First of all, I’d like to salute the last decade as being a beacon of representation for Indian-American talent in the media industry — wait, pause for a moment, I meant Indian talent who are NOT just portraying Hollywood stereotypes which have been hammered into our visual conceptions of American TV/movie characters for years.
Here’s to Kal Penn, Jameela Jamil, Kumail Nanjiani, Aziz Ansari, Lilly Singh, Hannah Simone, Dev Patel and company for steering the ship for us South Asian viewers who grew up on films and sitcoms with unrelatable characters and exaggerated personalities of brown-skinned men and women who were the sidekicks or extras in every production. Most of them have successfully transcended beyond playing those roles and are highly outspoken figures who appeal to a variety of fans from different backgrounds and generations.
Personally, I had never realized the impact of how the lack of diversity in media shaped my self-confidence or identity growing up — which today, in all truth, is troubling considering how I only started reconnecting with my roots once I understood how the content that I was absorbing on-screen was straining my relationship with my own culture and affecting my ability to grow into myself.
I’m going to mention right here that I am not American. I grew up as an Indian-Chinese halfie in a conservative country in South-East Asia for fourteen years of my life and had to stream The OC online because it was too racy for local networks to broadcast. I’ll admit that watching this gave me a highly skewed view of American culture before moving to the US for high school, but at the same time, I really wanted to be Rachel Bilson and I was glad they gave Summer some solid character development towards the final season.
Part of the reason why I wrote this article is because I noticed criticism on Mindy Kaling’s project that was related to the authenticity of Indian culture and tropes that are represented in the show, and while I can fully respect the views of others, I wanted to share why I, as a South-East Asian female viewer, am willing to overlook certain flaws that were highlighted by peers who finished the series.
Thanks to millenial activism and the rise of social impact movements, many of us are now familiar with the phrase of “diversity and inclusion”, which to certain extents, can harbor both a powerful meaning as well as a pretentious one. I speak from my personal experiences as someone who supports awareness of this terminology and how its related practices can be used to strengthen our interactions with the people around us.
Armed with this “wokeness” while watching “Never Have I Ever”, my first thought when the narrator (the one and only, John McEnroe) introduced Devi’s best friends, Eleanor and Fabiola — Asian-American and Latinx women respectively, was to compare the characters to similar trios who have been represented in teen shows that I’ve watched from years past. Zoey 101, Hannah Montana, ICarly, Victorious, (insert every Disney Channel/Nickelodeon show that I’ve watched that I refuse to divulge here). I’d rewatch any one of those listed in a heartbeat, but let’s point out the stark difference in who was being featured as opposed to how incredibly addictive those shows were.
I do feel that there are instances when the media tries too hard to stay Gen-Z friendly by advertising diversity for face value and not following through on upholding these values in other areas. With the lack of brown-skinned representation in Hollywood, I am beyond thrilled that Mindy Kaling took the risk of crafting “Never Have I Ever” as a reflection of her own upbringing and experiences as an Indian-American in Massachussetts. More than that, I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reactions from my non-Asian friends who highly recommended the show after the first week it premiered.
In 2019, Constance Wu, another favorite of mine, expressed how she felt “intense pressure” before Crazy Rich Asians was released, given the dearth of successful high-budget US films featuring Asian actors and actresses as a leading cast. “Never Have I Ever” channels a similar sentiment — as the first production of its kind in line to be held accountable for the success (or failure) of a groundbreaking shift in American culture, it was likely that there was much trepidation with how well the show would perform. Since it was released on April 27th, the show has received praises from accredited publications across the board from The New Yorker to Vulture, and while there has been no confirmation of a second season at the moment, we can only hope that studio executives will sign off on this so that some of us can keeping getting our teen comedy fix.
Here comes the challenge from the critics — both “Never Have I Ever” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have been accused of diluting the true colors of their main characters and repackaging them according to Western or “white” norms in order to appeal to the mass consumer audience. Several reviews that I read during my extra time under quarantine highlighted the privilege surrounding Devi’s character, a significant theme that I too noticed when watching the show.
Completely fair observations, but think for a moment here about the individual that Never Have I Ever’s protagonist is modeled after — an American-born Indian woman who attended a prestigious New England high school and then went on to enroll at Dartmouth College, a T10 NESCAC school. With that being said, I’m not surprised that this show was packaged with a less traditional narrative that allows specific viewers to relate to Devi as opposed to others.
I’d also like to point out that not every South-Asian/Asian-American viewer that this show was aimed to represent is cut from the same cloth, including myself. Some of the scenes featuring Hindu ceremonies barely have any context in my own life, but they may have resonated with someone else’s. I didn’t start watching NHIE with the idea that it would be a politically-correct piece of work that checked all boxes in the representation department — I was just excited to see someone who looked somewhat like me replacing the stereotypical attractive (usually white) female lead who hangs out with her crew of friends, is super-smart (but is never shown doing homework), has a crush on the cute athletic guy, never rewears the same outfit twice, etc.
I truly believe that on-screen visual representation is a powerful tool for shaping perspectives and bridging the gap between cultural differences amongst communities, especially in the case of having said representation in the leading role instead of that of a sidelined character. In this case, I think that Mindy Kaling did a fantastic job of scripting the American teen comedy story to feature her South-Asian family’s heritage and values, while leaving enough relatable material to satisfy and entertain non-Asian viewers. NHIE is not everyone’s cup of tea, but to someone like myself who champions increased representation for Asian-Americans on the big screen, this denotes the first step towards normalizing such cultural narratives for both Asian and non-Asian viewers to absorb and integrate into their own views of the world, especially for a younger, more impressionable audience.
I hope that the success of NHIE and the talented team behind it continue to inspire more South-Asian thespians to work their way up the industry ladder and pave the way for increased diversity in the media. It can take years for cultural transformations in any space to show results, but with the capability for content to go viral at the click of a button nowadays (Mindy Kaling played her cards well by releasing a TikTok challenge to promote the series), anybody with social media literacy and access to a smartphone can partake in supporting the growth of an aspiring career and elevating the voice of a community for a wider crowd to hear.
Now let’s work on setting the stage for a new demographic and fresh faces to enter this exclusive scene.