Never Have I Ever’s Queer South Asian Representation Is a Cop Out

This review has spoilers for Never Have I Ever Season Three.


Never Have I Ever returns in season three with even more relationship drama for the Sherman Oaks High School teens. Devi finds herself with no less than three love interests: her nerdy frenemy Ben, the hot jock of her dreams Paxton and a new paramour aptly described as the combination of Ben and Paxton if they were also Indian. Her best friend Eleanor weighs dating Paxton’s stoner friend Trent, a convenient pairing introduced at the end of season two. Best of all, though, their mutual friend Fabiola gets to explore the breadth of her own romantic interests for the first time in the series.

Fabiola’s story opens with an abrupt announcement from her girlfriend Eve: her family is moving to Korea. Granted, the specifics of how this was handled feels more than a little racist in the same way a lot of season one’s attempts at humor badly missed the mark. But this is a very welcome change for Fabiola as a character. This pairing has never really made sense from the beginning of the series, beyond the simplistic logic of “obviously the two lesbians have to be into each other.”

Across the first two seasons, NHIE failed to convince me why Fabiola and Eve were together. They had no common interests and the entirety of season two was spent showing how Fabiola was repeatedly alienated by Eve’s friends for being a geek and out of touch with (white) queer culture. At the very end of season two, in what’s supposed to be a moving scene where Eve accepts Fabiola for all of who she is, including her nerdiness, Eve tells Fabiola she loves her because Fabiola is “the most beautiful person [she’s] ever met.” Clearly the writers couldn’t come up with a single justification for their relationship either, and they have finally decided to cut their losses.

After a brief period of trying to make a long-distance relationship work, Fabiola decides to end things with Eve because the strain of the sixteen-hour time difference starts affecting Fabiola’s grades. Surprisingly and fairly unrealistically, Fabiola never expresses any sadness about the end of her first queer romance which — if I’m following the time span of the series correctly— had lasted nearly a year. An unconvincing end for an unconvincing relationship.

This does leave Fabiola available to explore the wide world around her, though. Eve’s coterie doesn’t reappear in season three, and, instead, the show pursues a relationship that fans were clamoring for after season two.

Fabiola and Aneesa sit with their shoulders pressed, smiling. Aneesa leans into Fabiola with her hands outstretched.

But before we get there, we need to talk about the most recent addition to Devi’s friend group: Aneesa. Introduced as a transfer student in season two, Aneesa is a South Asian Muslim who eventually started dating Ben after Devi left him for Paxton. Season three starts by laying bare how badly matched this couple is. Aneesa can’t understand Ben’s relentless obsession with grades and “going to a good college,” and Ben devalues Aneesa’s passion for soccer. The nail in the coffin for their relationship, though, is the fact that Ben clearly isn’t over Devi and is constantly condescending to Aneesa, who eventually decides that she deserves better.

Part of what convinces Aneesa to end things is the contrast between how poorly Ben treats her and how sincerely Fabiola cares about her. At one of the lowest points in her relationship with Ben — when he misses her winning goal in the district championship game because he’s too busy flirting with Devi over text — Fabiola runs into a crying Aneesa in the bathroom. As narrator John McEnroe says, “Aneesa just wanted to feel seen” and in walks Fabiola gushing over Aneesa’s incredible play, even though following sports isn’t her forte. Caught up in a wave of emotions, Aneesa kisses Fabiola.

Never Have I Ever: Aneesa and Fabiola share a kiss

As she tries to sort out her feelings about her relationship, Aneesa asks Fabiola to forget about the kiss. Later, after breaking up with Ben, she friend-zones Fabiola. Months pass in a montage, and we find out that the pair have been spending more and more time together, but Aneesa doesn’t talk about her sexuality to anyone, and they remain good friends with an ambiguous chemistry. Though I wish we saw a bit more of Fabiola and Aneesa’s gradual transition from just friends to more, this part of their story is generally handled in a charming way. In one of my favorite scenes of the entire season, Paxton observes the pair’s awkward tension, casually asks Fabiola, “So you guys hooking up?” and eventually gives her a lesson in flirting. But before Fabiola can put her newly acquired skills to use, Aneesa cuts to the chase and asks Fabiola if she wants to date.

So far so good, and so much better than Fabiola’s love life has been up until this point, at least in my view. But from here on out, the show raises a lot of questions for me in terms of what it means to tell queer stories, especially when it comes to telling the story of a person from a greatly underrepresented racial group within the queer community as a whole and queer media overall.

Aneesa never comes out, beyond her joint announcement with Fabiola that they are a couple. The show offers no explanation of how Aneesa views her sexuality, not even a paltry, “I always knew I was bisexual.” There’s also no exploration of how Aneesa came to terms with her queer identity, which I would expect for a teenager like Aneesa. Maybe I’m just projecting, given my own long journey of coming into my identity as a queer South Asian, but given how few portrayals of us there are in media (and especially media targeted at teens), I don’t know that I am.

Similar to the pointed assertion that Aneesa is Muslim in season two, it’s hard not to feel like Aneesa’s queerness is a matter of convenience for the writers of Never Have I Ever. The introduction of Aneesa as a South Asian Muslim was a necessary corrective in response to season one’s unabashed Islamophobia, but Aneesa’s religious identity isn’t integrated into her character in any kind of convincing way. Likewise, Aneesa’s queerness is ancillary to putting her in a relationship with Fabiola: the writers seem more interested in giving fans the pairing they wanted to see after season two rather than developing Aneesa as a nuanced character in her own right. Honestly, by the end of the season, even Eleanor’s on and off clueless boyfriend Trent has more depth than Aneesa does.

To be clear, I’m not saying the show should have leaned into tropes about Muslims to depict a Muslim character, and I greatly appreciate that the series has walked back its flat, stereotypical portrayal of queer people. I also don’t think that every queer story has to be a coming out story. But the superficial presentation of Aneesa’s queer and Muslim identities feels analogous to the show’s lazy approach to portraying racial identities without any real depth. After three seasons, Fabiola’s Afro-Latina identity still hasn’t been explored, and season three never again broaches Eleanor and Paxton’s respective Chinese and Japanese heritages, even in passing.

And, as Fabiola and Aneesa’s story unfolds, Aneesa increasingly feels like just a prop to move the story along. Eventually, Fabiola falls for Addison, a nonbinary student from another school who is a science geek like her. As Aneesa watches yet another one of her partners show more interest in someone else, she encourages Fabiola to pursue her crush, as if Aneesa herself would have no feelings about that. With no tears shed, Aneesa calls it off with Fabiola, merely saying, “I gotta take a break from you bookworms,” before (essentially) walking offscreen for the rest of the season.

Fabiola talks excitedly to Addison as Aneesa side eyes her.

The show tries to chalk this up to Aneesa and Fabiola just being a bad fit. After they start dating, they struggle to hit their stride as a couple, misunderstanding each other’s interests and misreading each other’s body language and cues. But it’s hard not to feel like NHIE is trying to sideline the existence of queer South Asians. We get no further insight into Aneesa as a character after the breakup, and the season ends without her ever explicitly saying she’s part of the LGBTQ+ community.

This failure of representation feels both striking and unsurprising, in the context of the larger show. On the one hand, Never Have I Ever’s main objective seems to be to move the needle on narratives for South Asian women in media. The series’ nuanced portrayal of grief after the death of Devi’s father Mohan, from both Devi and her mother Nalini’s perspective, allows for a level of emotional complexity and growth not often seen in media in general — but especially not often granted to South Asian women. Devi’s cousin Kamala’s story has also come a long way, from living with her relatives who are setting her up for an arranged marriage in seasons one and two, to moving out of her aunt’s house so she can pursue a relationship on her own terms in season three. And Devi herself, from the beginning of the series, is seeking out a social and dating life that she knows is at odds with her family’s expectations and her mother’s rules.

Never Have I Ever is a show that understands that to be a South Asian American woman means to navigate the tension between the patriarchy deeply embedded in South Asian culture and the agency so many South Asian women are claiming for themselves both within and beyond South Asian communities. How, then, does it fail to factor this dynamic into its sole portrayal of a queer South Asian girl?

The problem is that NHIE wants to push the South Asian community — and specifically the Indian community — but only so far.

We see this through the relationships that the South Asian characters pursue throughout the series. Kamala is exerting the right to choose her own relationship but the man she’s dating is, conveniently, a Brahmin, on par with her own family’s status. Devi’s primary love interests, though not South Asian, are white or white-passing and come from comparable wealth and social capital. The show also introduces an Indian love interest for her in season three, and I have to imagine that this decision was made at least in part to quell any grumblings within the Indian community that Devi never pursues “one of her own.” Nalini’s brief relationship with her Black colleague Dr. Jackson in season two has been completely written out of the show: there are no references to it and season three opens with the declaration that Nalini leads a boring friendless life, as if her tryst with Dr. Jackson never happened at all.

In other words, all of the lasting and sanctioned relationships involving South Asians in Never Have I Ever are ones that upper caste Indians with sanskaari values — undoubtedly a core part of the show’s audience — will approve of. To that demographic, really exploring and developing a queer South Asian character who truly embodies all of those identities would be one step too far, in the same way that they believe certain lines in straight South Asian relationships simply cannot be crossed. So, the show cannot and will not show an inter-caste relationship; its only reference to a Hindu/Muslim relationship was in the context of a cautionary (and Islamophobic) anecdote from season one; and it seemingly walks back both the notion that a Hindu widow is allowed to move on and its only serious South Asian/Black interracial relationship. (Aneesa and Fabiola were, of course, the other South Asian/Black interracial couple, but the show turns their relationship into a bust before it could even take off.)

In season one, Nalini casually makes a deferential reference to India’s Hindu supremacist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has spent the last eight years enacting a Hindu fascist agenda that promotes a casteist, Islamophobic, misogynist, racist and homophobic worldview. Indian Americans are divided enough on Modi that NHIE doesn’t make the mistake of referring to him again. But the show also clearly wants to play both sides and appeal to audiences who fall all along the American and Indian political spectrums.

And so, Never Have I Ever’s brief flirtation with portraying a queer South Asian character is a lukewarm attempt to appease fans with competing sets of interests across its queer and Indian American audiences. The question I’m left asking is: what about those of us who actually straddle both of those identities?


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himani

Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 44 articles for us.

23 Comments

    • I think it is important to note that this show is not about South Asian women generally but south Indian women specifically and more than that Tamil Hindu women specifically and reflects the complexities of that culture (including embedded islamophobia) very effectively. This obviously does not negate your points about the flat and uninspiring queer representation.

      • Thanks so much for reading!

        I want to push back a bit on what you’re saying. As a Punjabi/Pahari-Hindu heritage person who was born in India, I think a lot about what language I use to describe myself and media I’m viewing/talking about/writing about based on context. Embedded Islamophobia, patriarchal cultural norms, and casteism aren’t unique to Tamil-Hindus.

        I also think that when it comes to media representations of Asians more broadly, and South Asians more specifically, there are two things at play. On the one hand, India in particular has a long history dating back to the independence movement of both seeking a pluralism that erases cultural specificity and also gatekeeping (usually on religious grounds). So, in the case of NHIE, if the show had made the grave error of showing Devi’s family speaking Hindi or celebrating Hindu holidays not typically celebrated by Tamil Hindus, that would be erasure of the Tamil Hindu experience specifically, and in that respect you are correct — the show does accurately represent that community.

        At the same time, there are cultural experiences that transcend being not only Indian but also South Asian (and, even, I would say Asian more broadly, but I’m going to set that aside for the moment). The caste system and all the embedded politics around arranged marriage is a big one. So are a lot of the cultural patriarchal norms. Sometimes, I think when Indians narrowly identify themselves and their experiences as “Indian” only experiences, that is also a political statement meant to exclude the various South Asian diaspora around the world and the other South Asian countries on the subcontinent.

        Now more than ever, I think it’s important for us to recognize the things we share in common while also holding space for the specific nuances of different nationalities, religions, and communities within the South Asian umbrella.

  1. Amazing review. The show really dropped the ball on Fabiola and Aneesa’s relationship. They had some interesting chemistry and I wanted to see more of my girl Aneesa but alas.

    Also, why does Fabiola losing her virginity happen offscreen with Addison, a relationship with no development but Eleanor and Trent get all the romance? I would’ve loved to see how Fabiola’s awkward ass handled having sex for the first time.

    • Thanks so much for reading! Totally agree with you in terms of how much screen time Eleanor/Trent get vs Fabiola/Addison or even Fabiola/Aneesa! NHIE has 1 season left to do right by Fabiola. Let’s hope…

    • Oh, you picked up on one inconsistency that really frustrated me about this season, @thisaintit. On the one hand we’re supposed to believe that Fabiola is so awkward that she and Aneesa can’t even kiss right but then, apparently, her first sexual experience was so effortless and cool? It makes no sense.

  2. I spend so much time with my work with the TV team, critiquing rich, layered performances of queer identity on television that I’d wrongly assumed that the days of queer characters being check boxes for diversity were over…but NHIE proved me wrong. They’re just here to collect their participation trophy and, surely, GLAAD will give it to them.

    Thanks for really crystallizing my reasons for not liking this season, Himani.

    • Thanks so much for reading Natalie! From the beginning of the series, it really does feel like Fabiola is there to check two diversity boxes, both Black & queer representation. It’s really infuriating and Fabiola deserves so much better.

      Also, credit where credit is due–as I was writing this conclusion, I thought about the comment you left on my review of season 1 about how name dropping Modi made you realize that this show’s politics weren’t aligned with yours. There’s a lot of ways in which the show betrays its political position (which, as the seasons go on, really does feel like “let’s just play both sides”) but the Modi thing was a really crystal clear example.

    • Completely agree with this – and I love the show! But I’ve just had to put this (and, honestly, Mindy Kaling’s other show Sex Lives of College Girls) into the “not queer” section of my brain. It’s just so upsetting to see the queer characters get so shafted – like I get Fabiola and Aneesa weren’t going to have Devi and Paxtion levels of screen time, but they couldn’t have had a bit more than just awkwardly kissing twice? And even if they’re not supposed to have chemistry, it was the sam with Fab last season – she and Eve barely even held hands, while we see all the straight couples actually acting like teens in relationships.

  3. i was hesitant about this show bc i don’t trust Mindy Kaling to represent others . . . then i was sick & really enjoyed bingeing seasons 1 & 2 focusing on the good parts . . . i think what makes me not trust Kaling is what makes white decisionmakers like her. . .

    • “what makes me not trust Kaling is what makes white decisionmakers like her” — yea I think that pretty much sums it up. Mindy knows how to appeal to the broadest base of audiences, including their worst impulses, and it makes for bad TV

      Thanks so much for reading!

  4. such a thoughtful & nuanced review! definitely had similar feelings, appreciate this. the queerness of the show has always felt like an afterthought (this season just reaffirmed that) and i really struggle with kaling’s inability to really learn from critique.

    • Thanks so much for reading! I totally agree with everything you’re saying. It’s really interesting, actually, to see the few areas where it seems like Mindy Kaling & the writers responded to criticism and where they didn’t. For instance, in season 2 they cut all of the fatphobic jokes that were pervasive in season 1, and they stopped casually dropping in unexamined Islamophobic comments; I feel like both of those things were probably in response to criticism from viewers. I even think that removing Eve and pursuing a potential Fabiola/Aneesa pairing was in response to what fans were looking for season 2. But, its like they go for the most superficial approach to addressing all of these critiques. So on the surface it looks like the show is being responsive but there’s no real depth to it; as you say, they haven’t “really learned from the critiques.”

    • Yea, I’ve felt this way since season 1, that Eleanor gets more screen time and stories with more complexity than Fabiola. Also, I’m not sure how the writers landed in the place of making Trent (of all people!) a character with more depth than Aneesa or even Fabiola… Like you would think that as Devi’s friends we’d get more insight into Aneesa and Fabiola than Trent…

      Thanks so much for reading!

      • Absolutely! I don’t get it. Like the only reason is homophobia. It can’t be anything else. It’s a show about Devi and therefore Devi’s friends. It’s not a show about…checks notes…Trent?? (although he’s v lovable). And although there’s ALOT to be desired with this show’s dusty ass racial politics. It is still a bit thrilling to me when Aneesa, Devi, Eleanor and Fab are hanging out and I’m like…there’s no white girls here. I would love to hear them talk about this! It seems like they attend a school which is racially mixed but majority white, so it must be something that they would think about. Like, why don’t they ever talk about their similar and differing experiences of racism? I mean, yes they’re teenagers and I’m not expecting like a Sara Ahmed level treatise, but like just show some gross dude exotifying them in different ways or something and how they’d have to deal with that.

        • Totally agree re: the friend group being all POC and wishing they would talk about their experiences of race. I mean in season 1 Ben refers to Devi, Eleanor & Fabiola as the “UN” which is pretty explicitly racist (though in true Mindy Kaling fashion, that’s swept aside bc Ben says it stands for “Unfuckable Nerds”)… And yet somehow Ben is both Aneesa’s boyfriend and one of Devi’s primary love interests…. maybe someone will write a fan fiction set like 10 years in the future where they’re all starting their careers and actually address the microaggressions they experience on the regular…

  5. Yes to all of this critique. Fabiola has always been written as a side character without the same nuance and care. I also agree that under the layer of a liberating south Asian woman narrative there is layer of Brahmin values that the show flirts with violating but ultimately often upholds. There is a better way to write this show

    • Thanks so much for reading! Totally agree with you on all points. It really is disappointing because it feels like there’s so much potential in this show and this story and then… it just goes for the most superficial presentation possible while upholding really problematic politics…

  6. To be completely fair neither of Devi’s best friends really feel like characters in their own right. They exist to listen to Devi’s romantic woes and that’s about it. I’m still convinced the only reason Fabiola is even gay is because in this day and age it would’ve been weird to not have a token gay at all on a show about American teenagers.

    • Yeah Eleanor’s story is pretty flat as well. Totally agree that the only reason Fabiola has the identities she has (gay & AfroLatina) is bc the show needed gay and Black characters in the main cast… As Natalie said above, checking off boxes seems to be the extent of the show’s interests in exploring Fabiola’s identities.

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