Harmful Representation: Arranged Marriage in Netflix’s “Indian

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of streaming services are at an all-time high. However, as viewership grows, so too can the impact of released content. In particular, global shows can have an outsize influence given the impressionability of their Western audience, many of whom have little to no exposure to the cultures depicted. Depictions of unfamiliar cultures can cause audiences to internalize inaccurate information that generalizes entire populations and traditions. 

Netflix’s Emmy-nominated show “Indian Matchmaking” constitutes an example of a distorted depiction of foreign customs. At first glance, the series represents a similar genre of reality show to its counterparts “Love is Blind” and “The Bachelor” in that it follows the relationships of individuals as they search for a spouse. However, upon closer examination, the show glosses over the tumultuous history behind arranged marriage and glorifies it as a harmless, entertaining alternative to dating. In its attempt to portray arranged marriages in a palatable way to Western audiences, the Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” dangerously endorses harmful double standards based on gender, excessive familial influence in romantic relationships, colorism, and casteism. With the show’s second season recently being released by Netflix, it is important to dive into these potential implications.

An Overview of “Indian Matchmaking”

The show follows Sima Taparia, a renowned matchmaker from Mumbai, as she flies across the globe introducing clients to prospective spouses. Marriage constitutes a societal expectation in Indian societies, yet the task of finding a suitable spouse can be time-consuming and troublesome. As such, the numerous challenges posed by dating have created a strong demand for matchmakers like Taparia. A group of psychologists examined whether it is indeed possible to predict unique romantic desire before two individuals have met and found that though it may be possible, even advanced machine learning algorithms find it challenging to predict the “compatibility elements of human mating.” Thus, in order to craft the best matches, Taparia utilizes “biodatas” — pseudo-dating profiles that include facts ranging from age to family background to height. In this sense, Taparia’s matchmaking methods are comparable to those used by dating apps, which are quite popular in the Western world. Thus, the show normalizes arranged marriages in the eyes of Western viewers by illustrating the matchmaking process as similar to swiping through Tinder or Hinge until finding a match.

The Context Behind Arranged Marriages

While “Indian Matchmaking” may have been America’s first exposure to the practice of arranged marriages, in India, the phenomenon is as prevalent as Western dating apps, if not more. In fact, approximately 90 percent of the marriages in India today are reported to be arranged marriages. “Arranged marriage” refers to a practice in which two individuals are set up by a matchmaker, friends, or family, with the intention of marriage. In this process, families often make partner choices and marital decisions on behalf of their children, with the children merely consenting to the decisions of their elders. Consequently, most men and women who enter into such marriages have very limited pre-marital contact with one other. With that being said, as mentioned in the second season of “Indian Matchmaking,” arranged marriages have evolved to provide individuals with increased agency and time to determine whether or not a proposed partner constitutes a good match. However, upon closer analysis, “Indian Matchmaking” normalizes certain practices that are detrimental to achieving satisfaction with relationships and those within arranged marriages.

Harmful Double Standards

Throughout the series, female clients are advised to “adjust and compromise,” even if such actions consist of radically changing one’s lifestyle following marriage, moving across the country, or abandoning their own career pursuits. Notably, the men in the show are not told to adapt, which exposes the double standards that exist between men and women in relationships derived from arranged marriages. Such double standards suggest that the onus of sustaining a relationship falls solely on women. The several instances in which women are encouraged to change underscore the series’ endorsement of harmful gender roles that are damaging both to individuals and the relationship in general.

Contradictorily to advice given in the show, studies have found that attempts to alter one’s self-image for others only harms one’s relationships and self-esteem. Thus, in advising women to modify their self-image and personal goals to match those of a potential spouse, Taparia supports a practice that may damage the women’s self-esteem and result in problems within the given romantic relationship. In addition, there are both emotional and relationship costs when people suppress their emotions, especially when they believe that their sacrifices are not an authentic reflection of their true selves. These costs include worsening personal emotional well-being, as well as anxieties about their own relationships. For this reason, urging women to sacrifice their own desires and goals for the sake of their romantic relationships can result in more harm than good. 

Excessive Familial Influence

Another risk of normalizing arranged marriages is the justification of decreased individual agency in choosing a romantic partner. In the first season of the show, Akshay’s mother Preeti is not shy about voicing the characteristics that she would like to see in her future daughter-in-law. Though the show plays off Preeti’s insistence on her daughter-in-law being able to cook and clean as almost comical, Taparia nonetheless takes Preeti’s demands into consideration. Here lies one of the most important aspects of arranged marriages — family approval. In Indian society, the family system is a strong agent of socialization, and family unity is often prioritized over individual goals. As a result, the family expects to exercise great influence on an individual’s spouse-selection process, and this influence is manifested in what we know as ‘arranged marriages.” That being said, family involvement in modern matchmaking processes varies widely and the process does not necessitate a complete stripping of individual agency. However, in downplaying the numerous demands made by clients’ families, “Indian Matchmaking” can lead Western viewers to underestimate family influence during arranged marriages and, more importantly, the lack of agency in choosing their own spouse. 

Casteism and Colorism

Even more alarming than the excessive familial influence is the reinforcement of casteism and colorism imbued within the show’s storylines. The practice of arranged marriage has its roots in enforcing the predominance of upper-caste South Asians and its normalization continues to support exclusionary caste homogeny under the guise of ensuring partners’ “compatibility.” Even today, around 90 percent of South Asian marriages take place within one’s own caste. In “Indian Matchmaking,” each biodata notes a client’s “community background.” Taparia even acknowledges caste’s importance in the matchmaking process by stating in the first episode that “in India, we have to see the caste, we have to see the height, we have to see the age.” Furthermore, Taparia emphasizes how girls ought to be “fair,” which normalizes blatant colorism and the idealization of lighter features. Such idealization originates from centuries of Whiteness being upheld as the standard for beauty, intelligence, and status across the globe as well as colonization and imperialism. Thus, the show’s casual emphasis of “fairness” and “caste” both upholds these forms of discrimination as well and obscures the violent reality faced by darker-skinned and lower-caste individuals in India.

When analyzing “Indian Matchmaking” more critically, it is evident that the show normalizes colorist ideology, caste supremacy, harmful double standards based on gender, and excessive familial influence in arranged marriages. Such normalization is dangerous as it promotes practices that weaken relationships, damage self-esteem, and contribute to the systemic oppression of marginalized populations in South Asia. Given Netflix’s large Western audience, the show’s portrayal of arranged marriage as akin to dating ignores the potential harm caused by arranged marriage and normalizes the practice in the Western world.

Image by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández is licensed under the Unsplash License.

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