'Neve Have I Ever' been so conflicted by South Asian representation
Never Have I Ever ... seen a teenage Indian girl as the main character. If you’ve just finished watching Netflix’s new show "Never Have I Ever" and have a million thoughts about it, you’ve come to the right place!
Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, the show follows Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she starts sophomore year of high school and deals with boy problems, friend drama and grief just a few months after the death of her dad.
"Never Have I Ever" had quite a few problematic moments that made me question if this show was doing an Indian lead justice. Early on in the show, Devi has a fantasy about Paxton Hall-Yoshida (a guy she's crushing on) where he tells her she looks like none other than Priyanka Chopra. Yep, you read that right.
It’s true, lots of Indian girls get told they look like Chopra as a compliment but in reality, that’s just another way of saying we all look the same. Never in all my years have I actually met an Indian girl who looks like Chopra. While the show can include this comment without supporting it, it just didn’t sit right with me that it was included in her fantasy as subtly racist comments like these are often glorified on TV already.
Some other “jokes” on the show also left a bad taste in my mouth. When Devi’s friends are talking and Fabiola comes out as gay to Eleanor, Eleanor celebrates but then also says she’s so happy because now she has a gay friend.
Honestly, the show toed the line between presenting average teenage conversation and normalizing a lot of tasteless things teenagers say.
One thing I had to recognize early on with this show is that Devi has guts. Therefore, every scenario she ends up in can be unrealistic. Just as an icebreaker to her character, she goes up to the hottest guy at school and asks if he’d like to have sex with her.
Even though she’s bold to a fault, I loved seeing a South Asian young woman play an unapologetic leader and a complete mess. She has me wishing I had the guts to go up to my high school crushes. Devi is also a wreck during most of the show, mostly because she’s constantly distracting herself from her grief. But her character grew on me, especially since the show didn’t force the viewer to like her.
John McEnroe, the famous tennis player notorious for some of his great outbursts, narrates the whole show, so we were able to view Devi’s actions objectively and I appreciated just seeing all the nonsense she got into without hearing her justification the whole way through.
As a high school sophomore and the smartest kid in her class, Devi thinks she knows it all. Yet, the show does a good job of presenting that she’s the only one who thinks so. One of my favorite scenes was when Devi was confronted about what seems to be internalized racism. When Devi is celebrating Ganesh Puja at her high school, she runs into an old friend who tells her being Indian is cool and hating the culture just reveals that the person is insecure.
The show got a lot of criticism for “white-washing” Devi, which I can agree with at times. But growing up Indian in America can create a lot of contradictions, and Devi’s age is right when a person starts to confront their identity and who they want to be. I think this scene did an amazing job of making Devi self-aware and showing viewers that this is a challenge we’ve all overcome at some point.
Beyond Devi’s character, it was nice to see her friends get some character development too. The show explored Eleanor’s feelings about her mom leaving and Fabiola’s struggle with coming out to her family. We even got to see an episode from Ben’s perspective which turned out to be one of my favorites.
I liked Kamala, Devi’s cousin, as well, especially when seeing her internal struggle between deciding to keep dating the guy she wanted and getting an arranged marriage. I felt that arranged marriage was presented pretty accurately in the show. I liked that they made the distinction between an arranged marriage and a forced one as they are very different and should be addressed very differently.
I found it interesting that when the topic of arranged marriage came up, the show brought up how taboo it is for an Indian woman to marry a Muslim man by showing how a woman in the community was shunned for doing so.
I almost expected Devi to jump in and mention that this is Islamaphobic, but they ended up just leaving the comment there and letting the viewers make of it what they wanted. Nevertheless, we at least see how ridiculous the aunties at the function are and how their actions or opinions aren’t acceptable.
But, by far, the best part about the show was Devi and her mom Nalini’s relationship with the late Mohan. These flashbacks were so beautiful and this is honestly the first time I’ve seen an Indian-American family represented so well on TV. Most of the time, the only side viewers get to see is how strict Indian parents are.
While that may be true, this show gave us so much more aspects of Indian parenthood, too. Indian families are funny, weird, caring and complicated, just like any other type of family. At the end of this season, they throw his ashes into the beach, and the whole moment is so touching and well-executed. And yes, I was crying during the whole thing.
Overall, although the show started a little cringy, I enjoyed it! I’m so excited to see where Devi’s big mouth takes her and how things pan out with all her boy and friend drama. Truthfully, I’m just so ready to see another season of a show where the Indian girl gets to make all the decisions and face all the consequences.
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