Representation, Never Have I Ever and the unlikeable female lead



In a scene in Season 2 of Netflix show Never Have I Ever, 15-year-old Devi Vishu Kumar storms past her ex-boyfriend Ben Gross snogging the new Indian student at her school, Anisa. Her chin is set, her eyes blazing, and in her fury, she kicks a bin over, her rage turning into the litter flying across the corridor.


I felt a burst of recognition watching this scene.


I, too, was an angry, intelligent, Indian teen migrant. I'm 31 years old, and for the first time ever, I feel genuine resonance with a television character.


*


Here's the thing no one ever really says out loud - most of the time, growing up as a migrant in a western democracy, you're not fully aware of the ways in which you're marginalised. You're still thrilled to be here, enjoying the basic liberties of a smaller population with a marginally more equal distribution of resources, and access to the kinds of luxuries that your relatives back 'home' aren't able to enjoy.


The narrative of the west being where 'better lives' are led is so pervasive that even with limited knowledge of the country that birthed you, you assume it must be rough going, because you know you have to count yourself lucky to have gotten out.


(This narrative, of course, isn't borne out in the linear fashion in which it's told. In fact, for the family and friends still living 'back home', it's confusing and insulting, forever implying that their lives are lesser than yours, that their home is inherently less valuable. It takes years to work this out and to decolonise your mind).


Because you're forever trying to project yourself into the squeaky clean world of the west, as an active participant in the dream of capitalist success, it makes sense to inhabit the world of popular television shows, even when they don't represent you.


Luckily, the imagination that you've developed as a product of your migrant upbringing - the same imagination that spurred your parents to dream of the 'better life' they yearned for, and that helps solidify the ambitions that drive them to work hard, to push you towards an education and a career - this imagination allows you to navigate the incredibly white status quo of mainstream pop culture, and to wear the lives of the white, cis, het, rich characters with only a mild sense of dissonance.


But the mildness is a product itself of a wilful ignorance, and once it's troubled, it's hard to go back. Once you get a taste of representation, you start to question why the status quo exists in the first place.


For me, that first taste was Bend It Like Beckham.




I was BLOWN AWAY when I saw an Indian girl on screen who wasn't the lead in a Bollywood movie. She spoke in English, was culturally confused, and ends up with a white boyfriend. For years, I told everyone that Jess in Bend It Like Beckham 'was basically me'.


Except... she really wasn't. Jess was Hindu. I was raised Muslim. Jess was athletic and loved soccer. The one time I played team sports, I spent the entire time running away from the ball. Jess wasn't that interested in her academics. I was a straight up nerd. Jess didn't care much about fashion. I was obsessed with clothes. Jess seemed like a genuinely nice person. I was a moody, difficult teenager who had moments of being genuinely unlikeable.


Really, the only thing I had in common with Jess was that we were both Indian, cis, and felt alienated by our cross-cultural experiences.


But because there was literally no other options of a pop-culture role model from my background, I latched onto Jess. When friends said they loved Bend It Like Beckham, I secretly thought 'not like I do', because I felt like that movie had been made for me.


I was excited by it on so many levels, not least of which was that Jonathan Rhys Meyer - an objectively very attractive white guy - picked Jess in the end and not Kiera Knightley's character. Maybe that meant that a hot white guy would one day choose me over my hotter white friends! (In the end, only one dude ever did, but thankfully he's perfect so we're still together a decade later). Maybe my family could accept my choices the way that Jess' family eventually accepted hers!


As a stressed out, confused teenager, I desperately needed something positive to guide me into the future, so I chose Jess' happy ending to reflect what I hoped mine would look like.


But the older I got, the less connected I was to my family and my heritage, and the less I felt I could relate to Jess. Jess' entire personality is comprised by two things - soccer, and trying to navigate how to play soccer around her parents' cultural expectations.


My experiences were more complex than that. I felt like an outcast at home for being too white, but equally I felt like an outcast at school because I was also just a big ol' nerd (writing Harry Potter fanfiction, wearing objectively unflattering clothes, being 'curvy', covered in acne, and let's face it, having anger management issues).


If only there was more than ONE character in all of film and TV who was even remotely similar to me, so I could engage with pop culture the way that white teens were able to, exploring different elements of their identities in different ways through different characters.


That's why watching Never Have I Ever on Netflix has been such a monumental moment for me, even now that I'm more than twice the age of the lead character. NHIE follows LA teen, Devi Vishwakumar, as she desperately tries to manage her grief after her father dies by trying to get laid.


Devi tries to bone the hottest guy in school, Paxton Hall Yoshida, but soon realises that having no strings attached sex for her first time, while being crippled with unresolved grief, maybe isn't the smartest idea. Hijinks ensue.


Co-written and produced by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, there's lots to love about this show. The aesthetic, the casting, the costumes, the humour, Darren Barnet's abs, etc etc.


But it wasn't until my third re-watch of Season 2 that I was able to really understand just what it is about NHIE that is hitting me in the feels. I get it now though - I feel seen by this show because Devi is a thoroughly unlikeable lead. Much like me.


*


If you grow up watching primarily Bollywood movies, you're easily indoctrinated to believe a certain line about Indian women. The overarching message of Bollywood in the 90s and noughties (the time period when I was regularly consuming it), was that good things happened to good Indian girls. Good things like being pursued by your ideal man, being accepted and supported by your family, being a good mother, having any kind of social status.


To be good, you had to tick a few boxes - you had to be pretty, thin, demure, modest, respectful, sweet and obedient. If you weren't these things, then that was a plot point which was similar to the narrative of Taming of the Shrew - your aberrant nature was like a challenge given to a strong man, who would eventually subdue you and make you his own.


Growing up, I understood that I was failing when it came to being a good Indian girl from my tween years. I wasn't skinny. I wasn't fair skinned. I wasn't obedient. I had too many opinions. I was too emotional. I was too western. I was too smart. I wasn't domestic.


Some of these same messages were reinforced by western pop culture, and even when a more challenging, independent female lead was visible, the context of those shows was so wildly at odds with my reality, that I couldn't really relate.


I mean, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was kick ass - but I wasn't even allowed to attend a sleepover, let alone roam the streets at night killing the undead.


When there was an ethnic character in a show, they were either a gimmick (think Fez in That 70's Show, culturally too different to relate to (any African American characters, who were often the only sort of visible diversity in American culture), or wholesome as fuck (see earlier notes about Jess in Bend It Like Beckham).


As a ratbag, this did nothing to make me feel normal and validated. Instead, I felt very, very alone.


Watching Devi in NHIE, I was enthralled. This chick is rude, selfish, angry, chaotic and inconsistent. She's also smart, ambitious, empathetic, principled, and strong. I could see a lot of myself in her, the good and the bad, and I was blown away when I thought about what it would have been like to have had Devi in my life when I was 15.



For a start, Devi's appearance is in itself radical, in that she's both brown, and also not super skinny, fashionable but still awkward, pretty but not in the conventional ways. And she still attracts affection from some guys, and still engages in fashion and culture without any self consciousness. At no point is Devi's appearance the subject of an episode, or a factor in whether or not her love interests are into her.


On top of this, Devi is infuriating. She isn't a martyr like Jess - devastated by the iron fist control of her parents, but unwilling to rock the boat until it's rocked for her. Devi is a rude bitch who drives her mother crazy. I was that rude bitch too. I finally felt like my disobedience as a teen wasn't just a source of shame and embarrassment for my family, but was a normal expression of stress from a kid just trying to figure out who she is in the context of so many variables.


But most importantly, none of Devi's earth-shattering realisations are about changing herself to better fit other's expectations. She isn't cured of her dickhead behaviour. She isn't absolved of the expectations of her culture. She doesn't get a makeover and suddenly attract the object of her affections. She muddles through life, and some things work out while other's don't.


She's a teenager. She's Indian. She's American. The three things factor into her life, but no one element defines her.


As far as good Indian girls go, Devi is not one, and she never will be. Her bouts of rage and frustration in the show are achingly familiar. I was angry permanently from the age of around 12 to 25, and I realise now that a lot of my anger was because I didn't feel in control of my life (something that Devi also struggles with).


Growing up as a migrant, you're trapped between the cultural difference between how your parents see the world, and how your peers do. No matter what you do, you're not meeting someone's expectations, and it's exhausting.


Like Devi, I've kicked a few bins over in my time. But unlike Devi, I didn't have a supportive cohort of equally diverse adults and peers who could really understand the rage, and make allowances for me, or validate my experiences.


The fact that Devi is unlikeable, while also firmly being the lead character in NHIE, and not just there to add colour to a more likeable character's narrative, feels like an absolute revolution to me.


*


Aside from the fact that NHIE is objectively a good show, it is also full of humour and jokes that South Asian migrants will understand, which may feel opaque to white audiences viewing it. And, selfishly, this makes me like it even more.


For so long, I've done my best to understand and interpret cultural norms that are at odds with my life, because mainstream culture is created for the majority. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - or at least it wouldn't be, if there was also a wealth of diverse narratives on offer.


It's not such a huge stretch of the imagination to relate to characters who are different to me on TV and in movies, because they're all fully developed and fleshed out, and good writing and direction make it enjoyable. Similarly, I know that there are loads of white fans of NHIE, who have been able to make the same leap of imagination themselves to enjoy the show.


But it is gratifying to be on the other side for once, cacking myself at certain tropes that are hilarious to me (the entire character of Devi's grandmother, for example), but maybe aren't as obviously amusing to non-Indian viewers. Or at the very least, the depth and layers of the humour on view are more intense for me than they might be for my white friends, who don't have the same point of resonance.




There are also a series of eerie similarities between the plot of the show/anecdotes littered throughout to my actual experiences as an Indian-Australian teen. So to round out what is really just an obsessive rant about a show I love, here's a listicle of shared experiences:


Never have I ever gotten a nose ring to be a badass, only to have my parents celebrate it as an act of Indian femininity


Devi and her mates sneak out to a tattoo parlour during a sleepover, and she gets her nose pierced. Despite being mad at her for sneaking out of the house, her mum admits that the nose ring looks nice on her, as a way of celebrating Indian femininity. It takes the rebellious wind out of her sails somewhat.


I was 14. I had just discovered punk and emo music. I had very few ways to demonstrate how 'cool' I was, but if there was one thing I knew my friends would think was badass, it was getting a facial piercing. Half of them didn't even have their ears pierced, whereas mine were pierced when I was a 3 month old baby, a common occurrence in Indian households.


Of course, what I didn't mention to anyone was that my parents were thrilled when I asked to get my nose pierced, given my two sisters both had nose piercings, one from when she was five years old. FIVE.


Never have I ever had to use a school-sanctioned charity event to live out my hormonal teen fantasies


Devi is forced to participate in a 24-hour relay for charity to make up her P.E. grades. Of course, when you have a bunch of teens from lots of schools spending the night camping out together with minimal supervision, it becomes a much less wholesome experience than their parents may have expected.


When I was in year 10 and 11, I did the 'Relay for Life', a 24-hour relay raising funds for cancer research. It was the only time each year when I was allowed to spend the night not at home under parental supervision. My entire friendship group did it, and we spent the entire time flirting, engaging in various drama, and letting our hormones and emotions run wild. I loved that this experience is common across Australia and the States, and that other South Asian teens have experienced the high of being allowed to roam free under the guise of charity work.


Never have I ever had to justify my male friends to my over zealous Indian parents


Literally every time Devi's mother catches her in the vicinity of a boy, she flies into an Indian-parent rage. Some viewers might think this is overdone, or too much of a stereotype, but believe me, her reactions are mild compared to what my parents would have done!


I wasn't allowed to date guys, and definitely was discouraged from hanging out with them one-on-one. There was only one male friend all through school who my parents liked enough to give him lifts home, or converse with him when they saw him.


Still, one time I ran into him at the shopping centre while I was with my mum, and he automatically hugged me. The look on my mother's face was of pure horror (she clearly hadn't recognised him). I had to do some swift explaining to avoid a full blow meltdown over my immodest behaviour.


Never have I ever had my father turn off a cartoon because he thought it was too 'indecent'


Devi's new classmate, Anisa, is an Indian Muslim, and at one point she says, 'My mum covered my eyes during the kiss in Lady & The Tramp because she didn't want me getting any ideas'. I almost fell out of my chair laughing - I knew that feeling well!


Famously, my Dad used to change the channel whenever a particular ad for string cheese came on, because there was a cartoon cheese taking a shower with suggestive music, which was enough for him to deem it inappropriate.


I don't think my parents ever intended to explain sex to us, leaving that for us to discover on the night of our arranged marriages.


Never have I ever had to hide my white boyfriend from my parents


Despite her alarm when she catches Devi kissing, Devi's mum is actually pretty relaxed in comparison to mine, and Anisa's. Like the latter, I was absolutely forbidden from dating, and it went without saying that any non-Indian partner was strictly out of question.


That's why I hid my white boyfriend for a year, and eventually confessed our relationship over email, because I was a wuss and also realistic about the reaction I could expect. In happy news, we're still together a decade later and my dad now plays squash with him, so some things do come full circle.


Never have I ever been supported by a gaggle of intense, pushy Indian women


Maybe the true romance at the heart of Never Have I Ever is the unbreakable bond between Devi, her mother, her cousin and her grandmother. Four Indian matriarchs, living together and supporting each other through every crisis and adventure.


I've definitely been lucky to have the support of my mum and my two older sisters for my life - even when we didn't agree on everything, having pushy, strong, fierce Indian women behind me has made me strive for everything I've ever achieved.


I know I'm the pushy Indian woman behind my friends and family as well. I didn't realise why this was a good thing until I saw Devi elect herself as Paxton's pushy Indian mother and help him reach his academic goals.


*


When it comes down to it, seeing a brown woman on TV may seem like a relatively trivial thing to celebrate. It's true that the issues of systemic racism that I've experienced throughout my life might seem unrelated to what we do or don't see on our television screens. But of course, the core issue at the heart of racism is the 'othering' of marginalised communities.


When we're not seen or heard in the forums where people ascribe value, it's easy to instead rely only on the negative stereotypes of Indian migrants that are pushed by racist, right wing rhetoric. My early years in Australia were defined by Pauline Hanson's racist assertions that migrants weren't welcome here, weren't Australian, and were indeed a threat to the Australian way of life.


Other than Apu on The Simpsons, there were no Indian migrants visible in pop culture at the time that could suggest anything outside of the stereotype she was promoting.


Shows like NHIE show that human experiences are more often similar than different. And that difference where it does exist is cause for celebration, not fear.


It might not be saving lives, or making a tangible difference in the immediate sense - but it has an immense impact on our sense of self worth and identity. And that is something that I never thought I'd reconcile.