TV

Why Fuller House Needs To Cut It Out With Cultural Appropriation

I'm an Indian-American who grew up watching Full House, and the new Bollywood episode goes too far.

At the center of the dance floor, two sisters and a best friend swing their hips to the beat and shimmy the night away in their glittery skirts and dresses. They’re surrounded by talented dancers, flower garlands, twinkle lights, and colors on colors on colors. It’s a pretty beautiful scene, isn’t it?

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In some ways, it looks like a traditional Indian wedding — except it’s not. It’s a retirement party from “Partnerships in the Night,” the eleventh episode of Netflix’s Fuller House reboot. DJ Tanner-Fuller’s boss, a veterinarian named Dr. Harmon, is leaving his job. He’s moving to India, where he plans to “forsake all material possessions” and join an ashram, a spiritual or religious retreat, in Mumbai. Kimmy Gibbler, who’s now an event planner, and Stephanie Tanner team up to throw an “Indian-themed” — DJ’s words, not mine — bash to say goodbye to him.

“Go to Target and order everything they have that’s remotely Indian,” Kimmy asks Stephanie at the beginning of the episode. She returns with sparkly Indian outfits — namely ghagra cholis and salwar kameez minus the dupatta that’s typically worn with these clothes — even sparklier jewelry, and, among other things you can easily get at Target, a live cow.

“You got the perfect addition to an Indian-themed party,” Stephanie says to Kimmy. “It’s a sacred cow!”

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I’m Indian-American, and for me, students at Ohio University said it best during a 2011 campaign centered around Halloween: “We’re a culture, not a costume.”

Fuller House may not be celebrating Halloween, but it’s throwing a themed party as many fraternities and sororities do at colleges across the country. And like Greek organizations, the show wants its partygoers to wear attire that corresponds with the theme. I’m not saying Fuller House should’ve completely ditched the India idea. I’m all for diversifying television, and this party is a lovely example of something the sitcom probably wouldn’t have even considered doing during its original run from 1987 to 1995.

But as many members of Greek life — Penn State’s Chi Omega, who hosted a “Mexican-themed” party in 2012; Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon, who hosted an “MLK Black Party” in 2014; the list goes on — learned the hard way, such themes come with a big risk of cultural appropriation and racism.

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As I wrote in a recent article about Coldplay and BeyoncĂ©’s depiction of India in their “Hymn For The Weekend” music video, the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is sometimes blurry. Appropriation happens when a privileged group or person borrows practices, traditions, clothes, and so forth from a marginalized group and is praised for being cool and unique, while the marginalized culture is looked down upon for participating in the same (their own) customs.

Selena Gomez’s “Come & Get It” performance at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards is my go-to example of cultural appropriation. The singer and her backup dancers wore bindis to add exoticism and mystery to the song. Meanwhile, the kids I went to school with would sometimes joke to me, “Where’s the red dot on your forehead?”

Fortunately, DJ and Kimmy didn’t wear true bindis in Fuller House. Stephanie kind of did? I’m not entirely sure what’s happening on her forehead here, to be honest.

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I also felt like several of the episode’s jokes were in poor taste. The worst was Matt Harmon’s reaction to DJ and her youngest son, Tommy, who wore a turban to the party: “Swami Tommy with his hot mommy — where did you get that hat, Turban Outfitters?”

Who is the butt of this joke, exactly? It doesn’t seem to be Tommy or DJ or anything even related to Fuller House.

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Sikh and Muslim men often wear turbans for religious reasons. On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist walked into a gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He killed six people before turning the gun on himself once police arrived.

“Most of the people I’ve heard have been shot and killed were all turbaned males,” Kanwardeep Singh Kaleka, a nephew of the congregation’s president, told CNN at the time.

Sometimes Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans, and even though this particular shooting is an extreme example of a hate crime, Islamophobia and discrimination occur every day. Families are questioned or detained at airports. Ahmed Mohamed, then 14, made national headlines last year when he was handcuffed and sent to juvenile detention for bringing his clock invention, which his teacher mistook for a bomb, to school.

So again, who is the butt of Matt’s “Turban Outfitters” joke in Fuller House? To me, it feels like a cheap laugh that ignores decades of continued prejudice against entire communities of people.

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Now let’s talk about that catchy Bollywood number at the end of the episode. Hats off to Fuller House for hiring Indian choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan from So You Think You Can Dance. (Fun fact: He also choreographed Nina Davuluri’s Miss America-winning dance in 2014’s pageant.)

“You thought of everything — the sacred cow, the happy dance, even valet parking,” Dr. Harmon tells Kimmy and Stephanie after they kill it on the dance floor.

Is it just me or does this sentence read like a list of items to check off for an “Indian-themed” party? Each thing — the dance moves inspired by India’s classical choreography, the cow that’s symbolic of a country’s faith, and the easy parking — feels like a prop that helps Gibbler Style Party Planning pull off the perfect event.

The Fuller House characters aren’t learning about Indians, their beliefs, or their customs. Because the party is based on overplayed stereotypes, it seems like they’re just trying India on for fun. Is it really necessary for Dr. Harmon to greet the crowd with prayer hands, a bow, and a “namaste”? Does Max Fuller have to be wearing an Indian groom’s wedding attire to a retirement party? Couldn’t the writers think of anything more original than a lighthearted quip about the “cow getting into the curry”?

When you mix all these things together, the whole scene comes off as tone-deaf. And because no Indians are noticeably present at the party, this whole “my culture is a costume” feeling becomes even more magnified.

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I grew up watching Full House and was stoked for Netflix’s reboot. When I first saw Stephanie wearing a ghagra choli in the trailer, I was excited that the show stepped out of its late ’80s/early ’90s comfort zone and tried to incorporate other cultures.

Turns out this move wasn’t quite as progressive as I hoped it’d be. This episode was a great opportunity to move the ongoing conversation surrounding diversity on TV forward. But instead of creating a valuable learning experience for the characters and audience, Fuller House chose to rely on age-old Indian stereotypes.

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No one talked about cultural appropriation when the show originally aired, but they certainly do now. Fuller House may have ended on a sour note with “Partnerships in the Night,” but Netflix just confirmed that season 2 is in the works. As a longtime fan of the Tanners, I’m pumped for the renewal, and I’ll continue to watch all the shenanigans the family gets into.

The thing is, if the cast and crew want the revival to feel modern — which they do, because there are Donald Trump and The Bachelorette references galore in the first season — then I hold them to the same “no cultural appropriation bullshit” standards I have for every other TV show. Fuller House doesn’t need to be 100 percent perfect when it comes to diversity, but it needs to be wise enough to move the needle in a positive direction.

Swear to shake it up.
@deepa