[UPDATED] Analyzing the nuances of interracial relationships in “Master of None”

Interracial relationships are a profoundly complex, multidimensional topic to tackle in mass media, but with the growing interest in diverse representations on television shows, movies and literature today, a handful of producers, authors and directors have tried their hand at capturing what an interracial relationship is like. One particular television show that built a main narrative arc around an Asian American interracial relationship, to its credit, is comedian Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s popular 2015 Netflix series, Master of None. The relationship between Dev and Rachel, an Indian American man and a white woman, uses white femininity, the most “purely feminine” femininity by white hegemonic standards, to validate Asian American masculinity at the beginning of the season, but slowly points out how Rachel is and will always be the more privileged individual in their relationship because of her race.

The ways that Ansari uses to validate Dev’s masculinity are deeply problematic because they are rooted in white heteronormative standards. The most glaring way he does this is by giving Dev white women as love interests throughout the entire show. Dev is only seen once in a romantic scenario with an East Asian woman, and it is during a dinner date that is going very poorly. The woman wore a hoodie and sneakers, and ordered two entrees, things that are disparaged by a white woman Dev is romantically involved with at the moment. Even though race is not explicitly cited as a reason for the negative portrayal of Dev’s date, her one dimensionality makes it hard not to see her as a stereotype.

In the first scene of the pilot episode, “Plan B,” Dev is in the middle of having sex with Rachel, a white woman. He is on top of her in a dominant position and they are both making noises of pleasure. When his condom breaks, Dev takes charge of the situation and goes out to purchase Plan B. Through their conversation, the audience gleans that he picked her up at a bar during a night out. The placement of this scene at the beginning of the series is to throw the stereotype of Asian American men being nerdy and not sexually desirable out the window immediately, but Ansari had to cast a white woman in the sex scene to make it effective.

The idea that Dev is sexually desirable as an Asian American man to white women continues throughout the series in order to keep his masculinity intact. Before he enters into a long-term relationship with Rachel down the road, Dev sleeps with a married white woman he meets at one of his friends’ work parties. He struggled with the idea of having an affair with her, but after meeting her white husband, who treats him poorly at an ice cream store, he decides to sleep with the woman in a twisted form of revenge. Before Dev decided to have sex with the woman, she was the one depicted as more sexually aggressive. However, when they have sex for the first time, Dev is on top. When the woman’s husband catches Dev at their apartment, he calls Dev a “small, Indian man,” causing Dev to get angry. This is a direct juxtaposition of Asian American masculinity against white masculinity to show that even though Dev had a sexual relationship with his wife, the white man still didn’t see him as an equal. But the audience is asked to side with Dev in that scene because his masculinity has already been validated at that point by his sexual relationships with multiple white women.

After Rachel appears halfway through the series as a legitimate love interest for Dev, problematic hegemonic structures that his relationship plays out in become more obvious. For their first date, Dev takes Rachel to Nashville for the weekend, where they “honky-tonk” and eat BBQ together. He visits her grandmother with her and spends time eating Italian food and listening to her stories. Both events occur early in their relationship and on Rachel’s “turf,” rather than Dev’s.

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Rachel eventually moves into Dev’s apartment and during an argument about her clothes being on the ground, she adopts an accent, presumably one she’s heard domestic workers use, as she cleans them up. Dev calls her out on the accent and says he is offended by it, but that incident is never revisited. It’s an extremely accurate scene that shows many times within interracial relationships, the person with more privilege can often say problematic things that are difficult to readdress substantially.

Even though Master of None does not write off Dev’s male privilege completely — there is a whole episode devoted to him understanding what male privilege looks like and how he should always listen and not invalidate when a woman says something is problematic — Rachel’s privilege ultimately overrode Dev’s at the end of the show. When Dev is cut a movie he worked really hard for, she aggressively berates the director without any thought about how an encounter like that might affect Dev’s future career. At a friend’s wedding when the couple receives comments about their interraciality, Rachel is the first to note how offensive it was for Dev to be referred to as “ethnic.”

In the finale, Rachel and Dev have a very realistic conversation about the future of the relationship and she ultimately decides to jet off to Tokyo without a plan, just because she’s always wanted to do it. Dev is slightly horrified at first, but then actually ends up flying off to Italy to learn how to make pasta. Even though they do very similar things at the end of the show, Dev is the one with a concrete plan. When Rachel was asked earlier in the show why she likes Japan so much, all she could say about it was that she really liked Japanese culture in high school, which sounds suspiciously like simplification and fetishization.

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Upon first watch, Master of None’s repeated casting of white women as love interests for the Asian American men in the show may not seem problematic, mostly because whiteness is invisible (Eng, 138). Television audiences have been socialized to recognize white as normal, so it’s much harder to see it with a different lens. But once that is recognized, it becomes clear that the “burden of whiteness” is cast on Dev in Master of None because he is Asian American (Eng, 141). The sex scene in the pilot episode is striking not because Rachel is white, but because Dev is not.

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly also uses white women as a way to measure masculinity. In the play, Rene Gallimard is married to a white woman but fails to father children. He also enjoys looking at pin-ups of white women but cannot “get it up,” another way Hwang reflects failures in Gallimard’s masculinity through his negative experiences with white women (Eng, 153-155).

The use of white femininity as a measurement for masculinity is problematic because it has been defined as the “ideal” by white hegemony. When Asian American men try to overturn stereotypes of their asexuality or undesirability by obtaining access to white femininity, they are playing directly into the hands of the system that has racially castrated them in the first place.

But Master of None deftly shows how white femininity overrode Asian American masculinity throughout Dev and Rachel’s relationship. Dev was never sure when he would come across an act of overt racism, as demonstrated through his conversation about her possibly being a “racist grandma” with Rachel’s grandmother when they first met (Chou, 158). That conversation speaks to the real anxieties of Asian Americans in interracial relationships. While not without its problems, the portrayal of Dev and Rachel’s relationship in Master of None is more nuanced than many other television portrayals of interracial Asian American relationships.

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