Never Have I Ever Seen Myself on TV

Like most people, I’ve never seen myself on the big screen before. Not only because of the fact that I’m not famous, but also because until recently, American television has shied away from featuring nonwhite characters. As an Indian-American teenager, I’ve long awaited the moment when a character like me, with a family like mine, would get a chance in the spotlight. Luckily, it seems as if the world, America in particular, is turning over a new leaf. For a country that has long prided itself in being a melting pot, it’s about time that we start embracing different stories, especially coming of age ones.

The show Never Have I Ever made its debut on Netflix nearly a month ago on April 27th. Created by critically acclaimed actress and producer, Mindy Kaling, the show has maintained a 96% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. The show has also made it onto the Netflix top ten list in ten different countries. Never Have I Ever centers around 15 year old Devi Vishwakumar who attempts to navigate high school life after her father dies and she temporarily experiences paralysis in her legs as a result of the trauma. Oh, and the show is narrated by star tennis player John Mcenroe, which by the end, makes much more sense. Many of the struggles she faces, from attempting to find a boyfriend to trying to get into her dream college, are ones that most teenagers share. Other struggles, like learning how to balance two cultures and getting used to the discomfort of a sari, especially resonate with those who share the same heritage. While humorous and entertaining, the show has a focus on mental health which is exemplified through Devi’s raw interactions with her therapist.

As an avid Netflix fan, the one thing that has been missing from my viewing experience is someone I can relate to. Sure, there are countless coming of age shows about young girls, but none have been centered around the trials and triumphs of an Indian daughter of immigrants, which happens to be an integral part of my identity. Although I have to admit, when I first found out a show featuring an Indian-American family was coming to life, I braced myself for disappointment. So many times in the past, when shows like “Jessie” on Disney Channel or “The Simpsons” on Fox feature an Indian character, they end up burying the character’s personality under thick accents and stereotypes. While these characters are often funny and entertaining, the problem arises when this is the extent of the depth at which Indian people are being personified.  

After binge-watching all ten episodes on the first night the show came out, I was ecstatic to learn that Never Have I Ever is different: the characters are multi-faceted and have dimension. The show finds creative ways to transcend the stereotypes often associated with Indian people, such as having Devi play the harp instead of the piano or violin and it also depicts the Indian women as bold instead of subservient. Despite this, the show still stays in touch with reality and captures what it means to be an Indian person in America through interactions such as the one Devi has in a coffee shop. A woman standing behind Devi in line asks Devi, who’s dressed in a traditional sari, to take pictures with her daughter as if it were a costume. 

Most importantly, Never Have I Ever delicately showcases the experiences of three Indian-America women on a journey to find who they are and where they stand in their culture. Similar to Devi, her mom Nalini and her cousin Kamala, each have unique struggles. Nalini, a confident, career driven woman, must learn how to find her place in her Indian community after her husband dies and she is pitied by her friends at a Ganesh Puja. By the end of the season, she also has to decide between remaining in California and uprooting her and Devi back to India where she feels more comfortable. Kamala who moves from India to California stays with Devi’s family while she pursues a degree from Caltech. She’s independent and smart, and Devi’s mother considers her the perfect role model. However, a few episodes in, the audience learns that Kamala is harboring a terrible secret: she has a boyfriend. While this may sound ordinary, Kamala must hide this truth from her family who encourages her to meet another man in hope of them having an arranged marriage. The stories of these three women interwoven together realistically depict the qualities of the modern Indian-American women that I know: bold, ambitious, grounded. But what’s most encouraging to me is that while being Indian plays a huge role in the main character’s lives, it’s not the only aspect of their identity that’s portrayed in the show.

There’s plenty of funny, binge-worthy, and relatable shows on TV that have caught all of our attention during this quarantine. So what makes Never Have I Ever worthy of special attention? Well, as straightforward as it seems, when we see ourselves and our stories on TV, our experience is validated. There’s an untapped amount of potential in the first generation, teenage girls who have long been discouraged by the media that hides their stories. And when confidence and courage is sparked in these young women like myself, it inspires us to play our part in changing the world. Through representation like this, our struggle is recognized and our strides are better appreciated. For me this show is proof that America is taking measures to transform itself into a more inclusive and unified country, and for this I am grateful. 

I don’t think that the show is perfect. The Indian accent that Devi’s mother and cousin have feels exaggerated and artificial. And in the words of the actress Maitreyi Ramakrishan, who plays Devi, “No one label or character can fully represent all the stories waiting to be told. All our pasts are just as complex as our heritage.” This show doesn’t capture the essence of all of the complicated and equally important coming of age stories that exist in America. But it is a huge step in the right direction, and the show’s success is proof that people are now willing to hear different voices. Never Have I Ever gives me hope for a future where everyone can see a version of themselves on TV. In the meantime, I look forward to Never Have I Ever’s likely return to Netflix for season 2.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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