Opening Netflix on my laptop, the bold red box titled “New Episodes” caught my eye. The box hovered over the show “Never Have I Ever,” which was categorized under the trending and popular sections. I had completely forgotten that the second season was released, as the first season had come out over a year ago. With an exceedingly wide smile on my face, I closed all my Canvas and Google Doc tabs I had open to study chemistry, and started the first episode, “… been a playa.” One episode led to another, and I had binged the entire season in less than five hours without looking up from my laptop.
Ever since the show’s original release, “Never Have I Ever” has been a hot topic. Created by Mindy Kaling, the show was praised for the amount of representation it has with a South Asian main character and many supporting characters who are also people of color. This was a refreshing change, as the show challenged the standard convention in film and television (a white protagonist and token POC side characters).
While the show was met with mostly praise and excitement, many South Asians expressed their distaste for “Never Have I Ever”’s South Asian stereotypes like having an overly strict mother and found it overall unrelatable. With the recent release of season two, both the acclaim and backlash has resurfaced.
The show centers around Devi Vishwakumar, a Tamil high school teenager. as she navigates school, relationships and friendships, all while dealing with grief from the recent death of her father. However, despite being the main character, Devi was undoubtedly unlikable to many viewers. Her decisions highlighted her selfishness and neglect for the people around her. Decision after decision, she kept choosing the wrong one, which at first really frustrated the viewers — including me.
Perhaps, I only disliked Devi because I saw myself in her and didn’t want to admit it. I related to her. Her derisive attitude towards her culture and religion, her stubbornness, her need to overachieve, her hot-headedness, her impromptu bad decisions, her relationship with Kamala (her cousin living with her) and her relationship with her mother. Like many other South Asians, I distanced myself from my Indian identity in middle and high school to fit in with my peers. I resented the culture for making me different from the white kids around me. Growing out of this mindset was hard. I had to change the environment I put myself in, ending the toxic relationships in my life, including my past relationship with myself. It was like reinventing myself the same way we do when moving cities or switching schools, but with mindsets. I had to question the motive behind my self-deprecating thoughts: Why do I consider myself lesser than my classmates? Is it because of something I did or because of what I see in the media and the microaggressions my classmates have repeatedly made since I started school? This led to the question: Do I not want to be Indian? Or, do I just not want to be perceived as what my classmates thought of as Indian? Realizing it was the latter, I started working on adopting a more “care-free” ideology. It is not my fault they see a negative caricature everytime they hear the word Indian, and it is unlikely that anything I say will change that, so why change myself? Why let them and their bigotry have power over me?
And while I am grateful that I’ve grown to be proud of my cultural heritage through this self-reflection, I still battle those self-hating thoughts once in a while. In the first season, Devi was forced to participate in both Indian culture and Hindu traditions, and her negative attitude towards it was apparent, likely due to her lack of pride in her heritage. This caused many viewers to voice their complaints about the lack of resolution, where she would eventually develop an appreciation for Indian culture. But, I like that there was no conclusion to it in either season. It made it much more realistic and relatable. After all, I never came to an epiphany that I should just start loving my identity, suddenly becoming proud of it like the flip of a switch. It took me years.
Devi was stubborn. She did what she wanted and nothing would change her mind about her decisions. On multiple occasions, she ignored her friends’ helpful advice and criticisms like when she decided to date two guys or when she followed her mother on a date. And she would only reflect on her decisions if she herself was negatively impacted by them. She also always had to be the best, no matter the cost, with her school, extracurriculars and social life. I resonate with Devi’s desire to succeed. Although my competitive nature comes in handy with achieving personal goals, I often take it to the extreme where every mistake is burned into my brain. Failing, while unavoidable, is a big fear of mine. Growing up, my intelligence was what I took pride in the most, if not the only thing I was known for. I had gotten so used to it that my successes became the sole determinant for my self-worth. While my peers had their whiteness, something I was jealous of, I had my grades, something they were jealous of. Knowing that our jealousy was mutual made me feel a little less alienated. I pushed myself to succeed to try and make up for my qualities I saw as inferior. I felt like if I fail, I would not only disappoint my family and peers who expected me to succeed, but also destroy the small amount of self-worth I established. I pictured Devi with this same fear of failure, but specifically, scared of being a failure in the eyes of her parents and in-turn, becoming a disappointment to both them and herself.
Devi’s fear of failure is only exacerbated by her relationship with Kamala. Their dynamic is nothing new to many South Asian households. Devi is jealous of her cousin, who the world, including her own mother, sees as perfect. The daughter that Nalini (Devi’s mother) always wanted. She was beautiful, smart and, best-of-all, listened to her parents and family (disregarding the season two finale). Devi compares herself and her shortcomings to Kamala’s successes in the same way I have always done with my practically perfect family and so many do with theirs. For as long as I can remember, I created a similar dynamic with my brother, even as a baby. I started walking and talking at a younger age just because my brother could do it, meaning I had to too. And while at the time the intent of copying my brother was purely innocent, it manifested into something more harmful: competition. This, mixed with my fear of failure, was a lethal formula for a mental health disaster. The constant comparisons of us from both myself and everyone except my brother led to a one-sided sibling relationship of envy.
In season two, Devi obsessed over trying to seem cool in front of Aneesa (the new, more popular and only other Indian girl at Devi’s school), leading to a lot of bad decisions and giving into peer pressure. Unfortunately, I cannot help but relate to her. While desperately trying to fit in or acting agreeable enough to make friends, I had certainly made dumb mistakes like going to parties behind my parents’ backs or spending large amounts of money on clothes I didn’t need. And while they were not as altering or harmful as getting a nose piercing for attention or hurting my friends like in Devi’s case, these impulsive decisions did affect my life drastically. Trying to mirror the girls around me only made me forget who I was in the moment and focus on others’ perceptions of me which was a central theme in the show.
The show focuses a lot on dealing with loss, anger and trauma. Despite being an attention-seeker at school, Devi spends a lot of time trying to avoid her true emotions. She tries not to think of her father and dives into school drama to avoid being overwhelmed by grief and substitutes sadness with anger. I’ve always been the same, avoiding my emotions at all cost. My family was never the emotional type. My mother always hid her sadness from my brother and I. She’d cry in a different room or lie and say she had a cold when I’d ask if she was alright. My father just didn’t seem to get sad often, and if he ever did, he hid it better than my mother because I’ve never noticed. This transferred to my brother who I’ve only seen cry (or almost cry) three times in my life: once on the flight back home from visiting family in India, another when his childhood idol died, and the final time when we had an intense argument before I left to college. Any other time he was sad, he would never show it. He’d ignore it and watch a movie and get annoyed and frustrated when we’d ask about it. As a child of immigrant parents with no family in America, my only role model was my brother. I mimicked his every move. Seeing him and the rest of my family avoid being emotional made me think it was the right thing to do. I thought not crying or getting sad was a sign of strength. When I’d start to feel sad, I’d just force myself into doing something that would make me forget, something I’d seen my brother do since I was little. Swallowing my tears, I’d turn any emotion left into anger, getting mad at myself for being so “weak” and “failing” to be strong.
Kaling’s show doesn’t just focus on Devi’s toxic traits; it demonstrates how she’s growing from them and working on herself through therapy and self-reflection. I am grateful that the show had Devi go to therapy. In South Asian and other POC communities, therapy and mental health are taboo topics. In the show, Nalini doesn’t believe in therapy in the same way so many in our parents’ generation don’t. But showing women of color in therapy with a Black woman as the therapist and a South Asian woman as a client accurately portrays therapy as something positive and normalizes it to WOC communities.
Just like Devi, I’m working on all my self-deprecating behaviors and am growing as a person. But like all bad habits, they come back once in a while, and I am left to fight them again. “Never Have I Ever”’s portrayal of Devi felt like a call out for my own character development, to work on myself and fix my negative traits, and I absolutely love it for that. While I don’t go to therapy like Devi, I have found other ways to work on self-growth. I now journal and write out my thoughts both in my little sage green notebook and my Google Doc drafts to embrace vulnerability and actually face my emotions head-on.
By writing Devi as such an unlikable character, the show challenges the perfect goody-two-shoes nerdy Indian character stereotype who obeys their parents at all times, a trope that has been perpetuated in Western media for decades. Devi’s flaws are what made her realistic and relatable.
I can’t wait for season three to see Devi’s character development and how she continues to work on fixing her negative behaviors. I am truly grateful for a show that represents South Asians in a non-caricature way, focusing more on regular highschool life and its intersection with identity rather than just Devi’s identity. It’s a coming-of-age show that I can actually love and relate to.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be contacted at email@example.com