I watched the trailer for Mindy Kaling’s Netflix original Never Have I Ever with trepidation. I have a love-hate relationship with high school dramas. When they’re done well, I adore them; when they aren’t, I’m forced to relive the misery of high school while gaining nothing in return. Now, here was this genre with… a South Asian protagonist. I would either cherish or loathe Never Have I Ever. Given how close this show was going to hit home, there really was no room for anything in the middle.
Never Have I Ever tells the story of fifteen-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). In the previous year, Devi’s father suddenly died from a heart attack. Her mother, Nalini, is now raising Devi as a single parent. Living with them is Kamala, Devi’s cousin from India, who is completing her PhD at CalTech. The family is clearly well-to-do, and their community betrays all the markings of the wealthy: house parties at mansions, sixteen-year-olds driving expensive cars and parents hiring private counselors to get their kids into Ivy League colleges.
So… South Asian teen living in a well-off, college-obsessed suburban community. This show was tapping into more than a few aspects of my own high school experience.
As I progressed through the episodes, I found myself growing increasingly agitated. Kaling has a clear skill in creating a world I easily identified with, without hiding any of its shortcomings. But, she has no interest in examining those shortcomings for what they are. Instead, Never Have I Ever falls back on easy storylines that erase the painful realities of so many communities — including the one the series showcases.
Many critics found Never Have I Ever’s high school setting relatable, but Kaling’s depictions traffic far too heavily in damaging stereotypes for my taste. It seems like every character other than Devi and her two love interests are flat caricatures. What’s more, I can’t believe that in 2020 we’re still making fatphobic and ableist mobility jokes on TV, like the ones told about Devi’s classmate Eric and her entire backstory of being temporarily paralyzed.
I found the show’s queer representation to be full of problems. One of Devi’s best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), comes out during the season. Fabiola’s growing awareness of her sexuality is handled thoughtfully enough, but her character is largely sidelined. In episode one, Devi picks out boyfriends for herself, Fabiola and their other best friend Eleanor as part of her quest to improve their social standing. As Fabiola goes through the motions of dating this boy she’s clearly not interested in, another classmate, Eve, catches her attention. In the first three episodes, Rodriguez masterfully shows Fabiola realizing the disconnect between her actions and her feelings, but these moments are eclipsed by Devi and her story.
Fabiola’s coming out to her friends and family in the next several episodes continues to be overshadowed, this time by the storyline with Eleanor’s mother and Devi’s abandoning her friends in pursuit of boys. While it’s refreshing that Fabiola’s central story isn’t about being rejected by her family for being queer, it’s hard not to feel like Fabiola is short changed. Fabiola and Eve eventually start dating, but NHIE does no work to develop their relationship, instead taking it as a foregone conclusion for the only two queer girl characters.
The irony of Never Have I Ever breaking ground with its South Asian representation is that Kaling takes a largely colorblind approach to every other racial identity, and this, too, bogs down Fabiola. Even though Fabiola is Afro-Latina that aspect of her identity is never broached, even in passing.
With this omission, the show’s presentation of queer culture is incredibly white washed. The only other queer characters are Eve and Jonah (who Fabiola and Eleanor befriend after Fabiola comes out). Eleanor aptly describes Eve as “Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels.” (The other option Eleanor gives Fabiola when she asks “her type” is “Kristen Stewart in Twilight” — as if the very white Kristen Stewart solely embodies the multitudes of queer women worldwide.) Jonah is your standard straight-person caricature of a cis white gay man — I’m not even sure in what universe Jonah’s character passes as a teen.
Even worse, by tokenizing Fabiola, NHIE perpetuates anti-black racism. From the first episode, we’re thrust into a years-long rivalry between Devi and her classmate Ben that is entirely predicated on the zero-sum game of college admissions. Fabiola is clearly a genius – she’s built an interactive robot and is studying Latin and French at the AP level as a sophomore (whether she speaks Spanish never comes up). Why, then, does Fabiola not factor into Devi and Ben’s competition? Like far too many black women, Fabiola’s brilliance goes unseen by her white and Asian peers.
In her real life, Kaling has a problematic close proximity to this relentless pursuit of elite post-secondary degrees that has led too many Asians to pursue the anti-black racist claim that race-conscious admissions causes colleges to discriminate against them. Overwhelming data points to the contrary, but the claims persist. (Swathes of underqualified white students are accepted as legacies, at the expense of highly qualified Black and Latinx students.) In fact, NHIE delves right into this mess when a college counselor tells Devi that “schools don’t want another Indian try-hard.” The show cleans it up by having the counselor deflect to “colleges want kids with unusual stories.” Kaling may not repeat the racist lie verbatim, but she certainly skirts it.
Kaling’s depiction of Indian community isn’t as superficial as her other representations, but it’s equally thoughtless.
Never Have I Ever portrayed a Hindu-Indian community I immediately recognized. It’s most apparent in episode four when Devi’s family attends Ganesh puja, which is part religious observance, part social gathering. Nalini is expecting pity from the other women because she is now a widow; her expectations are met in encounter after encounter. I found the community dynamics incredibly familiar: the back-handed compliments, the veiled braggadocio, the endless one-upping. But Kaling doesn’t stop there. She doesn’t shy away from laying bare the Islamophobic underbelly of Hindu-Indian community.
At the puja, the family runs into a woman who was ostracized for marrying a Muslim. Nalini’s disdain for Muslims and Kamala’s shock at that particular detail are clearly evident. Yet, the show moves forward without skipping a beat. Meanwhile, while NHIE was in production, India stripped the only Muslim-majority state of its constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy and implemented a communications blackout that’s lasted ten months and counting, started building Muslim detention camps and passed a citizenship act that could lead to the deportation of Indian Muslims.
That now-divorced woman’s assessment of her situation? “I wish I had just listened to my family and married the guy that they chose.” This is more than a missed opportunity. By showing a Hindu-Indian community engaging in casual Islamophobia while simultaneously erasing Muslim-Indian communities, Kaling is normalizing the bigotry that has led to increasing degrees of systemic violence over the past several decades in India.
Never Have I Ever similarly tramples through the minefield of arranged marriage. Arranged marriage is actively practiced by South Asians across socioeconomic classes. In an effort to sanitize the practice for a globalized world, many middle class South Asians point to matrimonial websites and the (relative) agency they provide. To me, this emphasis on “semi-arranged” marriages glosses over persistent and gendered problems that also transcend class.
One of my cousins had an arranged marriage that was a “good match” (both families are incredibly wealthy), and the couple had some liberty (they went on a handful of supervised “dates”). It’s become increasingly clear, though, that my cousin has had to completely curb her playful enthusiasm to match her husband’s quiet reserve. It’s difficult to see her so changed; as my sister put it, “A part of her soul has to have died, right?”
In NHIE, Nalini is pushing Kamala into an arranged marriage on behalf of Kamala’s parents in India. In episode two, Nalini preps Kamala for an upcoming conversation with her potential in-laws by forcing her to present more traditionally feminine and emphasize her skills as a homemaker, rather than talking about her research. The show wants us to believe this is just temporary to reel in the catch. But I can’t help but think of my cousin: Will her act ever be up?
Later, in episode nine, Kamala dumps her East Asian boyfriend because the stranger her parents chose turns out to be hot. With Kamala’s story and the story of the woman who had married and divorced a Muslim man, the show reinforces the morals around marriage most of us are raised with: family knows best. Which really means: when children, especially women, exhibit independence and true agency in their relationships, they are setting themselves up for a lifetime of shame and misery.
Perhaps most upsetting, Kaling exposes the abuse that goes unquestioned in too many South Asian families but refuses to question it. In episode two, Nalini threatens to smack Devi for calling her a “bitch.” She immediately defends herself to her white neighbor, saying stridently, “Smacking is still an acceptable punishment in many minority cultures,” and the show moves on. While Nalini’s statement might be true, that doesn’t make it ok. This is an issue that divides the community, and Kaling clearly doesn’t want to take a stance. But not taking a stance is taking a stance when you only show one perspective.
Nalini’s emotional abuse gets passed off as an aspect of her personality, her exacting Indian standards and her coping mechanism for grief. The show makes clear that her behavior predates her husband Mohan’s death through a flashback of Nalini berating Devi. At one point, Devi overhears a particularly painful exchange between her parents:
Nalini: You are too easy on her.
Mohan: No, I’m not. I just have a different approach.
Nalini: Okay, great. Then why don’t you raise her? Because I give up. I am done. She’s too headstrong and doesn’t listen. Whoever this child is I am through with her!
Nalini: No, no, no. That’s your child. She’s no daughter of mine.
First, I’m tired of watching the limited representation of South Asian families perpetuate the lie that South Asian fathers are kind and understanding while South Asian mothers are – in the words of Devi – “a bitch.” We see this play out in Bend It Like Beckham, I Can’t Think Straight, Ackley Bridge and Four More Shots Please. This dynamic isn’t as prevalent as Western media makes it seem, and it’s time for more narratives that show the reality of the patriarchy so many of us grow up with.
Second, Nalini never acknowledges how she’s hurt her daughter and, worse, rationalizes her toxic behavior. Nalini visits Devi’s therapist who asks Nalini why she thinks Devi doesn’t like her. Nalini replies, “Because I’m tough on her” rather than admitting those painful words Devi overheard. She then justifies her harshness as stemming from being “scared all the time [for Devi].” The show engages in the gaslighting that is characteristic of too many Asian families: I don’t have to show you that I love you. You should just believe that my yelling and being hard on you means I care.
The closest we get is at the very end when Devi and Nalini make up. Even then, Nalini fails to take responsibility for Devi’s pain, saying instead, “I know you think it was your father who was the only one who cared about you, but that’s not true. I love you. You’re my whole family.”
What do those words even mean after everything that’s happened between them that they still haven’t actually talked about?
In an interview with the New York Times, Kaling acknowledged that, with such limited media representation, her show would be expected to represent everyone in the South Asian community and that would, inevitably, lead to disappointment. But the reason I didn’t like Never Have I Ever wasn’t because I didn’t feel seen. It’s because Kaling and I are clearly looking at the same world, but Kaling is expecting me to overlook all of its pain.
I’ve read this article no less than 3x and every time I am blown away. It’s so smart and thorough and carefully considered. Without losing any of the craft that comes with good, damn sharp writing. What a feat!
Thank you, Carmen – you are too kind!
Thank you so much for your perspective. I watched and enjoyed this and felt discomfort at some of the things you mentioned, but having them contextualised in this way (I’m white and from the UK), and so eloquently, was eye opening.
Thanks for reading! I’m glad you appreciated my perspective.
Himani! This piece is brilliant, thank you for bringing to light all of the toxic familiar dynamics that the show does gloss over and paints as okay, as well as the anti-Blackness that really seem as unconsciously hardwired into the setting as into the story itself.
One thing I enjoyed, racially, even if it was not particularly nuanced, was the ubiquity of multi-ethnic characters. You mentioned Fabiola’s family, and my parents and I liked that Kamala and Steve were sort of like an inverse of my parents (though so incredibly different), and having gone to high school with several Paxton Hall-Yoshidas, appreciated that touch too!
That’s a great point about multi-ethnic characters. I might also consider the unnamed Hindu-Indian woman who had married a Muslim-Indian as also having been in a multi-ethnic relationship. And so with that storyline plus the one with Kamala and Steve in particular, it largely felt like the message was “if you’re a good Hindu-Indian then you don’t marry outside of race and religion.” Which is curious given Devi’s romantic interests but Devi “isn’t supposed” to have them, right?
I appreciated that in one of the early episodes you hear Paxton talking to his father in Japanese. I wish they had had more gestures like that so that we didn’t lose the richness of the different characters’ identities.
this is sooooooo good!!!!!!
I really appreciate you adding some context to the storylines, Himani. There was so much that I didn’t recognize but when Nalini joked with the pandit, “What’s next, Prime Minister Modi on Postmates?,” I knew this shows politics were not for me.
I will say, though, that if I had a therapist that looked like Niecy Nash, I’d go everyday and twice on Sundays.
The line about Modi was the one that a few people I know found jarring and made really clear that something was up. But what made that line actually fit seamlessly into the show was the fact that, as Kamala said about anti-blackness in an earlier comment, the Hindutva that Modi embodies is “hardwired into the setting and the story”
Niecy Nash was really this show’s only saving grace for me.
Thank you so much for this perspective and review! I was also deeply frustrated with the flattening and stereotypical (frankly, anti-semetic) tropes used to portray the Jewish character(Devi’s nemesis/love interest) and his family.
Also then Eve says she’s Jewish and that’s all we get out of that???
Also then Eve says she’s Jewish and that’s it??
yeah I felt that way about Ben as well – it’s like this weird disconnect where on the one hand she’s tapping into these problematic stereotypes about Jewish people and on the other Jewish culture is completely missing from the show. Also, I completely forgot Eve mentioned being Jewish so yea… to your point exactly..
I couldn’t make it past the first couple of episodes. It was similar to the final seasons of The Mindy Project in that it brought up real problems (like emotional abuse, sexism, and racism), but then brushed over them with a joke that minimized the situation or celebrated the problematic person or concept. It’s refreshing to see someone with a similar take after seeing so many glowing reviews. It seems like Mindy has taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach to life, which is dangerous in our anti-Black (and queer and immigrant) society.
I never watched the Mindy Project, but I’ve heard similar things about it. What you said about Mindy feels so spot on.
Thank you for writing this analysis. It is really damning, especially as you can speak from the /very/ specific social context (i.e. not just both being Desi) that Kaling writes about and from.
Thanks for reading – I’m glad you appreciated it.
Thank you for that review. I found the show problematic for many reasons and you listed a few of them. I was most botheres by the flat and stereotypical characters – Devi‘s only trait for instance seems to be that she wants a boyfriend which I found incredibly annoying. This show wouldn‘t even pass the Bechdel Test and that test is trash.
Thanks for reading! It struck me as I was reading other reviews how many people talked about the show’s presentation of grief. I have had great fortune in my life in that the kind of loss and grief this show is premised on isn’t something I have had to experience and so I’ve wondered like what am I missing about those reviews? Is it really that Devi’s focus to exclusion on getting a boyfriend is her coping mechanism for grief because that is how this kind of grief can manifest? And yet, at the very end of the season, it seems like the show undercuts that, as well.
I appreciate your article and agree with a lot of it. I like that you point out that Fabiola\’s Afro-Latina identity isn\’t talked about and also that her queerness is whitewashed.
However, I don\’t understand how Fabiola not taking part in Devi and Ben\’s academic competitivness perpetuates anti-black racism. Fabiola is one of Devi\’s close friends, so it wouldn\’t have made sense for her to compete with Devi in the same toxic way that Devi competes with Ben. Nor would it have made sense for her to factor into their unhealthy academic interactions (which, if anything, felt personal.. after all, they\’ve been competing academically for years).
I hear you that Devi and Fabiola are friends so it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for Devi to compete with her, but Devi never once even mentions or acknowledges how smart Fabiola is. (On the other hand, Eleanor’s acting is pretty clearly showcased and acknowledged by her friends and teachers.) Given that Ben and Fabiola don’t have a history, it would’ve made sense for him to feel threatened by Fabiola academically but he doesn’t and, in fact, the opposite – in the episode where they’re working on the group app he basically tells her and the rest of the group that they aren’t smart so he’ll just do the whole thing. Which, yes, he says that to Eleanor, Fabiola, and Eve equally, but the thing is, the show pretty clearly establishes that Fabiola, Eleanor, and Eve aren’t equal academically.
The way I think about this is in terms of the larger context the show is operating in. When I was in high school and college and throughout my professional career, it’s consistently been the case that black people generally and, to an even greater degree, black women are under-recognized and under-valued, specifically when it comes to academics or things that are considered intellectual. I can’t separate the decisions the show makes about showing Fabiola’s brilliance but never having it be acknowledged by her peers and teachers from what I have seen happen again and again in educational and professional settings more broadly. Because the thing is these things are inseparable – part of the reason why these stereotypes persist is because we keep perpetuating narratives that reinforce them in our media.
There are so many opportunities to do things differently. For instance, Ben could’ve said to Eve and Eleanor that he didn’t trust their abilities on the project but wanted to collaborate with Fabiola. You could imagine a scene or a minor storyline where Devi is getting help from Fabiola in math or science so she can get a better grade than Ben. Even something as little as when they talk about the clubs that Ben and Devi divide between themselves to avoid competition they could’ve thrown in a quick couple of lines about how neither of them could ever compete on the STEM clubs because Fabiola had them locked down. Something. Anything. I’m not saying that this would’ve fit with the show, but I guess my point is that Mindy Kaling made a pretty clear decision by not including any of this in the show and instead reinforcing what happens too often in the both mainstream media and the real world.
Himani, this is incredible. Thank you for dissecting this show in such a thoughtful and smart way.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for writing this. I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me about this show and you articulated it.
Thanks for reading! I’m glad my perspective resonated with you!
This is so so important. Thank you for putting my uneasiness into words like I never could have!
Thanks for reading! I’m glad you appreciated it!
Thank you so much for your perspective, it was really helpful for fully contextualizing the show.
I think I got very drawn in to the grief side of the show (I’m a therapist and we so rarely see a fully realized arc of grief, especially of a younger person) and I obviously let that blind me to… everything else going on. I really appreciate how thoroughly and thoughtfully you wrote this!
Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective, @andrea_t. A few reviews I read talked about the presentation of grief, as well. I guess what isn’t clear to me about that (and I would love to get your thoughts on this if you’re open to sharing) is if the show actually showed grief all the way through? I say this thinking particularly about the ending where it felt like the moment it had been building up to was very quickly undercut by a return to the pursuit of boys/love interest story.
There were various moments throughout the show where we see Devi reacting to something else that’s going on but it’s clear that the place she’s coming from is her unprocessed grief. But, particularly in the later episodes, it felt like she was getting a pass for acting pretty selfish and inconsiderate because of her grief. Like, it can be true that she’s going through something incredibly difficult but it’s also true that she’s really hurt people along the way and yet it felt like she never had to actually take responsibility for that. (Much like Nalini, for a matter of fact.) I’m curious if you or others agree with that perspective or if that feels like an unfair assessment of Devi’s situation.
Hi Himani, absolutely, I’d love to talk about the grief side! What I really appreciated about the show’s perspective of grief is showing the inconsistent feelings one often has during the period of time after acute crisis grief has passed. (While the show handled the psychosomatic symptom of not being able to use her legs in a very yikes way, having physical symptoms is very real.)
When I think about grief I think about a lot of things: that it can show up in seemingly ridiculous ways (like hyperfixating on a romantic connection as a numbing tactic to avoid the grief), that it can show up in other emotions like irritation or fear/sadness about things unrelated to the loss, and especially in adolescence I’ve worked with there is often a strong avoidance or focus on “I should be fine” which we saw in Devi. Something I thought the show did regarding grief was demonstrate how people do often act out in their secure attachment relationships (like her best friends or her therapist) because they want to test the bonds and see if they will be left again. Often this testing results in escalations such as we saw with Devi and her friends, and with her therapist. Devi lost the most secure attachment figure of her life, so I saw the season as kind of showing her unwind without that foundational feeling of worthiness. I saw the ending not as “grief over” but rather the progress of her finally taking a moment to sit with it in a way we hadn’t seen her do at all the entire season.
Accountability in relationships during a period of grief is something I talk about a LOT. When she is testing those attachments, she is mistreating her supports. The fact that it showed them leaving her for a time and telling her she was mistreating them is honestly decent representation of that as far as grief in media goes. Not perfect, but also not terribly unrealistic as far as friendships in 15 year olds go.
Not sure if any of that was helpful, I just work with a lot of folks who feel shame around “still grieving” or how their grief is impacting them (such as mistreating folks in their life), so I was glad that was present. Though, this clearly does not take away from all of the very harmful things the show does.
Thank you so so much for sharing all this and connecting the dots for me. I had picked up little pieces of here and there but hadn’t been able to pull together, so I really appreciate you explaining this in such a clear and thoughtful way. It’s a shame that some of the other aspects of the show were so frustrating to me because, for me, those overshadowed so much of what you’re talking about. But, this makes me want to revisit a British show I love, Ackley Bridge where the main character experiences a pretty substantial loss in the third season to see the ways in which it does (or doesn’t) address the things you describe above. Thank you again!
I’ll admit I pretty much binged this show and thought that a lot of it was well written – esp, as Andrea said, the grief storyline. Fabiola’s struggle with her Queer identity resonated with me as well – that nail salon scene really hit home.
But yes, there were so many gaping holes. The whole arranged marriage discussion just felt INCREDIBLY disingenuous. (1) the one woman who got into a relationship with a Muslim man being made made to regret it made me roll my eyes. (2) The stereotypes that Nalini was bandying about re: what families want in an arranged marriage felt very 1980 to both me and my mum.
Arranged marriages are still classist and casteist – and I think the fact that caste and class weren’t even acknowledged / discussed, and glossed over in favor of OH HOT GUY really reminded me that this show is written by Mindy Kaling.
Also, my pet peeve the entire show was Kamala. What is that accent? Why is she acting like the stereotype that Indian-Americans have about “fobs”?
Re: the “strict” mom and “caring” dad, I actually think that that itself is a product of patriarchy. My father is the sweetest man, but I recognize that he got to be that because my mom was doing most of the child-rearing, while he got to be the “fun” parent. I think this trope carries across ethnicity, too.
Some things that I did appreciate were Devi complaining she would have to “give up meat” or something if she moved to India, and Ben saying over half the country eats meat – really helping to dismantle that idea of pure-veg India that Hindutva folk have been trying to popularize for decades. I also liked that for once we have an Indian character who is not speaking Hindi, and actually has a name that reflects it (unlike a certain “Dev Shah”, where even his religion & language are so at odds with his name).
Also I think it’s hilarious that so many (non-SA) people now open conversations with me with a “Have you watched Never Have I Ever”. I’m glad the show was made and got popular, and I’m glad that there’s robust criticism of it which will hopefully open the floodgates to better PoC characters and representation that aren’t white-washed.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, @surprisingatiger! I think one thing that gets lost because there is SO LITTLE South Asian representation that goes beyond having some random token brown character who isn’t at all developed is that there’s actually pretty substantial diversity in how South Asians think about a lot of issues that in the Western mainstream are treated as the hallmarks of South Asian culture, and that there is some SUBSTANTIAL regional variation. (Ex/My family never celebrated Ganesh Puja.) So on arranged marriage, for instance, what NHIE showed felt very true-to-life in what I have seen play out again and again and again and again in my family. But I also know – my family is very particularly conservative so they really buy into the whole women are docile home makers, don’t eat meat (although that one’s slightly more complicated because it’s about region, religious practice, politics but also class), etc. And so similarly with the parental representation; you bring up a good point about how patriarchy itself informs who gets to be the “fun” parent but that’s not the only way patriarchy manifests in family dynamics — I guess what I’m really saying is, I want to see family dynamics that are closer to my own experience, at least once in Western media (Plenty of Bollywood covers what I’m looking for, which I think is also an interesting disconnect between how things are portrayed in Bollywood vs how things are portrayed for South Asians in Western media.)
And you’re right there is a whole element of class/caste that the show COMPLETELY ignores. I read an interesting review by a woman who grew up in and/or still lived in India where she echoed everything you said about Kamala, and she also made a passing reference to the fact that the Tamil family representation is really showing a Brahmin Tamil family without even addressing that.
Also lol re Dev Shah. I was floored when at some point it’s revealed that he’s Muslim. It’s like Aziz Ansari gave his main character a Hindu name to reel in the Islamaphobic South Asian community that wasn’t going to watch a show with a Muslim protagonist and then he decided that he wanted to tell his own story after all but it was too late to change the character’s name. Although, there is this really fascinating history in older Bollywood (I think a little less so now, although I don’t keep up with it much so I don’t know) of Muslim actors changing their names to Hindu names to improve their appeal, so Ansari could’ve opted for that story as well but chose not to. As with everything you point out, there is just so much nuance there that gets completely ignored in most Western South Asian stories and NHIE handled some of those things well and some not.
Amen, I grew up in India as well, and can tell you that all of my friends who grew up in India despised Kamala!
I do think it would be interesting to see how caste could have been handled well in the show instead of being something so present but unquestioned (which, to be fair, is definitely just about as self-aware as upper caste Indian upbringing is in the first place). It’s also interesting that Mindy chose to represent a Tamil Brahmin family in the show in the first place since she herself is Bengali and non-brahmin Indian-Tamil afaik.
Religion obfuscation name changes don’t happen in Bollywood now, but name numerology vowel dropping is p common haha.
“I want to see family dynamics that are closer to my own experience, at least once in Western media” – I completely understand this! And there just isn’t enough representation. I want there to be more stories of accepting, loving, Asian, South Asian and Black parents, and of strict, conservative, alientaing parents. I want us to be able to dismantle this model minority, socially conservative, grateful-to-our-colonizer myth and see actual diverse representation that doesn’t need to hinge on a trope to tell an honest story.
omg I had no idea about this name numerology thing and my mind is just blown right now… like I know some people (like my mother…) are big in the astrology but the fact that they use the English alphabet and Western calendar….. this is like a whole other level, thank you for introducing me to it haha
also everything you said in your last paragraph – like literally all of it!
This is such an fascinating dissection of the show!
I watched the first five episodes (I’ll give almost any show about people with immigrant parents a try) and had mixed thoughts about it, but maybe for reasons that are external to the show itself? I appreciated how many cross-ethnic relationships there were in the background though, because I feel like there’s still too little of that in the media. And I was surprised by how much the death of a parent element resonated with me. My father died when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tv series successfully portray the weird way that impacts you as a teenager.
I stopped watching because it just reminded me too much of The Mindy Project, which I always loathed but have seen most of because my ex loved it (and Mindy Kaling’s memoirs, which I also ended up listening to on roadtrips). So that’s actually just my personal baggage and not a judgement on the show itself at all.
It’s funny reading your class commentary, because one of the things my ex enjoys about US stereotypes of South Asians is the educated/upper middle class element. She’s South Asian, but third generation British from a working class Goan family, and is mostly delighted by the US stereotype of educated & wealthy even if it’s tied to south Indians, since it’s such a contrast to the stereotypes she grew up with in the UK. That seems problematic to me, but I don’t have a neutral relationship with my heritage either so I can’t judge. In any case, I appreciated hearing a different kind of reaction to the trope.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing, @jlnl! I don’t think that having a previous disliking of Mindy Kaling’s work is personal baggage to bring to a show by Mindy Kaling. She’s built a reputation for herself with the kinds of stories that she tells and given that she appears to have reinforced it with NHIE, I think it’s completely reasonable to decide you didn’t want to continue watching the show because it was similar to her previous show, which you didn’t like. I know at least a couple of people who have said something similar.
And yeah, it’s interesting to think about how class and race interact for South Asians, particularly depending on which country you’re in. I hadn’t realized until fairly recently, for instance, the stereotypes in the UK that you’re ex experienced. But there are very real ways in which the class/caste/religious distinctions that exist in South Asia recreate themselves in the US. And when you add the layer of people whose families are from the South Asian diaspora that are now in the US as well, that adds yet another layer. One of the thing that’s frustrating is that the community Kaling is idolizing in NHIE can be so tribal about who it includes because it wants to reinforce those structures. For ex/ my Guyanese Indian friend has told me how subcontinent Indians will ask her where she’s from (with the presumption she’ll respond with one of the Indian states) and when she says “Guyana” they’re like “oh so you’re not Indian.” But, operating in non-South Asian spaces, she also recognizes how she benefits from the model minority myth even as it actively erases her own lived experience. So I’m in agreement with you that I think your ex’s attitude to stereotypes about South Asians and class in the US is a little problematic.
This was an excellent dissection. So many uncomfortable parts and you hit the nail on the head describing them.
Thanks so much for reading!
Even without watching the show, I loved reading this and all the thoughtful comments and replies ~ thank you Himani!
Thanks so much for reading!
This is so interesting to read and think about, I’m so glad to have read this and understand aspects of the show I hadn’t fully interrogated.
I think for me what i a was drawn to is that my experience with death was so similar to Devi’s. Like… I was 14 when my Dad died. We were really close and my relationship with my Mom was often kinda strained. He had a motorcycle. He died suddenly, without warning. I went back to school and everybody knew me as the girl with the dead Dad, and I threw myself into thinking if I could just get a boyfriend or be popular or at least make out with a boy, everything would be okay and I’d be cool and normal. I had two very close friends who stuck by me through every mood swing.
So watching this was … eerie. I’d never seen something so close to my own experience onscreen before?? And also I had no idea that’s what the show was about going into it and I was like…… what…… is…… happening…….
Ah yea I can see how watching this show with such a similar experience to Devi’s and not knowing what you’re getting into could be… a lot. As another commenter mentioned above, the show delves into grief in a meaningful way that I hadn’t been able to connect the dots on until it was explained to me upthread.
There are some cultural things I’m not fully convinced of still with regards to Devi’s grief being channeled into chasing after boys – I had a friend in HS who was in a very similar situation as Devi and her grief decidedly did not manifest as chasing after boys because her family was as conservative as mine was in that regard. But, I realize that there are multitudes of South Asian family dynamics so that wouldn’t be fair to completely ding the show for that. I’m curious how they’re going to reconcile some of this in future seasons though.
Wow! I don’t agree with a lot of this review. The first season had 10 episodes to develop characters and plot and it revolves around the life of Devi, and is narrated from her point of view but shows you glimpses into each of the major character’s lives. I think that was ultimately the goal of a first season. The entire time I watched, I was blown away by the incredible amount of diversity on the screen…everyone from Rebecca to Fabiola to Nalini was given time to shine, and I loved that. Yes there were some jokes about Eric that weren’t tasteful and reminded me of something from an 80s teen movie, but I disagree with your issue with Devi’s paralysis being problematic as that is a response to trauma. I think in Season one every character is on their own very relevant path to learning about the next version of themselves… for Fabiola, it’s her feeling confident to share her sexual identity, for Devi, it’s coping with the loss of her father and feeling hurt by her mother, for Nalini it’s navigating motherhood alone without supports. Nalini’s reactions to Devi can’t be expected to be perfect. What I loved was how real they were. Um, her gaslighting was an appropriate response in my opinion because that’s where Nalini is in terms of her grief and likely her “go to” in times of stress based on her own experiences of being raised. It was frustrating to watch but that was the point. She’s got baggage too. She’s human. Most of us have done the exact same thing, hurting someone and then finding excuses and ways to justify our actions. I loved watching the dynamic between Devi and her mother and can’t wait to see where it goes in future. As for Kamala, I didn’t see her choosing the guy she was supposed to be matched with because he was hot but rather because there was in fact a connection both intellectually and physically. Kamala represents someone who is stuck between the old and the new and again trying to navigate who she is in terms of her values.
I guess the only thing I do agree with in your review is the view you had of the woman at puja who has a conversation with Kamala and says she wishes she had listened to her family. That was a bit unexpected and felt like 10 steps in the wrong direction.
Mean spirited nit picking review. Never have I ever is perhaps the BEST show I have seen spotlighting people of color and gays in San Fernando Valley Southern California – where I grew up. I wish I had a show like this to watch when I was younger. South Indians, other people of color and gays are in the main roles. They are funny and most important they are not reduced to being the stereo-typical butt of Jokes by the dominant White majority. NEVER HAVE I EVER is precious, funny and great. The criticism is nit picky and harsh. Furthermore the criticism doesn’t compare this show to the majority of television shows in which gays and people of color are unseen or used as jokes.
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