Growing up in Canada in the mid-2000s, there was never quite a role model in Western popular culture who looked like me. As an 11-year-old, it didn’t occur to me that there was anything amiss with my pop idols, or that their portrayals of North American life were missing an important element of cultural relevance for me.
Thankfully, for the generation of South Asian women that follow mine, that’s no longer the case.
The power of social media and an unmet need for South Asian-focused entertainment and art has paved the way for a new roster of Canadian female role models. Enter Greater Toronto Area-bred superstars: YouTuber Lilly Singh, or “Superwoman”; artist Maria Qamar, also known by her Instagram handle “Hatecopy”; and New York Times bestselling poet Rupi Kaur. These women are seeing widespread success in the form of followers, subscribers, book deals, and film roles. With their ascension into celebrity status, along with the continued rise of A-listers like Priyanka Chopra and Mindy Kaling, who are making inroads in traditional mainstream media, I can’t help but feel that brown girls are taking over: their time is now.
These social media mavens didn’t have to rely on traditional paths to fame available to South Asians—finding a way to Bollywood or winning beauty pageants. “They’ve all gone more a route where they’re trading on some skills and really challenging people and creating intellectual conversation,” says Faiza Hirji, author of Dreaming in Canadian: South Asian Youth, Bollywood, and Belonging. The ease of social media changed everything for these women along with many of the popular artists of our time, giving them the opportunity to express, share, and perform in ways they never could before. As they were building their following, there was no need for agents or producers. The women were their own marketers, making their own opportunities.
For the South Asian woman, this is especially rebellious. They are expected to be quiet, conservative, and observant of traditional values. Many South Asian cultures also stifle discussion around these expectations, according to Hirji, even as there is an obvious appetite for conversation around identity. As Hirji explains, “It’s perhaps not surprising that they would be the ones to say, ‘Let me find a space where I can grapple with these issues because this is my life, not just entertainment.’”
Their initial rise can be attributed to the support of the South Asian community, which has a stronghold in Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. This is not a country of minorities who have just settled, Hirji says. This is a country of several generations of South Asians who see themselves as Canadian but are grappling with issues of identity.
Videos like “How to Be the Perfect Brown Person” and “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say”—a couple of Singh’s earlier offerings—resonated with young Indians, first in the GTA and then worldwide. Qamar’s illustrations bring to light the scheming, judgmental, “aunty” figures that are common in soap operas and hints of whom can be found in the older women we grew up with. Kaur’s poetry has general appeal but she has penned some pieces reflecting the familial repression and trauma of South Asian women.
All of these talented women have used their initial fanbase to catapult to new echelons of fame, and often publicly support each other. Now, Singh has more than 13 million subscribers on YouTube and has landed a role in an HBO film. Qamar is a published author and her art was featured in a Mindy Kaling TV show. Kaur just released her second book and has more than two million Instagram followers.
I sometimes worry that the triumph of the brown girl is just a phase. But I hope that if anything, their accomplishments will inspire others to follow in their paths and convince the leaders of mainstream entertainment that there is appetite and appeal for the South Asian woman beyond stereotypes. “Even if it ends up being a passing phase—and I don’t think it will…. Whatever they’ve done,” says Hirji, “they’ve done it on their own terms.”