‘Never Have I Ever’ Felt Represented by American Media
Ok, I lied. I actually have felt represented by American media. Once. The opening scene to Season 2, Episode 3 of “Master of None” where a young Dev, played by Aziz Ansari, looks at a piece of bacon longingly and then
bites down while Tupac’s “Only God Can Judge Me” starts to play as the opening credits roll is the only time I’ve looked at an American show and said to myself “Yep. That is too real.” Something about this moment from the knowing look in the young actor’s eyes as he weighs whether or not eating bacon actually means damnation to just ending up saying “fuck it” and chomping down on that delicious strip of pig fat is just absolutely correct regarding a first-generation Indian kid’s experience. The Tupac song honestly makes the whole scene. We all know Indian kids that appropriate Black music and culture for clout. It’s a perfect scene. Every brown friend I have shown it to has cackled with delight by the time the title card pops up. However, Aziz kind of ruined his reputation and I don’t want to be associated with him anymore. So, onto the next best thing and one of the only other representations of South Asians in American Media we have: Mindy Kaling.
Personally, I had a lot of issues with her new show “Never Have I Ever” and I’m not alone. Many people at the beginning of quarantine did praise the show as a “Pitch-Perfect Teen Rom-Com.” I humbly disagree. Not every Indian person is going to like this show and that’s okay. That’s not the point. If not all white people can agree on Taylor Swift, you can’t expect billions of Indian people to tell you we all love Mindy Kaling. The real problem of the show is that it’s too general. Kaling is trying to cater to so many aspects of Indian culture and does not elaborate on them enough to the point where she kind of drops the ball on all of them.
Natasha Roy, a freelance journalist who covers education and the South Asian diaspora, mentioned her desire to see Devi having more Indian friends in the show. “I wish we could have a portrayal of South Asian-American kids who want to be together and find community in each other,” she says. It is so often other Desi kids attack each other or dismiss each other’s feelings. We see this in the show multiple times when Devi bashes Hindu culture in front of other Indian kids who, in turn, scoff at her and walk away. There’s a lot of cultural gatekeeping in the community. By making Devi completely alone and having nowhere to process these culturally confusing feelings, along with her dad dying, and all of the boy drama as well, it’s too much to put on one character. That’s why, it seems, all of the “cultural stuff” is relegated to the Ganesh Puja episode.
There are moments when this show actually shines, and one of them is actually in the “Ganesh Puja” episode. We get a short scene where Devi runs into her cousin, Harish. She asks why he is even there because he normally hates going to these “lame” celebrations. Harish tells her he has had a change of heart after going to college and being influenced by his Native American roommate who demonstrated really strong, positive ties to his culture. Harish asks “am I going to be this insecure Indian guy who hates doing Indian things?” and Devi gets a turn to scoff and walk away, leaving many of us dying for a Harish spinoff series about him and his college roommate. We can’t deny our brownness. It affects every part of our lives whether we like it or not, but we never really see Devi reckon with it.
There is even a hint of backstory about Devi’s mother’s fertility issues and a storyline pertaining to a miscarriage. Indian women are often ostracized for things like infertility and that one moment addressing this issue and treating the mother’s character with love and respect was incredibly refreshing. Representation is important. Moments like this one can validate our feelings about ourselves and the world. Among the few shining moments of the show, this is a standout, and it’s only a two-minute sequence.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the lead actress who plays Devi, is a gem, even though she doesn’t get much to do emotionally until the very end of the season. Devi’s character has two modes: confident snark and major temper tantrums at the drop of a dime. This feels like it is played as her quirk. All of Mindy Kaling’s characters, even the ones Mindy has played herself, have quirks, whether it be every other line being a pop culture reference or touting her cute girl feminism. As someone who’s been compared to Mindy a lot, I’ve never really had an issue with her characters except for the fact that all her characters only exclusively end up with white guys. However, Devi’s ‘quirk’ goes from silly antics to downright mean very fast. She’s mean to almost everyone. She abandons her friends on multiple occasions and has to apologize over and over again. I’m not going to say I think her character is a bad influence. I wish I had Devi’s confidence at that age, but the way she treats her friends made me not want them to forgive her each time she hurts them. There are a lot of healthier representations of teenage girl friendship dynamics out there. “Never Have I Ever” is not one of them. Devi even makes a horribly anti-Semitic dig at her friend-later-turned-lover Ben Gross. Ben also makes a lot of racist jokes about her as well and it’s just played off as their dynamic, but they are actually very mean to each other and I don’t think I can get behind an Indian girl dating a guy who is actively racist to her, especially when she is anti-Semitic towards him in return. This is where Mindy’s tendency to pair her Indian female characters with White men has much more harmful implications.
There is also emphasis on Anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the Ganesh Puja episode where the C-Plot focuses on a Hindu woman who was ostracized by her community because she married a Muslim man. This actually does happen quite a lot, but it is the end of the episode, where the woman tells Devi’s cousin, Kamala, not to break from tradition and follow her heart because of the humiliation she faced, that ruins the storyline. The show had the opportunity to denounce ideals of Hindu Nationalism, especially when the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India is at an all-time high, but the show decides to not even remain neutral and, instead, supports the idea of “sticking to a status quo” and not upsetting the elders. Later in the show, Kamala does agree to an arranged marriage and there is a feminist twist as to why she does, but the show still finds a way to perpetuate narratives of following tradition. This goes against everything young first-generation Indian kids are thinking about and working through right now. “There was no reconciliation of that storyline. It’s honestly whack,” Natasha notes. It’s not enough to just accurately depict how Hindus can hold major Anti-Muslim sentiment, but you have to figure out what you want to say about it. As an influential show written by one of the only Indian women in American pop culture, Mindy had the power to do just that, and she didn’t.
We need more than the occasional “Slumdog Millionaire,” which wasn’t even produced by Indian people, to win an Oscar or more than the occasional “Master of None” to win an Emmy. We also preferably don’t want our brown celebrities to have sexually assaulted a woman, but that’s another article for another day. We need more prominent Desi actors. I don’t want to be able to count on one hand how many there are consistently in American film and TV. We haven’t even delved into colorism in the Indian community. We need South Asian representation and casting for actors from Pakistan and Bangladesh. None of our current representations are perfect, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is possible for South Asian representation in America.
Everyone was praising “Never Have I Ever” and I have to wonder if they were praising it because it was actually a well-structured, good piece of media or because it was one of the only things they have ever seen with an Indian lead and they felt they had to praise it for “allyship points.” It’s also good to note that this show came out at the beginning of quarantine, where people had just come off their “Tiger King” highs and were looking for something to binge. I don’t hear anyone still talking about this show, even when it comes to the depiction of the Devi’s queer Afro-Latina friend, Fabiola, played by Lee Rodriguez. I guess, for me at least, the hope is that this show becomes the bare minimum for how South Asian people, and especially young South Asian women, should be represented and that someone else gets to come along and make something better.