Dear Asian Youth,
The girl living on the screen is supposed to live the same life as me. So why do I not recognize her story?
Netflix original “Never Have I Ever” unfolds the story of an Indian-American teenager in today’s world. A set of stairs as Asian-American on-screen representation climbs upward, “Never Have I Ever” misses a huge step. While the show garners much attention—in no disrespect to Mindy Khaling—it simply grazes the surface in both the Indian-American identity and development of characters.
Following the life of Devi Vishwakumar, 15-year-old Devi navigates her high school life with her overprotective mother, ‘perfect’ Indian cousin, and the loss of her father. All the while, she strives to find a boyfriend and get into the top colleges. In the show, there are many tokens of identity that resonate with me as an Indian-American. Traditions and celebrations like the Ganesh Puja, culturally related jokes, and struggles with the public display of culture in America are all examples of such. However, at the same time, it introduces problematic stereotypes detrimental to Indian-American appreciation. Similar to Indian representation in children shows like Baljeet in “Phineas and Ferb” and Ravi in “Jessie”, the nerdy image Indians hold is reinforced in “Never Have I Ever”. Although the intent of Devi’s nerdy image may have been an attempt to mimic the academic-focused push from immigrant Asian parents, this relationship could have remained intact without personifying Devi through unrealistically awkward interactions and only having academic interests.
The show also promotes negative thoughts that are not widely supported in Indian culture today, wrongly giving viewers the idea that this is still a part of our views. By having Devi’s cousin Kamala ultimately dump her boyfriend to follow through with an arranged marriage and uphold ‘classic’ Indian daughter duties, the show encourages the upholding of these old values over choice. To clarify, it is not arranged marriage that is an old detrimental Indian value, but rather the notion that arranged marriage is the only choice. If the purpose of this plotline was to emphasize that arranged marriage is an acceptable choice despite the criticism it faces, it could have been better explored through an arc involving the love between Devi’s parents Nalini and Mohan. Finally, Islamophobia is looped in after an Indian woman who married a Muslim and is shunned from society basically tells Kamala she regrets her decision of marrying him. There is much more that could have been done to give viewers a more accurate and deeper understanding of our identity.
Not only is the message of “Never Have I Ever” underdeveloped, but the characters and the relationships between them are too. There is a lack of needed chemistry between the friend group Devi, Fabiola, and Eleanor. The communication between the characters sounds scripted and the flow is unnatural. Devi and Paxton, her potential love interest, lack this same chemistry. Paxton is developed into a 3D character as we get a glimpse into his relationship with his sister Rebecca, who has down syndrome. How he acts when he is alone with Devi; however, does not mesh well with the same presented 3D character—it feels like he is two different people.
“Never Have I Ever” had the ability to properly educate viewers on Indian culture and bring more Asian-American on-screen representation. Through the surface-level glance into Indian-American identity and character development, and the further advancement stereotypes, it is clear that this show could have been better developed and executed. Instead, it became a baseline for descriptive representation rather than substantive representation. As one of the few Indian-American centered shows we get carried away with the title —the fact that it is one of the first to share many characteristics with our community—rather than focus on the actual minimal lasting effect it has on society. While the next seasons may bring changes for the better, the show has yet to prove itself. Hopefully one day Devi’s becomes a story that does not just live on the screen but also as an influential story in our minds.
- Stuti Gupta
The Netflix Original "Never Have I Ever" has so much potential to bring more Asian-American on-screen representation and educate viewers on the Indian-American identity. The first season, however, misses the mark. Underdeveloped in both identity and character development, the lack of focus given to the show results in a lesser lasting impact.
Biography: Stuti is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and currently an editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, www.tjTODAY.org. She is an avid writer and coder, and hopes to delve into the field of computational journalism. In her free time she loves to draw, dance, and binge watch a couple of her favorite shows :))