Netflix’s Never Have I Ever symbolizes and normalizes the acceptance of many things — multicultural friendships, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and the richness of South Asian culture are just a few examples. Its portrayal of minority women as complex, dynamic and round characters provides much-needed representation of communities that are often overlooked or even dismissed in pop culture and television.
(This article contains spoilers.)
However, whether or not the show’s representation of Asian culture is completely accurate is another question altogether. More specifically, the dynamics between Devi (the protagonist of the show) and her mother were puzzling at best, and incomprehensible at worst. While their relationship was refreshing given that they often shared their thoughts openly and honestly, it was also characterized by insolence on Devi’s part that would typically never be acceptable in an Asian household.
Aside from the flippant tone that Devi often adopted in retorts to her mother, the words she chose were also sharp and acerbic. “I hate you!” she shouted at her mother on the night of her father’s death. While this was immediately followed by reproachment from her father, his reaction was somewhat subdued compared to the real consequences that children in Asian families are often made to bear if they ever told their parents that they despised them.
In another theatrical outburst towards the later part of the season, Devi told her mother, “I lost the only parent that actually cares about me. I wish you were the one that died that night.”
I remember my eyes widening in disbelief when I heard this admission, partly because of the gravity of the statement; but mostly because of the inability to relate to a circumstance where I would ever be able to muster up the courage to say something like that to my parents. In the words of an Indian friend, “No Asian child would ever dare speak like that, or they would be disowned!”
The significance of these values in Asian culture explain why Indians touch the feet of their elders to show their respect; or why East Asians practice the tradition of serving their elders first at the dinner table.
It is possible that Never Have I Ever intended to portray Devi’s family as an exception, or even in more Westernized terms. However, this would appear incongruous with the first-generation immigrant narrative that was adopted in the show; given that such an assimilation to typical American culture where children are often treated like adults and allowed to speak their minds openly (even if this is done at the cost of being polite) seems rather improbable.
More than this, by creating a domestic space that tolerates impertinence towards one’s elders, the show not only defies traditional and logical expectations of an Indian household, but also serves to undermine the authenticity of its representation of Asian culture.
In fact, while the scriptwriters may have written all of this to make Devi appear more relatable by exposing her flaws, centering her growth as a character around the bold and verbalized animosity that she initially held for her mother paradoxically makes her rather unrelatable; at least through the eyes of an Asian audience.
There exists a great amount of debate over whether certain Asian values like deference give rise to repression that adversely impacts children and youths as they mature.
By glossing over a quintessential identity that is attached to being a junior person in the Asian family hierarchy, the show fails to cast a spotlight to encourage discourse on the topic; despite its claims to provoke thought on cultural norms and practices.
The exploration of practices like arranged marriage and showcase of cultural festivities like the “Ganesh Puja” celebration in the first season of Never Have I Ever have undoubtedly provided educational value by sharing the culture of an ethnic minority group with a wider audience. However, moving forward, the show could afford to pay keener attention to some of the nuances of Indian — and at times Asian by extension — culture, such that greater sensitivity and authenticity is observed.
Cover Image: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Richa Moorjani, and Poorna Jagannathan in Never Have I Ever (Netflix)