Like many, I’m sure, quarantine drove my mom and me to watching lots of new shows and movies on Netflix, regardless of whether they are good or not. Our most recent binge has been the new show, Indian Matchmaking. When I first saw the title, I thought it might be a little degrading, maybe even making fun of a cultural ritual. But after a family friend, who herself had an arranged marriage, recommended it to us, we decided to give it a try.
For my family, the show is both interesting and funny. My mom is Indian and we understand many of the cultural phenomena that the show illustrates: the slightly overbearing Indian mothers, the way people are so quick to judge each other based on their superficial “biodatas,” etc. At its heart, Indian Matchmaking is reality TV. However, given our current political backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, paired with my participation in the Moxie Project program, the show points to so many microaggressions that have been kneaded into my Indian heritage throughout time.
The biodata is a great snapshot of the aspects that are supposed to be valued when searching for a life partner. It includes general information that you might find on any online dating site – a picture, your occupation, your hobbies and interests. But it continues to prod deeper into your personal life and physical appearance including your religion, caste, family’s background and occupations, and sometimes even labels the shade of your skin tone. Watching these biodatas on the Netflix special wasn’t really surprising to me. Rather, I am now able to recognize that these superficial markers are used to define and perpetuate classist views and the idea of a family’s “respectability.”
Social justice definitely isn’t the show’s main goal, but it attempts to show many viewpoints surrounding the matchmaking process. For example, one young man discusses his father’s criminal history and how it created a complex father-son relationship. It is understandable that he wouldn’t want to put his family background on display, in addition to the fact that it is a difficult subject for him to talk about. The traditional matchmaking process puts an emphasis on his family background; but it is one that he doesn’t believe is representative of who he really is.
In addition to the various negative implications associated with establishing a family’s respectability, the information in the biodata enforces classist biases. Many biodatas include a description of skin tone from “fair” to “wheatish” to “dark.” Back in the day these descriptions were used to distinguish the working from the upper class. In 2020 it seems crazy to include such a blatantly discriminatory factor on a dating profile. This is not to say that we don’t make similarly discriminatory decisions in American culture; it just seems more shocking when it’s written down on paper or when a lighter complexion is listed as a necessary factor for a future life partner.
Finally, it was fascinating to watch how mothers interacted with their children and to see what men expected of their future wives. One of the men expected his future wife to conform to stereotypical gender roles. Meanwhile his own mother was essentially the matriarch of his family. Despite all of the lengths women go to make their biodata attractive (academically and otherwise) they are still wanted as homemakers and caregivers.
All of this is not to say that dating in Western cultures is any better. Really, we’re just more discreet about our problematic dating practices. That said, it’s interesting to look at it in a format where people get it all out on the table, even before meeting someone and it makes me look at American dating culture in new ways, as well.