Unpacking South Asian American representation with Netflix's Never Have I Ever
Updated: Aug 17, 2023
The Netflix teen comedy series Never Have I Ever (NHIE) re-stirred the current debates surrounding South Asian American representation in popular culture since its release in April 2020. Written and directed by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, this series tells the story of Devi Vishwakumar and the challenges she faces as she starts her second year of high school: grieving her father’s recent death, recovering from psychosomatic paralysis, and climbing the deterministic high school social ladder. Each challenge covers themes of belonging, culture, sex, sexuality, romance, family, and friendship that many viewers say confront and detest traditional portrayals of South Asian Americans in media—particularly South Asian American women. This attention to diversity and representation is a lens many viewers bring to watching the show, of which the critique is varied: fans celebrate how the show defies submissive and apathetic stereotypes often given to South Asian women in television. Others praise the show for adding to the level of diversity in the teen rom-com genre—particularly Tamil representation and the inclusion of Tamil narratives. Its critics focus on the show's ableism, anti-dalit sentiment, and Islamophobia. This contrasting reception left me wondering, what is the role of representation in dismantling systems of racism and power, and would promoting representation in film and media bring us closer to addressing racism? If not, what is the goal of representation and how do we appraise it? FYI: I will not be providing a summary of NHIE’s components and would therefore recommend you check out some of the links listed above for an overview. You can still follow this article without watching the show!
To begin, it’s important to recognise the genre holding NHIE: teen rom-com. In the history of popular teen rom-coms, when has the focus been on the marginalised? Considering popular 90s rom-coms like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, the focus has always been on the rich and privileged. NHIE entails the same: the Vishwakumars are a privileged family. They have a beautiful home in California, Dr Vishwakumar works a well-paying job as a dermatologist, Devi’s cousin Kamala is a university student—they can even afford to make insensitive comments about indentured servitude. Furthermore, the Vishwakumars are a Hindu family. Not only does their wealth accentuate their power, their religious status also adds to this narrative of privilege. Wear Your Voice magazine articulates this aspect of their privilege well by highlighting how NHIE recognises stigma placed on the Muslim community, but goes no further. Instead, NIHE complacently adds to the stigma by portraying marriage to a Muslim person as inevitably misfortunate. Ultimately, NHIE is story born of privilege, just as many of the rom coms released before it. It just portrays these privileged narratives with a diverse cast. So how do we approach critiquing it, and why is it important? I’d argue that if we want to praise NHIE for representation, we can’t ignore the ways it hypocritically stigmatises other marginalised groups. However, this isn’t just a critique of lack of representation, to do so risks falling short in the same ways. Instead, we would have to take issue with the systems that create it—e.g. Racism.
Critiquing representation in a racist system means to recognise how this system creates and enforces stereotypes on people based on skin colour, how media associates these stereotypes with culture and ethnicity, and how these depictions create a dichotomy between “other” and “normal”. Consider Devi’s comments about Indian culture: her saree and attendance at Ganesh puja was nothing more than, in her loving words, “weird Indian things”. “Weird” implies that Devi has a definition of normal, and that these “Indian things” don’t fall under it. Furthermore, these “things'' that she refers to are cultural products reflective of cultures and countries beyond India, nor are they necessarily out of the ordinary in Indian contexts. Her internalized racist comments even run as far as criticising her cousin for having an Indian accent.
For Devi, it seems that white mainstream media dictates her definition of normal. As a privileged, cis, South Asian American woman myself, I’d like to read her comments as a portrayal of another privileged, cis, South Asian American high schooler grappling with how her environment makes her feel like an outsider. It’s almost as if her comments incite dramatic irony, leaving viewers hoping that her outlook will change—not necessarily to embrace herself or her culture as a climactic epiphany, but rather to recognise that she’s internalising racism and that her comments hurt people. However, I found that NHIE leaves Devi’s comments largely unaddressed. This normalises her behaviour, making it problematic. If NHIE better and more explicitly explored why these comments are wrong, then perhaps Devi’s comments would be less harmful (racist) and more contextualised (and would even make her redemption arc much stronger, but we might have to wait for season 2…).
Addressing racism via representation in film and television is tricky because it operates over numerous levels: first, in our personal lives and second, in the mechanics of arts production. For many, it’s easy to understand the former: representation on a personal level means we can see ourselves on screen either aesthetically, experientially, or both. When we problematise representation on this level, we are not only taking issue with gaps in what we see on screen versus what we experience, we’re also seeing how those gaps impact our lived experience. Stereotypes promoted by media such as the model minority myth and violence in the Black community are prime examples of this. On the other end, representation in arts production centres producers and curators of art because they make the decisions that shape stereotypes: writers, casting directors, project funders, and curators are gatekeepers to who and what gets represented, and how. They ultimately shape mainstream media, stereotypes, who and what is beautiful, and what sophisticated culture is. When we problematise representation in the mechanics of arts production, we take issue with the decision-making process that both creates mis- and lack of representation, and the absence of BIPOC narratives in the fruition of these decisions that leads to the personal level frustrations described above. Therefore these two traits that create what we see on screen and what we think about them, though distinguishable, are interconnected. This means that any remedy for mis- and lack of representation must happen both on screen and in the production team. This also means that by looking for more respectful, accurate, or even baseline reflection of non-white narratives, you would be engaged with advocating for racial equity reform in film and television production.
This begs the question: will strengthening representation in film and TV bring us closer to dismantling racism in film and television? I have found that the issue with representation is it’s painted to seem like a checkpoint on our way to a racism-free world. By assuming more representation will grant us a step forward, we may ignore the structures in place that sustain the oppression of other marginalised groups. An insightful article on the neoliberal nature of pursuing representation better explains this by showing how the pursuit of representation directs our (consumers’) eyes towards on-screen representation. Thus, the achievement of representation can disguise the implicit and explicit racism we each carry behind a “diverse” face. For example, NHIE does have a diverse cast and arguably more South Asian American representation than most mainstream titles claiming Asian American representation. However, NHIE is riddled with casteism and Islamophobia. To an unknowing audience, these racist moments could come off as seemingly less problematic because it comes from someone within “the culture” when in fact, these comments are directing racially driven stigma towards marginalised groups. These issues are pervasive in Asian American communities as well as non-Asian American communities, and often. Thus, the representation in NHIE doesn’t really address the system of racism that creates the need for it. It’s actually promoting it by packaging itself as diverse, and promoting the system by perpetuating multiple forms of oppression.
So how do we celebrate NHIE when its anti-caste sentiment, Islamophobia, and ableism gives us reason to look away, but its position as one of few mainstream pieces of TV that features three, stereotype-defying South Asian female leads draws us in? Considering the above, I’d say the best way forward is adopting anti-racist behaviours into your consumer habits. You could start by asking questions and opening conversations that shed light on what on- and off- screen representation means for shows such as NHIE and how structural racism is evidenced by dialogue, casting, or storytelling. For example, who was the casting director and at what lengths did they go to hire actors from the sub-continent to play individuals from the sub-continent? Is Devi’s tagline “weird Indian things” appropriate and what are its implications? You could also practice conscious consumerism and inform yourself about the production and history of the shows you’re interested in. Ultimately, I’d encourage us to ask for more than on-screen representation, ensure that we’re keeping producers accountable for their impact, and keenly observe politics in our daily lives—such as in teen rom coms. Though this may seem tedious and can be difficult to do, we vote with our dollar, our view count, and the platforms we give to media, why not make an informed decision—or at least try to?