TV UK, 25 November

Looking for roots in I Won't Marry White.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Following last week’s observations about the absence in contemporary society of the sorts of moral conflicts dramatised in North and South, I was intrigued by the documentary I Won’t Marry White (Channel 4 last Monday night).

The literary critic James Wood has suggested that the success of those British and American writers who have fictionalised the immigrant experience lies in the fact that they’ve been able to restore some of the pressures of tradition, such as religion, civic duty and the expectation of marriage, that animated the nineteenth-century novel. Judging from I Won’t Marry White, things are a bit more complicated than that, at least for some Asians.

The programme followed three young British Asians who have resolved to find and marry an Asian partner, having only ever ‘dated’ white people until now. These were not prisoners of tradition trying to escape their overbearing families, then, but young Western men and women looking for roots, and as one contributor put it, keen to get in touch with their Eastern sides. While all three thought their parents would prefer them to marry Asians, none seemed to be primarily motivated by a sense of duty. If they had been, they surely would have been more concerned with religion, and even caste, than mere Asianness. The use of the term ‘Asian’ to denote anyone from the subcontinent, irrespective of religion or nationality, is a recent British invention.

The programme’s narrator did acknowledge that intermarriage between Muslims and Hindus is still a bit taboo. In fact, the three singles featured comprised two Hindus and a Sikh; the only Muslim who appeared, in an Asian nightclub in London, politely let down the Sikh on the grounds that she would only consider another Muslim. Actually, maybe that wasn’t the whole reason. Peter, the Sikh in question, was clearly a nice guy, not bad looking, and a Glaswegian, but you couldn’t help suspecting that his experience of white girls was probably quite limited too. An accident of birth allowed him the comforting illusion that he could get a girlfriend by returning to his roots, but life is never that simple.

In the new series of the US cop show Boomtown (Channel 5, Tuesdays at 11.30pm), tradition is more of a cross to bear. Assistant DA David McNorris is just out of rehab, and he sees his alcoholism very much as part of his heritage as an Irish-American gangster politician. Indeed, the McNorris storyline seems to fit into a genre that goes back to The Godfather, in which individuals struggle to break free from a legacy of crime. The genre is closer to classical tragedy than nineteenth-century bourgeois realism, however, as the protagonists are always dragged back into the family by mysterious forces. But Boomtown is more contemporary.

In common with Tony Soprano, David McNorris resorts to therapy in an effort to make sense of these forces, but like Tony, he doesn’t have the stomach for it. When a counsellor asked him how he felt at the end of his treatment, his lengthy tirade about how angry he was with his abusive father turned out to be a fantasy; his real answer was, ‘I’m fine. You?’. This resistance is pleasing, of course, but neither Tony nor McNorris has an alternative worldview that really challenges therapy (hence, the fantasy confession), and accordingly it is therapy that continually drags them back.

In this context, duty to the family is reduced to an individual sense of obligation. When McNorris’ father asked him to throw a case in order to save a major gangster, he had no leverage until his son realised that he had been threatened and was in danger. It was guilt, rather than duty, that made McNorris tip his father off about the impending arrest, and in the end his father didn’t act on it, realising that his obligation was not to interfere with his son’s career. As far as his relationship with his father goes, then, McNorris really is fine, and like Peter the Sikh, he stands alone in the present.

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