‘Never Have I Ever’ been satisfied with partial representation
The third season of “Never Have I Ever,” directed by Mindy Kaling, was recently released on Aug. 12, and the internet is once again tied up in controversy regarding the accuracy of the Indian American main character, Devi Vishwakumar. This confused, witty and oftentimes, irrational teenager played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is one of the first mainstream Indian protagonists to be featured in Western media.
When this show first aired on Netflix in April 2020, many first-generation South Asian communities were ecstatic to finally watch a show that they could finally relate to. After growing up with South Asian representation in western media being the stereotypical and hardly representative Ravi in “Jessie” and Raj in “Big Bang Theory,” I hoped that Devi would finally redefine what it meant to be South Asian in Hollywood, and in large part, she did do that. But while millions of viewers found great comfort and related somewhat to Devi’s experiences, millions of others were disappointed by the lack of accuracy and the problematic messages that her character and the show conveyed, such as degrading comments about Indian people and culture, including repeated ideas that they’re “unattractive” and “uncool.”
As of 2015, there are about five million individuals of Indian descent living in the United States, each with their own story to tell. Some grew up in smaller towns where they were the only people of color and were conditioned to feel ashamed about their heritage, while others grew up going to 90% Asian high schools, but dealt with different cultural stigmas and pressures than the former group. To try to find one story that fully represents these two groups, as well as millions of others, is nearly impossible. Kaling herself says that Devi’s character is based on her childhood growing up in Boston, and Devi’s experiences and thoughts closely resonate with what she used to feel growing up.
Although shows like “Never Have I Ever” are major steps in the right direction for representation in Hollywood, featuring main characters from underrepresented groups immediately becomes a social statement (whether the director intended so or not) due to the scarce representation of those groups in media. All of a sudden, one character and story holds the responsibility of appealing to and representing an entire diaspora of millions of individuals, all while simultaneously telling an engaging and complex story.
While the majority of television protagonists: white, cisgender and heterosexual characters, are judged simply for their actions and personalities, underrepresented characters are judged automatically for the social messages they send.
Beyond “Never Have I Ever,” other shows featuring underrepresented groups, including LGBTQIA+ characters, individuals with disabilities, Indigenous Americans and more, all fall under this same trap.
We set ourselves up for failure when it comes to representation in the media, since we expect a character that will be able to do the impossible and speak for everyone, and in the end, we sacrifice much of the importance of the story or the depth of the characterization itself.
At the end of the day, many people want to see inclusion in media without having to address all the trauma and discrimination that they go through in their real lives outside of the theater. Films can oftentimes be an outlet, and having the majority of media that features diverse groups of people simply focus on the negative aspects of the viewers’ experiences leaves no escape from their pain and struggles.
Directors like Kaling have said that by focusing less on the identity of a diverse protagonist, we can normalize the inclusion of underrepresented groups in stories outside of just their identity. By putting pressure on diverse characters to tell a social message, we reduce them to just their identity and simultaneously reduce an entire group of individuals to one story. However, at the same time, it is important to recognize the responsibility that this flawed system puts on creators; underrepresented groups will always tell a story, regardless of whether the director intends to do so or not. Therefore, directors should use that responsibility wisely to avoid further stereotyping these groups of people.
Through all of this, we discover that there is no right answer or formula for how to represent the underrepresented. These problems won’t be solved with just a few stories. For now, the only solution is to continue telling the stories of and giving leading roles to the underrepresented groups that never saw themselves on the screen. While characters such as Raj, Ravi and Devi can’t possibly represent every South Asian, it gives me hope that one day seeing actors like them and those from other minority groups on the screen will be the expectation rather than the exception.