To What Extent Does Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ Truly Represent South Asian People?

Netflix’s new show Never Have I Ever seems to be a great step forward in the representation of South Asian people in mainstream media. From exposing the ironies of ‘Aunty culture’ to the experiences of third culture children, this show touches on many everyday issues that teenagers face on daily basis, but puts an Indian twist on it.

The regularity of the issues, such as teenage love life, cliques and clubs, high school reputations, social media, is a great way to normalise experiences of people of colour embedded into western culture. It demonstrates that regardless of skin colour and ethnic backgrounds, there are many everyday problems that everyone faces. It embraces the mere normalcy of third culture children and the many similarities they share.

It also touches on a great issues specific to the Indian community such as the infamous ‘auntie culture’ and the shunning of divorced women. It also shows appreciation of Indian clubs and dance groups that gain recognition not just within the community, but outside of the community to increase local awareness and recognition.

However, there were some things that seemed to have troubled me. From the very first episode and the trailer, it was very clear that the intention of the main character Devi was to make herself and her friends ‘cool’. Her friend group is called the ‘UN’ as an insult, and she believes her ethnicity or aspects of her ethnicity such as the clothing or dance styles is what is holding her back. Of course, at the end of the show she overcomes all of this and learns to celebrate it more, but I still did find some things a little fishy. The use of the ‘UN’ as an insult was surprising to me, because shouldn’t multiculturalism be celebrated and appreciated? And also, the person that comes up with this insult is the highest achiever for Model United Nations. This suggests a certain ironic intention on part of the writers.

What I found strange was the insertion of marriage, and the consequences of non-conformity. When Kamala interacts with the lady who was shunned because she was divorced and wanted to pursue her career, the woman told Kamala to ‘not mess up’ her opportunity of the arranged marriage proposed. When I first saw this character and saw that a dialogue between the two women was about to begin, I hoped that she would encourage independence, and following one’s passions, and how a woman’s worth is not defined by her ability to cook and clean (which Devi’s mom, aka Kamala’s aunt, was pressuring Kamala to highlight to her potential in-laws instead of her incredible future career aspirations). However, I was disappointed to watch the scene unfold and see a reinforcement of that norm, a scene that basically showed that without marriage, she was her career, but is unhappy.

Moreover, when Kamala dumped her boyfriend right after seeing her potential husband for the first time just because he was attractive was quite odd. It made her character seem very shallow and devalued the intelligence they had reinforced throughout the show. On the other hand, she had expressed many times to her boyfriend that she did not see any future in the relationship prior to meeting him. Moreover, the fact that Kamala and the groom got to meet and express their consent on whether they wanted to get married was a very good inclusion in the show. It provides another side to the story or reputation of arranged marriages in South Asia which is often confused with forced marriage, where neither groom nor bride have a choice. It provides a more positive light on arranged marriages, and the future for arranged marriages that is possible.

Despite its certain questionable aspects, there were some very good aspects to it as well. I loved the family aspect of the show and eventual realisation on both the parent’s and child’s part of their mistakes and how they may move forward. The mere casting of a South Asian actress as the lead on a western mainstream production is a HUGE deal in itself, and sets a great stepping stool for further representation. This is a very casual, feel good show that addresses very common ‘regular-people’ problems and is simple light show for entertainment. I would highly recommend it to those that want a simple, not too time consuming, feel good, relaxing, and funny show to watch while unwinding after a long day.

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