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Australia's 'Pappadum' song: A cringefest for South Asians

As soon as I saw the video, I was filled with a sense of discomfort and foreboding.


Six years after it was released, the 2014 ‘Pappadum Song’ by the Wiggles resurfaced on Twitter recently, with many users dismayed by the racial stereotyping it portrayed and some rushing to defend what they thought was a ‘harmless’ celebration of another culture. 

User @_ashmip posted the video on Twitter with the caption: ‘to be clear, this was not the representation I wanted’—and it went viral.

The video flooded my socials, from my Instagram and Facebook, to niche ethnic meme groups, and when I finally caved in and watched it, I felt a range of mixed emotions rush in. 

In the video, the four white Wiggles sing the word ‘pappadum’ over and over again, while a (seemingly) South Asian lady dances with them, not singing along, and staring blankly with an awkward smile as they thrust the pappadums into the air and fan them out while doing Bollywood-adjacent dance steps. I could have taken the whole thing as simply an extremely cringey, bizarre performance created in poor taste, and ignore the accusation of racial stereotyping, but then what was the relevance of Anthony swinging a cricket bat mid-performance?

As soon as I saw the video, I was filled with a sense of discomfort and foreboding. When I sent the video to my South Asian friends, one of them echoed the same thought which lurked behind my discomfort–we were both imagining our younger selves in school, already precariously distanced from our cultures in order to create the greatest social appeal and sense of normalcy. We imagined the kids that would see this video and come to us, rotating their wrists loosely and shaking their heads, chanting ‘pappadum, pappadum,’ the queasiness we’d feel in our stomachs. 

Within a short time of the outrage and debate being sparked, Blue Wiggle Anthony Field had apologised, tweeting ‘..I wrote the song, and directed the clip in 2014 (which was meant as a celebration). It was not my intention to be culturally insensitive to the Indian community, or to add value to ethnic stereotyping. Apologies ,’ explaining that Kimberly Stapylton, their then-live events manager and seemingly South Asian woman, wasn’t comfortable singing. Field even seemed to agree to a tweet by a user who suggested that in the future the Wiggles run their sketches past members of any cultural groups they are referencing to avoid future mishaps, to which he responded ‘For sure!’.

This isn’t an issue of any deliberately malicious intent– no one is (or should be) trying to ‘cancel’ the Wiggles, and it’s nice to have a creator apologise for their racially problematic content. However, it brings to light the ease with which Western creators still portray South Asian culture in a gimmicky and ignorant way, and forego the bit of time and effort it would have taken to do something truly amazing–create a well-informed and researched piece of content that lets minority cultures shine in an authentic way. 

Hearing that earlier this year, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ABC were pulling programmes off rotation if the language in them was deemed inappropriate or offensive according to current cultural standards, Australian woman Marni Stuart wrote a complaint to them, to remove the ‘papadum’ sketch. In their reply, the ABC wrote:

But as Marni wrote, putting this down to a mere attempt at engagement or entertainment doesn’t add up, since ‘..Blackface was also considered entertainment at one point in history.’ In fact, it was only in June this year that Netflix removed all four of Australian comedian Chris Lilley’s TV series, all four of which were originally broadcast on the ABC for nine years, up till 2014. This was following years of outrage at his regular use of brownface and blackface in ‘comedic’ characters. 

Tongan-Australian writer Winnie Dunn wrote on SBS: ‘I was 12 and in Year 7 when Chris Lilley’s mockumentary Summer Heights High (a show in which Lilley donned brownface to play a Tongan character called Jonah Takalua - pictured above) aired on ABC for the first time. A few weeks after, an Anglo-Australian classmate - who looked like Eminem - came to school in a tupenu whilst strumming on a ukulele. He told everyone he was an honorary Fob. When I tried to explain to him that he was palangi, a white person, he just flicked back his blonde hair. "If Chris Lilley can do it, I can do it."

Children watch, they learn, and they mimic. The existence of other ‘more thoroughly considered’ shows or episodes isn’t an excuse for the careless, harmful ones to continue airing. How many children could have benefitted from a genuine portrayal of Indian culture where perhaps, a guest came on to educate the Wiggles and share stories about one of our foods and its’ history? How cool would it have been if they were taught how to do the Dandiya by a Gujarati guest? There are so many art forms, foods, and rich cultural nuances from India that could be shared so simply, with a little more care, that a young audience could savour and learn from, and there is still so much opportunity to create authentic representation through thoughtful storytelling.

In a time where shows like ‘Never Have I Ever’ and ‘Mira, Royal Detective’ have been released by Netflix and Disney respectively, paving the way for many teens and kids to feel a sense of comfort as they watch their peers consume stories which have realistic characters like them in worlds where Indian culture isn’t a just a bizarre flashy monolith of dance and head-shaking, we’re allowed to expect more from mainstream entertainers and in fact, demand it.

About the author

Shivani is a Melbourne-based writer and uni student. When she isn’t feeling like she is only an adult human person the way maple-flavoured syrup is maple syrup (a sort of imposter syndrome for existing), she writes things and then immediately hates them. Instagram: @shivanisprabhu

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