The Casual Violence Of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking”

The first episode of Netflix’s new reality series, Indian Matchmaking, is titled “Slim, Fair, and Educated.” Honestly, that tells you almost everything you need to know about this show.

The eight-part series, which premiered on July 16th, tracks veteran arranged marriage matchmaker Sima Taparia and her clients across India and the U.S. I’ve heard it described as everything from a desi Love Is Blind to a higher-stakes Dating Around. On paper, the premise sounds intriguing; in reality, it’s a mess.

There may never have been a good time to release a series like Indian Matchmaking, but the summer of 2020 was a particularly bad one. The show comes on the heels of a global pandemic, unprecedented Black Lives Matter uprisings, and growing right-wing fascism in both the U.S. and India. This backdrop casts a stark spotlight on the show, exposing it for what it really is: At best, it’s an out-of-touch orientalist fantasy that caters to the white and diasporic gaze by marketing the curated “exotic” appeal of desi weddings. At worst, it’s actively violent in its perpetuation of casteism, colorism, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and Brahminical Hindu supremacy.

Although it’s billed as a modern take on the multibillion-dollar arranged marriage industry, Indian Matchmaking trafficks in lazy, stale tropes that uphold the interacting systems of oppression infecting South Asian diasporas. A blatant savarna sensibility saturates the show; early on, Sima laments the lofty expectations her clients place on her: “They’re saying, ‘I want slim, tall, and beautiful … From a good family, good education.” When she meets a client who checks all those boxes, Sima quantifies her qualities in the most literal sense, saying, “I can give her, I think, 95 marks out of a 100.” On the flip side of the coin, one woman recounts how, when she first attempted to reach out to her network about getting married, her relatives derided her. “Boys are looking for pretty girls, so we don’t know what to do,” they said. These Eurocentric aesthetic ideals—fairness, thinness, tallness—are all-important currency for the women on the show, but considered negligible and rarely remarked upon for Sima’s male clients.

Gendered double standards of appearance are just the tip of the show’s patriarchal iceberg. Although education credentials are paramount in eligibility criteria, with lawyers disproportionately represented on the show and brand names like “Oxford University” prominently displayed on biodata sheets, many clients voice their expectation that their wives will prioritize the family and stop working after marriage. One goes so far as to say, “I want my future partner to do the same things in the house that my mom does … And if she’s busy with her work, who’s going to take care of the kids and all?”

The show’s anti-Blackness, casteism, and focus on North Indian Hindu hegemony emerge with the sharpest clarity through it’s storyline about Nadia, a Guyanese woman. While Nadia is ostensibly a perfect matrimonial candidate in every aspect (she’s conventionally attractive, educated, “jolly”), Sima underscores the difficulty inherent in finding men open to marrying a Guyanese person. This casteist attitude permeates the show, from the frequent onscreen visits to pundits to Sima’s constant emphasis on the importance of “good” upbringing and “good” family—thinly veiled code for upper-caste and upper-class.

When I started watching the series, I was planning on framing this article around the effacement of queer people. After all, this is Gaysi Family. If Indian Matchmaking truly were a fresh take on arranged marriage, shouldn’t Sima try her hand at matching up queer people in the U.S., where gay marriage is now legal? In post-Section 377 India, the inclusion of queer relationships might have infused this show with new vitality and urgency. As the credits rolled on the last episode, however, I found myself reconsidering. Queerness is non-normativity embodied. But this show—and perhaps the institution of arranged marriage as we know it—is just so hellishly normative. It’s violent in its normativity, in its perpetuation of an archaic status quo that materially punishes disciplines who deviate from the norms of beauty, religion, caste, and class.

The addition of queer clients wouldn’t redeem Indian Matchmaking; rather, it would simply add a tokenized veneer of diversity and progressiveness. Such thoughtless representation would only distract us from critiquing the pitfalls of the show. This isn’t to excuse the deliberate erasure of queer people, but rather to underscore the fundamental flaws of the series and the ideological institution it champions. It’s all unsalvageable. As long as our conception of a “good” marriage is predicated on casteism and imported imperial aesthetic standards, the arranged marriage industry is beyond redemption. But we can do better. Our imaginations can go beyond this bleak, broken system. Consider this, for instance: a queer matchmaking show that radically overhauls our cisheteronormative conceptualizations of marriage and partnership, one that intentionally and consistently centers the voices erased in shows like Indian Matchmaking. Now that Netflix series, I’d watch.

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