Opinion: Not the Role Model We Need

Priyanka Chopra, 2018. (Wikimedia)

In a video that has since gone viral, Ayesha Malik asked Priyanka Chopra-Jonas about a February 26 tweet promoting the Indian Armed Forces during BeautyCon this past Saturday, August 10. 

“So it was kind of hard hearing...you talk about humanity, because as your neighbor, a Pakistani, I know you’re a bit of a hypocrite,” said Malik in the video. “You tweeted on February 26, ‘Jai Hind, hashtag Indian Armed Forces.’ You are a UNICEF ambassador for peace, and you’re encouraging nuclear war against Pakistan. There’s no winner in this.”

On February 26, the Indian government conducted airstrikes on Balakot, Pakistan in retaliation for a February 14 suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad later claimed responsibility for the attack. 

Malik pressed on as a security guard grabbed her microphone. “As a Pakistani, millions of people like me supported you in your Bollywood business, and you want nuclear war.”

Chopra-Jonas waved off Malik’s questions. “Whenever you’re done venting,” she said. “Got it? Done…I have many, many friends from Pakistan. And I am from India. War is not something that I’m really fond of, but I am patriotic. So, I am sorry if I have hurt sentiments — to people who do love me and have loved me, but I think that all of us have a sort of middle ground that we all have to walk, just like you probably do as well.”

“Girl, don’t yell. We’re all here for love,” Chopra-Jonas ended. “Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself.” Chopra-Jonas dismissed Malik’s point by focusing on the way Malik made it, not the content. It was, as Chopra-Jonas has often been, superficial. 

To some extent, Chopra-Jonas’s embrace of the Indian army and patriotism is understandable. She was born in Bihar to army physician parents. By 2000, she became the fifth Indian to win Miss World. Today, she’s one of India’s highest-paid celebrities and has a Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian award. Like many Indians who have left their homes, Chopra-Jonas still feels very Indian.

Priyanka Chopra at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. (Wikipedia)

Some may argue that Malik’s approach was aggressive — she didn’t have to call Chopra-Jonas a “hypocrite” and could have made the same point. “Why should [Chopra-Jonas] have to speak for the country?” Chopra-Jonas’s supporters asked. “Imagine being called out on stage like that? Malik should have controlled herself.” 

But Malik’s question was justifiable — when a public figure with Chopra-Jonas’s reach takes a hard stand on something, is it not fair to ask why she did? 

Chopra-Jonas is one of a handful of very visible Indians who hold cultural influence in the U.S. India’s government just revoked an article that had granted Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir special status — the same region over which Pakistan and India have fought two of three wars.

Chopra-Jonas said that she’s patriotic. But patriotism doesn’t have to mean endorsing a country’s decision to take up arms when diplomacy is feasible. Yet, this isn’t something Chopra-Jonas sees. For her, influence is apolitical and nationalism is inherently good. 

Chopra-Jonas’s brand of Indian is complicated. When it comes to the West, she often commodifies her culture. In “Exotic,” a 2013 song with Pitbull, she sings, “Mumbai, Cuba baby let’s go,” mixed with Hindi lyrics, as if her brownness is one-size-fits-all. In a more recent video, “Life Lessons with Priyanka Chopra-Jonas,” she’s meditating over a Hindi song, and flaunting a “sexy, sexy sari.”

This is not to say that Chopra-Jonas has not helped South Asian Americans. She’s done a lot for representation. In 2013, she was the opening act for NFL Thursday Night Football. She played an FBI agent in Quantico, a U.S. TV drama. She became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador; she’s even a tech investor. She’s on major magazine covers.

Priyanka Chopra, 2013. (Wikimedia)

In 2018 when a writer on The Cut accused her relationship with Nick Jonas of being a scam, many were incredulous and stood up for her. “Really?” we asked, “they think she’s social climbing Nick Jonas?” This year, her Instagram followers leapt to 40 million. 

When she married Jonas, she showed us that relationships didn’t need to be cookiecutter. He was a Disney star with a then waning career; she is a successful global actress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even showed up to their wedding — a little weird, but we passed it off as understandable when you thought of Bollywood’s close relationship with the government.

But there’s no benefit to letting Chopra-Jonas’s bullshit go. This weekend’s incident is oddly reminiscent of what happened with Gal Gadot, of Wonder Woman fame. Gadot posted messages in favor of Israel’s Defence Forces in 2014. As the Israel-Gaza conflict worsened, Gadot even posted an image praying with her daughter. After facing backlash, five years later, Gadot has revised her stance, and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for describing Israel as the homeland of “only the Jewish people.”

With great power — and public visibility — comes great responsibility. Until Chopra-Jonas understands the gravitas of her position, she isn’t the role model we need right now.

Meghna Rao is managing editor at The Juggernaut. 

Read our other stories

Get access to this article and many more at The Juggernaut. No ads, no clickbait — just smart writing.