To have a Brown girl from Mississauga, Ont. appearing in a Netflix show is a pretty big deal on its own. But to have said Brown girl be the star of that Netflix show—and put the experience of an Indian-American family front and centre on screens around the world? That’s huge.
And that’s why Never Have I Ever, the latest series from actor/director Mindy Kaling, is such a big freakin’ deal. The show, which was released on April 27, follows 16-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (played by Canadian and FLARE #HowIMadeIt honouree Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an American teen dealing with the typical teen melodrama: popularity, finding a boyfriend, your parents ruining your life—you know the deal. But, along with all of these somewhat trivial teen issues, Devi also grapples with her Indian-American identity and figuring out what it all means to her.
Since the show was released it’s been met with a largely positive reception from viewers and celebrity fans, with Patriot Act’s Hasan Minhaj calling it “a classic.”
Congrats @mindykaling and @loulielang, y’all made a classic! I haven’t felt this way since Mom brought home “American Desi” on VHS from the Indian grocery store. @ramakrishnannn — you’re a ⭐️! pic.twitter.com/Mak760eqdk
— Hasan Minhaj (@hasanminhaj) April 30, 2020
On Netflix, the show is currently number one in 10 countries and has received a coveted 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s clearly resonated with a lot of people; including, most notably, members of the South Asian diaspora. There are hundreds of comments left by members of the South Asian community on the show’s Instagram account, talking about how watching the show—and seeing someone like them and their families on-screen—was like reliving their teen years. And finally having this kind of representation in the Brown diaspora is seriously giving me *all* the feels.
Reading about it, I was so excited to dive in. And, yes, it delivered in so many ways. This show is a milestone for representation in pop culture. Just…not for everyone. As much as I revelled in watching Devi’s teen escapades, I was struck from the very first episode by how it fails other groups. Because the show has some pretty problematic elements that can make the series kind of a hard watch—and we need to discuss them.
There’s *that* reference to indentured servants
It may have been a “blink-and-you-miss-it” moment for some, but for me the first hint that there may be more to dissect with the show came in episode 5, when Devi—upset with her mom after a fight—compares being grounded to servitude. Talking to her BFFs Eleanor and Fabiola at lunch, Devi says: “I’m like a straight-up indentured servant. My mom won’t let me leave the house, except for school events.”
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This line, though maybe meaningless to some, triggered many people online, especially those who came from a history of indentured servitude. ICYMI in history class, indentured servitude was a contract of labour in exchange for transportation to a new country, a small payment and land upon job completion, among other things. Individuals from Chinese, Indian, Irish, Tamil and Portugeuse communities were among those who left their home countries and were moved across the world throughout the 19th century. In many instances, indentured servitude was exceedingly brutal and traumatic: For example, over 1 million people were taken from India during the 1830s and placed to work in sugar cane plantations across the Caribbean, until the system was banned in 1917. While Devi’s character is *clearly* written to be a dramatic teen—throwing around hyperboles like it’s her day job—the use of such a specific term is actually really problematic. And while Devi is a teen who arguably doesn’t know better, Kaling and her writer’s room should.
"Never have I ever" seen INDENTURESHIP – a traumatic system of bonded labour that brought Indians to the Caribbean to work sugarcane plantations – trivialized in such an offensive way. Thanks @RealPremShady for alerting me to this gobar (cow dung). pic.twitter.com/lUNlVl00V9
— Darrell G. Baksh (@drchatakmatak) April 27, 2020
“[Indentured servitude] is part of how I understand my identity; my roots and my culture come from that experience,” says Darrell Baksh, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies. “I don’t think people understand the kind of pain and suffering, trauma and violence that’s connected to that system [and that these] systems were there to support colonialism.”
As a descendant of indentured labourers from Trinidad myself, this line initially took me aback. The use of the term felt unnecessary—it’s not a term you hear thrown around in daily life—and it’s so specific. As I watched the show I thought, “Why didn’t she just say butler, housekeeper or maid?”—there were just so many other options. It seriously made me think about the number of people who don’t understand the term or what it meant for my ancestors, so they’d hear the line and think nothing of it while some of us were uncomfortable.
And I wasn’t alone in my feelings. “My role as an educator is to raise more sensitive cultural awareness, [and] sensitivity is missing using a line like that,” Baksh says. And not only does it hurt personally, Baksh says, but it hurts representation as a whole. “[These comments] hurt the solidarity-building and alliance-building process [between Indians and Caribbeans]. We can’t connect if we’re going to make those kinds of offensive statements.”
Then there’s the bizarre, ableist storyline about disability
As I dug deeper into reactions about the indentured servitude line, I realized it wasn’t the only offensive moment in the show. Other viewers pointed out that one of the early plot devices was off-putting for its ableist mentality. In episode 1, there’s a brief storyline about Devi being in a wheelchair. There isn’t much explanation given, but for a seemingly psychosomatic reason Devi loses the ability to use her legs after (*SPOILER ALERT*) her father dies.
Three months after using a wheelchair, Devi miraculously regains the use of her legs (a feat that is attributed to seeing her crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida, played by Darren Charles Barnet). According to Daphne Frias, a proudly disabled person and gun control activist from New York City, this idea of Devi’s recovery is harmful to people with disabilities who can’t miraculously be healed of paralysis. “It was hard for me to see that a quick glance from a cute boy somehow cured Devi,” Frias says. “Even though I use a wheelchair as my primary way to ambulate, that doesn’t mean that I can’t stand or walk, and I’ve had people who’ve seen me walk or stand automatically think I’m ‘cured’ or that I was lying to them this whole time,” she says. “There’s this jaded view among able-bodied people that a range of abilities can’t exist, and I feel like that scene perpetuates it.”
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Not to mention the seriously rude comments from her classmates while she *is* using a wheelchair (a kid even jokingly calls her “FDR,” referring to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair due to polio). “I’m in love with Devi, [but] yes, that [storyline] was not my fave,” Frias says. “I struggled with the fact that she tried so hard to bury that time when she was in a wheelchair, instead of embracing how it made her feel and what she learned,” she says, elaborating that the show does so much good, but as viewers we have to be critical and transparent on what could be improved. Many have suggested that the wheelchair storyline could have stayed if Devi’s disability had been portrayed in a more meaningful way, as opposed to being used as a cheap throwaway joke, and I have to agree.
And, then there’s the problematic LGBTQ representation
During episode 1 Devi reveals a plan to make Jonah Sharpe (played by Dino Petrera) her boyfriend *even though* she knows he’s gay, which some viewers have pointed out is dismissive of the legitimacy of his sexual identity.
“The pursuit by Devi is definitely manipulative behaviour since she’s aware that Jonah is gay, but makes advances anyway solely to get something from him,” says Premika Leo, an actor, anthropologist and member of the QTBIPOC community. “It’s important to note that people often end up in at-risk relationships because they haven’t fully come to terms with the many intersections of their identity.” Leo points out that she understands that the show is a comedy (and she even laughed at this part!), but emphasizes the importance of diving deep into subplots and the potentially negative effects these types of “jokes” can have on the communities involved.
“As lighthearted as the show is, coming out is very scary and serious for some people. QTBIPOC in particular face higher risks of violence because of their identity. I don’t want the LGBTQ community to think that they’re always forced to be the ‘joke’ in the media,” Leo says.
And while she notes that Fabiola is her fave character (Leo found her storyline super relatable, as it shed light on the complexity of growing up queer), for Leo, the character of Jonah became disposable; a fact that’s upsetting because although queer representation is becoming more normalized, the community is still fighting off tropes. “There is no formula for the perfect QTBIPOC representation but there are extremely dangerous tropes that we have to identify and fight off, lest we further harm our community. Perhaps next season we can see how being BIPOC and LGBTQ intersect.”
Even for some in the diaspora, Devi’s experience isn’t that representative
While having someone like Devi on our screens is such a big leap for Indian representation, her experience—and the show—doesn’t represent or resonate with all Brown people, and we need to stop talking like it does. A matter that can’t be overlooked is that Devi (though she may not see it) has a lot of privilege. Her mother is a doctor, and although she lives in a single-parent household (salient to see represented), it’s clear the family isn’t struggling financially. Devi also has a therapist, which again is very important to show given the stigma around mental health in South Asian communities. However, therapy is expensive, often inaccessible to poorer communities and isn’t often widely talked about within the South Asian community and diaspora. (Recent studies have found that people of South Asian origin have the highest perceived barriers to mental health treatment, and are 85% less likely to seek treatment for mental illness than those who identify as white.) It would have been so powerful if the show touched on this fact.
“[Her privilege is illustrated through] how she and her family have a huge house, moved to Southern California, her parents are very educated, they conform to Western ideals and they talk about elitist things like Ivy League universities,” says Sharan Guru, a Tamil influencer and anti-shadeism advocate from Scarborough, Ont. She explains that these are not common experiences for many immigrants or members of the diaspora. “When your parents aren’t as well assimilated, it makes your identity in a Western context a lot [harder] to figure out; and when you have that privilege as well as money, it’s a lot easier to assimilate,” she says while clarifying that this story is still very valid but not applicable to everyone.
That’s why I was so proud to see Ramakrishnan clarify, shortly after the show’s premiere, that Devi’s experience is just *one* person’s story. Emphasizing that there are “many stories waiting to be told.” It’s this kind of nuance, sensitivity and bigger-picture thinking that the show itself could have used more of. (Honestly, this kid is wise beyond her years!)
Idk who needs to hear this but:
Devi does not represent the ENTIRETY of the south Asian community. She is merely one story influenced by real life experience. There are still many stories waiting to be told. This is one of many steps forward in a much longer race.
— Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (@ramakrishnannn) April 28, 2020
But ultimately, this show a massive step in the right direction
“It’s still valid to watch,” Guru says. “More shows like this are the gateway for representing diversity the way it should be,” she says. “Showing these relationships: different types of families, Black and Brown women working together, these are the types of relationships we don’t typically see. [The fact that] people are engaging so much with the show should show you how important it is.” And she’s right. It’s unrealistic to expect this show to be perfect or representative for every Brown girl in the diaspora. What’s important is that we—and representation on screen—continue to grow.
So while it may seem like I’m dragging the show, that’s not my intention at all. It’s important to take a critical look at NHIE, just as I would any other new show on Netflix, because it has such a huge audience and can really impact cultural opinion, particularly that of its intended demo: impressionable teens. And it would be hypocritical to give NHIE a pass on its shortcomings because it’s the first of its kind for the South Asian community. It’s getting so much attention, and that’s why it’s important to look at how it can better uplift everyone. My hope is not to “cancel” the show or Kaling or even to dissuade people from watching. Quite the opposite: I hope everyone watches, and I hope that critical discussions can make for an even better, even more representative season 2. (We’re ready, Netflix!)