I was super excited when Mindy Kailing’s show Never Have I Ever (NHIE) premiered a couple of months ago on Netflix. The show stars Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi, an Indian American high school sophomore dealing with the grief of losing her father while also juggling friends and her love interests. Devi is confident and smart and Ramakrishnan plays her so effortlessly. It is simply refreshing to see a South Asian (or desi) person on-screen exude so much cool (a much-needed change from so many desi characters on American screens that are just variations of Apu from Simpsons!). The trailer for the NHIE series has a light and fun comedy vibe (think Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) with the unbelievable bonus (for me) of having a dark skin desi lead!!! And this bonus …is no small bonus!
I finally found the time to watch it but for the first couple of episodes, I had a strong urge to just turn it off! I continued on because generally speaking, a brown and/or Muslim show has to do something really egregious for me to abandon it. Within the first two episodes, I realized this show too didn’t really represent my experiences. After all, I am Muslim, the show’s characters are Hindu. I am from Pakistan, the show’s characters are from India, etc.
But then … I also made peace with the fact that it shouldn’t have to represent.
The show has a desi family at its centre and that representation matters to me. It was kind of like how I sometimes enjoy watching Rami, a show on Hulu about an Arab American who leads a life vastly different from mine, but I love seeing all the Muslim characters float in and out of scenes, just simply leading their very normal lives. I feel happy to see any brown and/or Muslim representation because it is closer to the United States I operate in. Once I saw Never Have I Ever for what it was… a light-hearted coming of age drama — with a desi lead!!! — I began to enjoy the show a lot more. Yay!
But as the episodes progressed, I realized that the issue wasn’t my very unreasonable expectation of the show representing my exact experiences. It was that the show had more than a few stereotypes that I had to force myself to get past. I found myself thinking: so what if the desi mother is unreasonably super strict, or that the mom and the cousin have a strangely fake accent, or that desis are shown to be obsessed with being model minorities, wanting to get into Ivy Leagues, or the desi mom is anti-therapy, or …..or….all the other stuff that kept popping up. Lots of other white ‘light-hearted’ comedies have had much worse issues (I recently re-watched parts of Never Been Kissed and I realized that the 27/30? yr old teacher was, at the very least, a creep for liking who he thought was a 17 yr old high school student! Yuck!!).
Why was I hell-bent on concentrating on all the mistakes that Never Have I Ever made (like the strange normalizing Modi reference in Ep 4, at a time when Modi is responsible for the deaths of so many Indian Muslims!, or on how the main character doesn’t display any insight into disability via her paralysis experience). I should be (and I am) happy to see a dark skin young vibrant desi girl on screen.
But there is a difference in speaking to one’s experiences and playing into tropes to humour white audiences. Over time, I have become so hyper-aware of the issue of representation that I can’t help but make sure that shows that have brown and/or Muslim characters also avoid being complicit in harming our communities via our nation’s racist/xenophobic imaginations. These shows are valuable in that they represent some aspect of ourselves but they also must work to defy stereotypes that feed into xenophobia towards our communities AND they must resist colonist narratives imposed on us.
Our communities cannot escape how we are typically portrayed on TV, where even when we are portrayed in a good light, it becomes clear that the writer’s room was perhaps not the most …umm….diverse. So when we do see a show produced by one of us, we cannot help but expect some degree of resistance to the preexisting dominant narratives about us.
But don’t get me wrong. We desperately need more shows like Never Have I Ever. We need Devi on for a second season! We need people who look like Devi, beautiful in their own skin. And we need to recognize that not every show by one of us can get everything right (and Never Have I Ever does get some things right). But alongside such shows — shows made by and starring brown and/or Muslim folks — we also need space for critiques of such shows by folks within marginalized communities so that we can make way for a more diverse, complex, and nuanced representation of the diaspora down the line.
Saba Fatima is a PhD holder and the host of the podcast ‘She Speaks’: Academic Muslimahs