly believed and hung on to every word he said.)

I prayed to God, reciting shlokas 108 times in a single sitting, and asking the God/Goddess to turn my skin fair.

I wholly succumbed to this notion of 'fair is lovely' in my teens. I remember washing my face with soap a million times a day, because right after each wash, my face would look a little paler, a little lighter in complexion.

In the face of this singular drawback, nothing else mattered. Not my academic prowess. Not the fact that all my teachers loved me. Not the fact that I could learn anything when I set my mind to it.

In those years, all I wanted was to somehow wash away my dark complexion into a lighter hue. I am pretty sure this was one of the wellsprings of the deep-rooted, haunting desire to be someone else, doing something else, somewhere else that has plagued me for as long as I can remember.

I remember grown-ups discussing how a fair-skinned girl could get away with average features whereas a dusky woman must have exceptional features to be considered beautiful.

Attending family functions – weddings or any other occasions – almost always drove me to tears. No matter how beautiful a dress I chose to wear, how pretty it may have looked on the mannequin in the store, when I wore it, it simply did not have the power to rub and transfer some of its beauty on to me.

These feelings of inadequacy have plagued me for years. Even now, I cringe when I wear a white or cream-coloured top, because – and this is the exact thought that runs in my mind when I look in the mirror – it makes me look darker than I am.

The sight of the swarthy Simone Ashley commanding the screen with her strong, sizzling presence erased more than forty years of cultural conditioning in the mere span of eight episodes.

Shondaland had already hit it out of the park in Season 1 by presenting a Regency-era world in which Black people and whites enjoyed the same social standing and were not discriminated against on the basis of colour.

And then they brought in a lead character of Indian descent. And that too, not the typical Bollywood kind of heroines who are still, for the most part, fair-skinned with oval or heart-shaped faces, but someone who is as dark as the night yet shines so resplendently, someone who is not discrimated against for the colour of her skin or her origins. In fact, the only complaint against Kate is that her stepmother married beneath her social standing.

And they incorporated with such grace various aspects of South Indian culture, which even Bollywood more often overlooks or portrays with the intention to ridicule.

What this weekend's binge-watching of Bridgerton has done for me is that I was able to look into the mirror at night before bedtime and fall in love with my own dark complexion.

I'm pretty sure I must have had epiphanies and jolts of self-love on various occasions in the past (for there is a poem I once wrote in which I make a loving reference to my brown skin, which I'll share at the end of this post), but to see this kind of representation of brown skin as beautiful on an international screen was breathtaking.

And for the first time, I truly understand why representation is so important. If I, as a privileged brown-skinned person can feel validated and empowered by representation, I am only just beginning to understand why members of the LGBTQ+ community, Indigenous people, and people belonging to so many other marginalized cultures and communities are fighting to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged.

When I first started to publish my books, I thought long and hard about using a pen name. I worried that using 'Anitha Krishnan' would put off readers of all kinds. Many authors I know use initials to hide their gender, but I was almost tempted to use an anagram of my name (and I came up with a very western name, Kristian Hannah) so it would bring out less prejudice in potential readers.

But at the end of the day, I couldn't bring myself to do it even for the sake of selling more books. I simply didn't want to try and pass off for someone I am not.

When I started writing Dying Wishes, it was only meant to be a simple fantasy with neutral-sounding names of people and places. But somehow Ananya and Amma wrote their own stories, and my own Tamil lineage seeped into every page of the book.

Does that limit its readability? Maybe. Definitely.

But guess what?

I finally feel proud of my differences – my brown skin, my very Indian name, my very South Indian origins – rather than ashamed of them. It is something I have now decided to wear with great pride, like my skin, instead of trying to hide it as if it were some sort of a deficiency, an inadequacy I've been taught to overcome.

This is something I am also changing gradually in terms of what I read and watch. I recently came across a Storybundle collection titled 'The 2022 World SF Bundle - Curated by Lavie Tidhar'. (Click on 'World Sci-fi' on that page.) It's a collection of speculative fiction works from authors across the world. Tidhar's introduction says it all.

It's hard to believe this is now the fifth annual World SF bundle I get the good fortune to curate. The first one was back in 2018!

And yet with every year it's possible to find more great books – novels, novellas, anthologies and collections – that highlight the sheer talent and diversity of speculative fiction from around the world.

The future doesn't need to be American anymore. Can it be Vietnamese? Italian? Nigerian? Chinese? You bet it can.
~ The 2022 World SF Bundle - Curated by Lavie Tidhar

And now I will leave you with the poem I mentioned earlier. I wrote it way back in June 2014. Funny how time flies, and we find ourselves twirling the same thoughts in the our minds, gripped by the same questions in our heads, learning the same lessons over and over again even after several years!

What need have I?
What need have I for a princess’s jewels
When I have a frangipani perched on my fingers?
What need have I to swathe myself in velvet and cashmere
When my skin is singed like sienna and burnished by the sun,
And within it my heart is sheltered?
What need have I for heady perfumes
When I can merely lie down on the parched earth
And soak up the scent of the first showers of the season?
Yes, there is a word for it,
For the scent of rain on dry earth
Petrichor (how beautiful it sounds!)
It is now the fragrance of my skin
And all my desires buried within
What need have I for birthdays and anniversaries
When each day of life is a cause for celebration?
What need have I to fear the end
When I have given my all to life
And death has nothing left to strip away from me?