Never Have I Ever seen representation that I needed
Hey Gods, it’s me, your favorite Hindu girl from the Western New York area. What’s poppin? It’s the first time I’m watching Never Have I Ever, so I thought I would have a check in. I think most of us can agree that Never Have I Ever wasn’t good for a number of reasons.
“But I thought you loved Mindy Kaling?” I received that text message from at least five friends as I delved into my grievances about another one of Kaling’s classically cringe-worthy portrayals of a teenage Indian American Girl.
I will admit, I used to adore Mindy Kaling. From begging my mom to spend the full price to buy each of Kaling’s books or hoping for her to comment on my Mindy Lahiri Halloween costume Instagram post (to which she made my Halloween by commenting “👊🏾”), I was known for being Mindy Kaling’s number one fan. But as I grew older, I realized why I shouldn’t have adored her so much, and with a heavy heart, I stored her books in the basement shelf and never looked back.
Mindy Kaling has a pattern that would be irresponsible to deny. In her work as Kelly Kapoor, her only take on Indian culture was shown to us in the cringey Diwali episode of The Office. The Mindy Project again missed an opportunity to represent Indian culture, with the only Indian male representation on that show being her brother. Now, we see Mindy Kaling choosing to portray an Indian American teenage girl as having an inherent distaste for her culture and heritage. Throughout her writing, Mindy Kaling seems to normalize the notion that Indianness is a form of Otherness that ought to either be downplayed or felt shame over.
There were many positives to this show, do not get me wrong. The mother, Nalini, cares about Devi and her mental health by supporting and encouraging Devi to see a therapist. Devi’s best friends are people of color who in their own way breakthrough the stereotypical representations of their races, and that is a wonderful thing.
However, we cannot afford to ignore the negatives. Mindy Kaling’s portrayal of a young Indian girl’s romantic and sexual needs is just downright tacky, and it has always been that way. The writing behind Devi is already setting her up to be a caricature just like the boy-obsessed Mindy Lahiri and Kelly Kapoor before her. It is even more heartbreaking that these love interests are cis-gendered straight men, that too, seldom a man of color. It is painful to see media which embraces relationships of color such as blackish on ABC, Jane the Virgin on the CW, and Crazy Rich Asians, yet, when the time can come for us to give more representation to the experiences of the Indian-American woman, it seems like we’re always portrayed as waiting for our Savior.
It is even more unnerving to see that the overwhelming majority of the portrayal of Indians on television are either acting as caricatures or FOBs (who don’t realize they are acting in this way) or caricature FOB haters.
Mindy Kaling does not hold back when trying to capture how much Devi does not appreciate her culture, from her declaring that her cousin is “too Indian” to saying that when she goes to Princeton she will “become an atheist and eat cheeseburgers”. Statements like these enable audiences who are baseline not familiar with the nuances of Indian culture. When these nuances do not reflect reality, indeed, it truly does not reflect the American experience. As Americans of color we grapple with our roots and construct a new identity, but that is a beautiful process filled with love and laughter, not just frustrated conversations complaining about someone’s Indian English. For other writers, such as those behind Everybody Hates Chris or Jane the Virgin, their writing captures this beautiful process. Even other POC comedians, like Hasan Minhaj, have found a way to wonderfully intertwine the Desi and American experience, but Mindy Kaling always seems to portray this as a miserable endeavor.
Yes, I understand, perhaps this is a representation of Mindy Kaling’s genuine experience. But the sad reality is that Mindy’s characters are a missed opportunity to portray the nuances and diversity among the lives of America’s South Asian girls. Those who are ignorant to the nuances of the South Indian teenage girl look to this experience to gain a glimpse into our upbringing and culture. However, what they are given is a beautiful Tamilian (No, that isn’t a combination of Tamil and Indian, but the term for how Tamil people are identified) girl who hates her roots.
But if one has so fiercely worked to develop a platform to portray a story, shouldn’t this platform be utilized to show that it is OK to embrace and accept your culture even when you feel different? Isn’t the point of having this platform to show that it is OK to be an Indian AND American just like its OK to be from anywhere in the world or a mix of many places and be American?
It is not Mindy Kaling’s job, I guess. But right now, who else do we have? What other Tamil, Indian, American woman do we have who is center stage and well known enough to give us what we need. People like me are still way too young and considerably under qualified to break through into the Hollywood world. But Mindy Kaling did it, and she should be using that opportunity to combine all the modern positives with all the cultural positives as well. We cannot blame Mindy Kaling for having the experiences she has had, and we cannot blame her for wanting to make them the focal point of her own artistic creation. However, we can be critical in her portrayal of our experience in a time where racism and toxicity are so easily perpetuated. We can condemn Mindy Kaling for this lost opportunity.
This is not about seeing my own experience on TV, although that would be delightful. This is about how we as a race are represented. This world is cruel. Those who want to degrade us will find any opportunity to do so; it especially hurts when we set the precedent ourselves.
Some may say that this show is just another steppingstone and that true representation is a slow working process, and in some ways I might agree. My favorite thing about this show was the incorporation of the Tamil language. For example, when Nalini calls Devi or Kamala, Devi’s cousin, “Kannama”, which is a pet name in Tamil. But how long are we going to be thankful for steppingstones? Mindy Kaling didn’t portray us correctly before, but this time she had it all set up for her — a front and center Tamil girl who is the main character of her own show. However, it felt like a shallow Coming Of Age story that used Indian aspects superficially to declare its credibility.
I state this perspective because I know I am not alone. To those who relate to this show, I am so happy you have found something that represents you. But to the many girls and guys who feel “embarrassed immensely” and that it is “not an accurate representation of Indian culture”, this one’s for you.
Vaidehi Gajjar, a staff writer and editor of Brown Girl Magazine, summed it up in one perfect sentence:
Maybe, this is just the beginning. I am hopeful that the show will steer more towards acceptance, growth, and being able to navigate identity and religion while being American. But I must acknowledge that the way the show started greatly disappointed me.
I want to end by applauding Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. You ROCK, girl. You took a wonderful opportunity to advance Tamil representation in media and you RAN with it. You worked with what you were given and that can never be faulted.
If you would like to hear more of these thoughts, my best friend and I discuss this and much more on our podcast, PB & Chill, out on Spotify and Apple!!