American family sitcoms were at one point the most popular form of television entertainment. In their golden age, families would gather around and see the characters, and their struggles, as reflections of themselves. However, while the landscape of the American family is shifting their representation on screen is not. A 2015 study of contemporary sitcoms found that almost 70% of them featured a white-majority cast. Approximately 20% were led by black characters, and all the other races, if they were represented at all, squeezed into the remaining 10%.
Yumna Khan and Nida Chowdhry, first-generation Indian and Pakistani-Americans respectively, recognized that if they wanted to see their reflection on television they would be left looking at a blank screen. While most would be discouraged, the power-duo saw an opportunity to create their own show.
“I want to tell stories because I always felt like the other.” Said Yumna Khan, a graduate from University of California San Diego with a degree in communication studies. Shortly thereafter, she met her future business partner Nida Chowdhry, a UC Irvine film studies graduate and independent producer. As they conversed over a cup of tea, they realized that they felt similarly about the same problems.
“I’m so deeply intrigued, fascinated, and obsessed with media representation, and how much moving images impact people, their psychology, and how it influences politics and society.” Noted Nida as she discussed her motivation for co-creating ‘Unfair & Ugly’, an original dramedy series about a South Asian Muslim family in Orange County, California trying to keep it together. Representation of Muslims in film has been very complicated in the post 9/11 world – fluctuating from the stereotypical to the overly-sympathetic, all but lacking in authenticity. Yumna and Nida hope through their work to present the true, human side of life as Muslim-Americans – both the good, and the bad. “We wanted to create a show that feels real to us, one that we can relate to when it comes to love, careers, and generation gaps and we want to layer it up with topics that are a little taboo in our community,” Yumna added.
Their motivation for creating ‘Unfair & Ugly’ goes beyond subverting harmful stereotypes, as it strives to tackle some of the deeper issues within their own communities. The title, ‘Unfair & Ugly’, is a play-on-words based on the product Fair & Lovely, a skin-whitening cream popular in South-Asian countries. “I saw Fair & Lovely everywhere while visiting India and thought it was normal!” Yumna reminisced. “We are told that the way we are naturally is wrong, we have to whiten ourselves,” interjected Nida. The makers of Fair & Lovely are not ashamed about their skin-shaming product either, as they claim “A fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up.”
The popularity of the whitening cream indicates that many South Asians, unfortunately, do not feel comfortable in their own skin, and that discomfort doesn’t necessarily disappear here in the USA due to the lack of positive media representation. Tackling both the inner turmoil and the outward stereotyping is a daunting task, but Nida and Yumna believe that ‘Unfair & Ugly’ can handle it through sharp dialog, relatable characters and humor. They have already written the shows first season, but producing a series requires considerable resources. So, Yumna and Nida established a production company, Stranger Magic Productions, and took it upon themselves to create a concept trailer which they hope will motivate people around the world to support their campaign to produce ‘Unfair & Ugly’.
Their trailer has been received well by people of all backgrounds, Muslim and non-Muslim, who found the characters relatable particularly to first and second generation families. What is most striking about the concept is the characters are not necessarily the most virtuous, which is what you would expect from a show offsetting stereotypes. The mother is a closet racist who denies mental illness, the father is unsupportive of his children’s aspirations, the daughter is battling depression and the son is too caught up in his own dreams and schemes to keep up with his relationships.
“We want to show the interior of a family that might not be that flattering, polished image that we are always performing. We hide the uglier & unfair parts of who our life which allows them to perpetuate,” said Nida about their morally ambiguous cast. The creators hope that by calling out and dismantling social problems on screen, they can help to address those issues in real life. She added, “If we’re always presenting a positive image of ourselves, we don’t get to be human.”
According to Pew Research, 65% of Americans have never met a Muslim. For that overwhelming majority, ‘Unfair & Ugly’ poses an opportunity to come to know a Muslim family and see their humanity, even if it’s purely through entertainment. For Muslims and first or second generation immigrant families, the sitcom-in-the-making provides hope that their reflection will start to shine through the mass media mirror.
Whether or not they reach their fundraising goal, $100,000 to produce the first season, Yumna and Nida are determined to bring ‘Unfair & Ugly’ to life. They’re scheduled to film the first season this July and hope to raise their budget by May 12th through Indiegogo.