“You’re not demure enough.”
“What's your height?"
“You're being so picky and you won’t have any options later.”
“You don’t need to talk about how much you work and about your work hours.”
“It’s not important that your partner’s politics have to align with yours.”
“You don’t know what you want.”
These are just some of the things several South Asian women say they have been told by their families and matchmakers who have tried to arrange their marriage with a series of prospective suitors.
Many of these attitudes are also reflected in Netflix’s new, popular reality show Indian Matchmaking, which follows Sima Taparia, a professional matchmaker from Mumbai, who finds marriageable partners for single Indian people in India and the US.
The show focuses on seven of Taparia’s approximately 500 clients — a mix of mostly upper-middle-class Indian Hindu millennials — who, as the show describes, include a “stubborn” Houston lawyer, a “picky Mumbai bachelor,” a “misunderstood” Morristown, New Jersey, event planner, and a “progressive” woman entrepreneur from Mumbai.
The tradition of arranged marriages is widespread across South Asian cultures where parents, extended family members, and as of more recently, hired professionals, try to pair singles of “marriageable age," that often, but not always, begins in their early twenties.
The compatibility is frequently evaluated through “biodatas” — marriage résumés of sorts — that highlight the person’s looks, background, and best qualities. Religion, caste, and class compatibility are often given importance within the practice.
It is challenging, and likely impossible, to condense and critically evaluate how arranged marriages work across the South Asian subcontinent within the format of one article or TV show. One of the major drawbacks of Indian Matchmaking, critics say, is that it focuses on matchmaking within the selective bubble of mostly wealthy, upper-caste North Indian Hindus, and uncritically normalizes many aspects of a deeply complex system.
South Asians are binge-watching, memeing, joking, and generally obsessing about Indian Matchmaking, which as of Tuesday is the eighth-most-popular TV show in the US, according to Netflix’s top 10 list.
The show’s popularity has generated widespread conversations, debates, and criticism online around its portrayal of the age-old process of matchmaking and arranged marriages in India.
It has also prompted several South Asian women to share their own problematic, and at times traumatic, experiences with the process.
BuzzFeed News collected anecdotes from women who documented their experiences on social media as well as from interviews with South Asian women who shared their own stories and critiques.
One woman said she was told to “downplay” how much she worked to potential partners, while another said she was repeatedly told her skin tone wasn’t “fair enough” or that she wasn’t “demure enough.” Some women said they were subjected to misogyny, sexism, and anti-gay bias from prospective suitors and their families, while others said they had low self-esteem after being gaslighted by their families during the process.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of jokes about the show on matchmaking and arranged marriages on Netflix and as someone who’s lived through this hell for most of her twenties, I’m here to tell you; it’s no joking matter,” Indian journalist Nikita Doval wrote in a viral Twitter thread about her own experience with arranged marriages.
Doval, whose “liberal” parents started looking for a potential groom for her when she was around 23 years old, wrote she was “almost always not talking enough, or not fair enough or not demure enough” or “not professionally qualified enough” for many of the suitors she was set up with.
“In one memorable instance it turned out my family wasn’t high quality Brahmin enough also,” she wrote, highlighting the deeply entrenched casteism upheld by the arranged marriage system in India, which is revealed in some of the conversations on Indian Matchmaking.
Doval wrote that the process, during which she rejected several suitors, led to “ugly fights” with her parents and “several panic attacks.”
“The arranged marriage system ruined my relationship with my parents, especially my mum through my twenties,” she said in a tweet.
Samana Gururaja, a 31-year-old US-born Indian woman, said that in some ways the show was “very triggering” to watch.
Gururaja, who is now a PhD candidate in South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News that she had always been open to the idea of being set up; she had grown up idolizing her own parents’ marriage.
“The actual experience of it ended up being very traumatic as I didn’t anticipate the urgency my parents felt in getting me married,” Gururaja said. “Me not being married became a threat to them that they had to deal with.”
The system, she said, works on a “fear-based approach.”
Her parents began setting her up with matches as soon as Gururaja returned to India in 2010 after finishing college in the US.
When she started meeting potential matches — primarily Indian men who had settled in the US — she realized they all had a “veneer of liberal attitude over a conservative outlook.”
Gururaja said she encountered several microaggressions, subtle sexism, and a lot of anti-gay prejudice during these meetings.
There were also a lot of inherent assumptions that she would move wherever the man lived, she said, and her own education and career goals were constantly dismissed.
Gururaja’s experience was reflected in Indian Matchmaking, where women looking for partners are repeatedly told to be “flexible” and to “adjust” their needs to those of the man and his family.
The two professional matchmakers featured on the show advise their women clients to learn to compromise on their own ambitions and dreams for the sake of a good suitor.
“The girl has to adjust many things rather than the boy,” one man’s mother, who hired Taparia to find a bride for her 25-year-old son, says on the show. “That is what the values we’ve been brought up with.”
Gururaja said there was a lot of “gaslighting” from her parents when she began rejecting partners and resisting their efforts to get her married.
When she told them she wanted her partner's politics to align with her own, she said, her parents dismissed it as unimportant. When she refused to meet a match based on his biodata, her parents questioned how she could make the decision without meeting him in person.
“I’ve been called arrogant, egotistic, and stubborn, and told things like ‘You're being so picky and you won’t have any options later,’” Gururaja said. “It affected my self-esteem.”
The process, which lasted through most of her twenties, negatively affected Gururaja’s relationship with her parents and made her lose trust in them.
“The most traumatic part was not actually the guys — the guys were fine, I just didn't want to marry them — it was disappointing my parents over and over again,” Gururaja said. “I became a rebel without ever intending to be one.”
A 34-year-old woman from Mumbai, who also never considered herself a rebel, and had always thought of her parents as “cool and liberal,” inadvertently became one during the arranged marriage process.
The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, told BuzzFeed News that several minor but problematic incidents became “normalized” in her household. This, she said, caused “massive fallouts” with her parents in the two years that her family — with the help of a professional matchmaker — tried to arrange her marriage.
The woman’s parents first sent her photo to a matchmaker in 2012 without asking her, she said.
“Parents in India thinking it’s OK to do that is fundamentally deranged,” she said. “It’s so intrusive.”
When she recently watched a scene from Indian Matchmaking — where the mother of an Indian man tells a matchmaker she is looking for a daughter-in-law who is above 5 feet 3 inches tall to “match” her son’s height — the woman recalled an awkward phone call she got from one of her business clients five years ago.
The client, who also happened to be an acquaintance’s mother, was “super excited” to set her up with a single man who was bride-hunting, she said.
“She started to play matchmaker on the phone without asking me if I was single or if I even wanted to get married,” she said.
The next day, the client called her again, only to ask, “What’s your height?”
After the confused woman told her she was 5 feet 3 inches tall, the client explained that the man she was planning to set her up with was “very keen that the girl has to be tall.”
She recalled another incident from a few years ago when her uncle approached her with a potential match. “I remember asking for time to think over it, but before I knew it my uncle landed up at the guy’s office to check him out,” she said. “He represented me without asking me, which I was massively offended by.”
In another instance, her uncle called her up to “coach” her before her first conversation with a prospective suitor, she said.
“He tells me, ‘You don’t need to talk about how much you work and about your work hours,’” she recalled.
Ultimately, she said, she felt like her parents did not respect her decisions and that she was “constantly being nudged to be more open.”
It took “massive discussions, massive fallouts, and massive bouts of wanting them to back the fuck off,” she said, to change her parents’ mindset, but it was at “the cost of putting [herself] through unnecessary drama.”
Several other South Asians on social media have criticized the show, and some have even refused to watch it.
In a Twitter thread, Anar Parikh, a 30-year-old PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University, wrote that it was dangerous to “romanticize what this show says about arranged marriage for non-Indian folks who don’t know about these realities, as well as for Indians who buy into them.”
She said the show “erases the very real systems of oppression, or worse explicitly or implicitly buys into them.”
Parikh, who told BuzzFeed News she “hate-watched” the entire show, pointed to a scene where a mother tells her 25-year-old son that his lack of enthusiasm in the matchmaking process is causing her to have high blood pressure.
While the scene could be perceived as humorous, Parikh said, making light of such “emotionally abusive behavior” was dangerous.
“A lot of us with desi parents are familiar with being told that our behavior is affecting the health of someone we love,” Parikh said. “Maybe it’s funny, but it’s also pretty manipulative and emotionally abusive to suggest that the mere fact of not buying into societal expectations is going to cause someone you love to be in bad health,” she said.
Mariam Durrani, an anthropologist and professor at Hamilton College in New York, said she did not find the show entertaining.
“I saw it as sensationalizing the kind of inequality that exists in society,” Durrani, 38, told BuzzFeed News.
Durrani, who is Pakistani, recalled family members joking often when she was growing up that she shouldn’t grow too tall or else she wouldn’t find someone to marry.
“These are the kind of microaggressions that constantly reduce a woman’s value by equating her to a breeding animal,” Durrani said.
A lot of the criticism directed at Indian Matchmaking suggests that it uncritically presents many of the problematic aspects of arranged marriages to an audience who might not be able to fully contextualize its complexities.
“What I want from Indian Matchmaking is probably impossible: Not just an exploration of arranged marriage, but a true reckoning with its limitations,” Sonia Saraiya, Vanity Fair’s TV critic wrote. “It’s charitable—outright propaganda, arguably—to frame it merely as a fun, silly circus of chattering parents and matchmakers with spreadsheets,” she wrote.
However, some like CNN’s S. Mitra Kalita said criticism targeted at the show was misplaced. Kalita wrote that the showrunners were not “redeeming the cavalier manner in which families perpetuate inequality and outdated thinking” but rather “exposing” it.
“The mirror is being held up, and it's impossible to look away,” she wrote.
Parikh questioned whether the target audience for the show understood the context and whether they were being encouraged to think about it critically.
“The idea that what is being presented is just an objective view of what is happening in the world is really dangerous without context,” she said.
Despite her past experience with being set up, Gururaja said she is still open to an arranged marriage as she has seen it work for friends and cousins. She added that she believes the system is “evolving to meet the needs of people who want to get married.”
After what she described as “several fraught moments and terrible discussions over the years" over the years, she said her parents finally began listening to what she wanted.
Now, when Gururaja’s mother receives proposals for her daughter from men she knows she won’t like, she wards them off by telling them, “My daughter is a feminist.”
“And that’s enough,” Gururaja said, “to turn people off.”