The Problem With "The Big Sick"
Pakistani-American comedian Kumail shares the story of falling in love with his Caucasian American wife Emily. The story is multilayered and complex. As Emily and Kumail connect, Kumail’s career as a stand-up comedian while he reconciles his two cultural backgrounds develop the story further. Yet, when Emily falls ill, Kumail is forced to find a way to explain himself to her parents.
See For Yourself (Round 1)
My Own Connection
Like Kumail, I moved to the US with my family as a teen and I struggled to find a way to make peace with being Arab, Muslim, and American. I can write pages and pages about the very Middle Eastern culture that is centered on marriage and having children as an end-goal for young people. To me, coming to terms with my asexuality and a-romanticism was even more difficult. This is my perspective addressing this story.
Context: Why This Film Matters
Up until this moment, the only big movie featuring two people marrying despite their cultural differences was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The problem with that is the simplicity of the story. It glosses over the stark perspectives on marriage, gender roles, and familial structures.
There have not been many takes on bi-cultural struggles, especially not stories featuring those who were not born in the West. Most people of color are presented as secondary characters (if we're lucky).
Finally, it's very rare for people of color to write their own narratives into big movies that garner a decent reception. Granted, this film is not as huge as superhero films. But, it did get some hype.
What Do You Think?
Have you heard of or seen people of color write and lead their own movies?
Why It Works
First of all, the story is wildly emotional. It is funny with Kumail’s musings about his family and their expectations of him. For example, when his mother asks him to go pray, he sits in the garage and watches videos while waiting for a timer to go off. It is a universal thing, this keeping of the peace, this avoidance of conflict and confrontation. A lot of people just go through with plans their parents make just to side-step the fighting and arguments.
His frank humor leads audiences through the tension between his traditional Pakistani family and Western, American norms. Sure, he is wrestling with the notion of arranged marriages, with his career choice, and with his faith, but it goes beyond that. It is the fact that the stakes are so high for Kumail. When his father talks about “hacking into [his cousin’s] Facebook,” it becomes clear that not following these expectations can lead to abandonment.
But, the story moves beyond that. Even as someone who has never been romantically in love, I felt the connection between Emily and Kumail. It was a steady pulse that coursed throughout the story, even as Kumail dealt with his break up with Emily and its consequences on his relationship with her parents while she is sick. There is quite a bit of tugging at the audience’s heartstrings. Prepare for that.
I think ultimately, what makes this story such a wonderful tale because it features a connection between two very different people who get to see the world from each other’s point of view. One scene that illuminates this relationship is when Kumail performs on stages while dealing Emily’s parents (Beth and Terry) are in the audience. Beth, who is not quite a fan of Kumail because of his treatment of her daughter, is angered when she hears someone tell Kumail to “go back to ISIS.” When a fight erupts, she, her husband, and Kumail start to connect on a much more human level. They start to talk about the things that connect them. They talk about wine, share jokes, look at Emily’s pictures of her goth phase. It is the unpeeling of layers of stereotypes and assumptions that makes this story so real.
In particular, when Kumail and Beth talk about how relationships start in their respective cultures, that is when things shine. The audience gets to see the fear of losing Emily along with their tremendous love for her drive them to form a strong bond.
In some ways, this is kind of a stereotypical coming-of-age story as Kumail grapples with his identity, his beliefs, his love life, and his career. This is all manifested through his one-man show where he discusses his life in Pakistan and America.
What Is the Problem?
Many issues arise from the depiction of Pakistani American families in this film. There are moments that hurt, and I am not even from the same culture. For instance, there is the overcompensating Kumail expresses in this film. I do think it is a good start, though, to show the people who are unsure about their faith, about their beliefs and values, especially under such difficult pressures of a really demanding culture. However, I wanted more complexity. Why do Muslim Americans in the media present themselves in an apologetic and even regretful tone? You can be Muslim and American without being completely extreme or whitewashing yourself. I know of so many Americans who are devout Muslims and still can have a good time. It’s not something that cannot be achieved.
Another aspect that was in some reviews of this film is the negative portrayal of Pakistani American women. They are shown as desperate and completely incapable of being romantic. Hadley Freeman brought up some incredibly powerful points when it comes to the contrast between Naveed (Kumail’s brother) and his wife versus Kumail and Emily’s relationship. Naveed’s relationship is platonic while Kumail is frequently shown having sex with Emily. This desexualizing of women of color suggests that they are somehow lesser than white women. Plus, Freeman brings up a point that struck a nerve with me. How come Kumail is “westernized” but the women are presented as traditional and uptight. They are always shown in traditional Pakistani clothing, have an accent, and don’t seem to have any interests beyond wanting to get married.
Furthermore, the Pakistani-American women in the film are shown as unintelligent. For example, Emily is presented as this graduate student, who is unimpressed by Kumail’s Urdu writing skills, and she is not deterred by his seemingly deep B-rated horror film that he uses to test her taste in movies. The Pakistani-American women are plain and awkward. One potential bride lists all the things she’s allergic to as a way of starting a conversation, which is rather odd. Another woman yells the X-Files’ catchphrase, “the truth is out there.”
What Noor Hasan highlights how it feels to be Pakistani-American and see such an unfair portrayal of herself in her article “From the Perspective of Those Rejected Brown Women in the ‘Big Sick’.” If anything, her writing reminds me of my own struggles as an Arab American who does not get to see much intersectionality or complexity when it comes to media portrayals of women who share my experiences culturally (let alone a-romantically and asexually).
It Boils Down to This
I think we have to start somewhere with the integration of diverse voices in the media. This was a beginning point to a process that should be ongoing and develop with the acknowledgment of criticism. In no way am I saying this movie is terrible. In fact, I kind of like it quite a bit. However, we have got to start allowing for a better and fairer portrayal of women of color and other minorities in media.