“Never Have I Ever” and the importance of representation

As we all struggle through quarantine, one thing has become abundantly clear to all of us–––streaming services have become essential to our strange new lives.  And while Disney+ is gaining traction and Amazon and Hulu continue to enthrall, no other service has benefited from quarantine as much as Netflix. The platform’s ever-expanding selection of media is the perfect place to lose oneself in. And while some media is worse than others, the true triumph of Netflix’s vast landscape of content is the variety of stories it has the potential to tell. And a couple weeks ago, one such story caught my attention: Mindy Kaling’s new show “Never Have I Ever”. 

On its surface, it seemed to be the quintessential Netflix teen show––right down to the pastel-colored cinematography and vaguely 80’s-esque soundtrack. The twist? It’s main character’s name is Devi Vishwakumar, and she is Indian-American. 

To be honest, I went into this show more than a little scared. South Asian representation in American media has historically been little more than pittance, and when it does appear, it’s often reduced to tired caricatures and offensive stereotypes. A show like this was groundbreaking, but it could easily fall into superficiality and cultural cliches.

I’m happy to say that it doesn’t. Devi Vishwakumar is Indian, yes. But she’s also a normal teen. She wants a boyfriend as well as good grades. She goes to house parties and Ganesh pujas. I saw myself in her struggle to reconcile her identity as a member of the South Asian diaspora and as a quintessential American teen, but I also saw myself in her day-to-day high school interactions. I would often pause scenes just to marvel at how similar her experience was to mine, or to a family member’s, or a friend’s. Part of this is the casting of Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, whose wonderful performance added layers to already glowing pieces of dialogue. Not only did she feel familiar, but she looks like me too. Colorism is deeply rooted in the Indian community, and the significance of casting a darker skinned girl would not have been lost on Indian-American watchers. It would have been so easy to cast a lighter-skinned Indian girl for an audience that grows up with lotion names like Fair and Lovely, but Never Have I Ever instead chooses to send a different and wholly important message––that darker skinned Indian girls are just as valued and beautiful as their lighter-skinned counterparts. 

The fact that the show portrays a South Indian family pleasantly surprised me––too often, Indian culture is viewed as a monolith rather than many cultures part of a greater whole, and South Indians culture is excluded from the screen.

Lest you think Never Have I Ever is all fan-service, I soon found that the show quickly sheds its cliched teen tropes in favor of more richer discussions about culture, grief, relationships, and adolescence. Devi’s complicated and ultimately loving relationship with her mother anchors the show, and Devi’s friends and classmates, at first two-dimensional and hackneyed, soon morph into complex characters in their own right.  

As an Indian American teen girl, I’ve been grasping at straws for representation my whole life. When I was a kid, I’d pretend Harry Potter was Indian, or that Katniss Everdeen had skin and hair like mine. I never really understood the power of genuine, respectful representation until I cried at the end of Never Have I Ever

Like Devi herself, Never Have I Ever is flawed–– several commentators have brought up some of the more problematic storylines. But maybe that’s okay. The issue with having little to no representation is that the few stories that do exist are expected to bear the weight of an entire community’s experience. This is a win for South Asian representation, but it’s also just one story. For South Asians to feel truly represented, Devi’s story should be just one of many. 

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