Imagine looking in a mirror, desperate to see your own reflection but instead seeing someone else every single time. That’s what growing up without representation in the media feels like. It can be brutal to the soul, crushing to your self-perception. That’s how I felt when I was younger, watching “Hannah Montana” on Disney Channel, binge-watching “Gilmore Girls” on ABC Family and the “Harry Potter” movies, eager to see myself in the characters. I saw personality similarities, but nothing beyond that.
That’s why when a show such as “Never Have I Ever” comes along, with a first-ever teenage South Asian protagonist, it’s even more special, making me wish the series had aired years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, “Never Have I Ever” follows Devi Vishwakumar, a Tamil girl from the San Fernando Valley, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Devi lives with her mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and her cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) as they grieve Devi’s father in the aftermath of his sudden heart attack eight months prior. The show is a light-hearted, coming-of-age comedy that grapples with serious issues in a delicate manner, while incorporating nuanced Indian cultural aspects. While seasons one and two follow the many struggles Devi encounters — such as a turbulent relationship with her headstrong mother, her quest to get a boyfriend, and her inability to cope with her grief — there is the underlying theme of her struggling with her identity as an Indian American girl in a predominantly white school. I remember watching seasons one and two in two days and talking to a non-South Asian friend about the show. She told me that the show was completely unrelatable to her, but that she loved it nonetheless. I realized that every show that I had previously watched that didn’t feature strong Asian leads, such as “Gossip Girl” and “Gilmore Girls,” were the same: completely unrelatable.
There will always be an inherent clash between the cultural hegemony and a minority population, causing any member of a minority culture to try and seek a home within the gray area. Devi exhibits this throughout the show, once exclaiming to her love interest Paxton, “Some old loser was telling me that I’m too Indian, and some other people think I’m not Indian enough!” There is something beautifully refreshing about seeing someone with a similar upbringing as mine on the big screen, someone who wears a half-sari and speaks English but also understands Tamil, recounting how difficult it is to find that gray area. The fight to figure out your identity is not an uncommon one, especially for many minorities.
When portrayed in American television, Indians have often fallen prey to an “othered” perspective, with stereotypical depictions as quiet, reserved, and socially awkward nerds. The most common examples are Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb” and the two twins from “Harry Potter” whose most notable line is “Hi Harry.” South Asians are almost never the main character of a major Hollywood movie or television show.
Devi, however, is the lead; she is outspoken, hotheaded at times, and unafraid to speak her mind. When her cousin Kamala’s name is left off a research paper in her Ph.D. laboratory, after spending nights working on the project, Devi tells her, “Everyone thinks Asian women will take all kinds of crap, like bow or hand them a cup of tea or some shit. You can’t let them.” Inspired by Devi’s words, Kamala puts her name on the paper and stands up for herself. Asian women in general are often stereotyped as being submissive and ready to take anything thrown at them.
Nevertheless, Devi, Kamala, and Nalini are all headstrong and unafraid of standing up for themselves. We get to see Nalini’s own storyline, as she grieves her husband and struggles to manage Devi, who feels confined under Nalini’s strict parenting. Nalini is not the stereotypical “quiet, Indian mother” but is a strong woman who tries to hold her family together, after suffering a devastating loss in a country oceans away from her home.
Additionally, Devi’s confidence shines brightly throughout the series, despite facing multiple microaggressions in her school environment. There are constant references to her being considered undesirable and unattractive, and not fitting conventional Eurocentric beauty standards, and when she isn’t being belittled, she’s ignored and deemed invisible in her school. Oftentimes, white students exclude minorities from friend groups, leaving them isolated and alone. However, Devi finds solidarity in her two best friends, Fabiola, an Afro Latina, and Eleanor, a Chinese American. While their friendship is far from flawless, they have each other’s backs and guide each other through relationships and family drama.
The lack of her father’s presence and attention from her peers, is probably what drives Devi to actively pursue this attention from Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the most attractive and popular guy at her school. Devi at times is incredibly unlikeable in this pursuit yet completely relatable. She’s the type of person that will do everything wrong, alienating her friends, dating two boys at the same time, spreading incredibly offensive rumors, and ending her cycle of wrongdoing with apologies.
Nevertheless, as a viewer, you’ll still sympathize with her.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why. Why did I root for a girl who kept making every wrong decision? But that’s when I realized I saw part of myself in her, the part that gets hurt by the world, sometimes makes the wrong decision, and must later apologize for those actions. Protagonists aren’t supposed to be perfect people and Devi is no exception. She is flawed, real, and all the more human.
Why is this minority perspective so essential? Every individual struggles with not belonging, and feeling misunderstood or judged. However, minorities face a magnified version of this, not feeling included on the basis of our physical appearance and culture. When young girls grow up watching all-white casts and reading magazines with Disney Channel stars who are almost exclusively white, we are subliminally taught two facts: that beauty is exclusive to whiteness and that our stories are not worth being told. Being reduced to a stereotype tells most South Asians that we are nothing more than a silent, awkward side character, never to grace the main screen with witty dialogue, love interests, or dreams and ambitions. However, for the first time, a South Asian lead has been given center stage, changing the narrative that had been in place for so long. It’s simple enough that every person and every culture deserves a voice in the media.
Representation is so important for self-esteem and self-image during child development, ensuring that young individuals feel worthy of a voice in the world. This country is filled with diverse perspectives with thousands of cultures that are not given a platform to be shared, their voices silenced for more mainstream ones. But what could happen if each voice was represented? Perhaps there’d be more cultural appreciation among majority and minority cultures. Perhaps it would encourage people to step into another’s shoes, to learn what it’s like to live that life of someone different from them, whether it be a South Asian girl in the San Fernando Valley, or an African American person impacted by systemic racism, or a struggling LGBTQ+ youth in a conservative town. With greater representation comes a fundamental understanding that perspectives that have been silenced for so long, deserve to be heard.
“Never Have I Ever” has opened the door for more South Asian stories and hopefully for more representation in the Asian community. It has paved the way for more perspectives to be shared with the world and for producers and directors to realize that diversity in casting is crucial and should be made a priority. While Devi’s perspective does not represent every South Asian experience growing up, it shares a part of that life with the world.
Photo credits: Netflix