There was so much that made me excited about Mindy Kaling’s latest Netflix show, Never Have I Ever. A teen drama with a Tamil girl as the lead? A drool-worthy love interest? Quick witted comedic writing? For me, a shameless consumer of teen pop culture, it sounded like an absolute dream.
And I was not disappointed. From the opening scene when the main character, Devi Vishwakumar prays earnestly and irreverently to her Hindu gods on the first day of her sophomore year of high school, I was hooked.
Adding to my excitement was the fact that Devi’s two best friends, Fabiola and Eleanor are also girls of colour. In fact, the entire main cast of Never Have I Ever are people of colour, with just one exception. Ben Gross is the token white character in the ensemble. And his casting as Devi’s main academic competitor and arch-nemesis rather than dream-worthy crush was a refreshing step away from the blindingly white heartthrobs that usually dominate our screens. Instead, Devi spends much of the series pining after Paxton Hall-Yoshida who may just be the first bi-racial love interest I’ve seen in a teen drama.
The diversity of the cast alone was such a clear demonstration of why we need more racial diversity on our screens, particularly when it comes to teen and young adult entertainment.
First-generation kids like Devi, and like me, grow up in places where our worlds are influenced by so many different people and cultures but so rarely do audiences get to see that same multiculturalism in the shows that we watch.
What really sets this show apart though, is the way that it shows that first-generation kids are shaped in so many ways by the cultures of our parents. Watching the show, I was struck by the familiarity of the Tamil words and phrases peppered throughout the dialogue. I never knew that I was missing out until I heard Devi casually referring to her uncle as periyappa or her Dad talking about sambar. These are all words that I heard around my house growing up and until I watched Never Have I Ever, I hadn’t realised that the truth of my experience as a first-generation kid cannot be fully realised on screen without them.
The show also really beautifully deals with the conflicting feelings of being raised in a culture that is different from the one outside the four walls of the family home. There’s an incredible scene where Devi and her family are at the temple celebrating Ganesh puja. Watching the dancers at the temple, Devi says to the girl standing beside her, “They seem cool here but can you imagine how dorky they would look doing this anywhere else?”
It’s followed by what, for me, was the most powerful interaction of the entire series. Devi runs into an older friend, who’s back from college to attend puja. When he admits to Devi that he’s returned because he kind of misses puja, she’s shocked and can’t understand why. He explains that at college he met a friend who is proud of his Native American ancestry.
He tells Devi, “It made me think, ‘Why do I think it’s so weird and embarrassing to be Indian?’” It was a sentiment that I was all too familiar with.
Growing up, my culture felt like a secret world that my family and I got to experience. But I would struggle to communicate the meaning and significance of cultural practices to friends who had no lived experience of it. Like Devi's friend, it took going to university and making friends with some incredible people who are unapologetically loud about their cultures to learn to be proud of mine.
As a teenager if I took leftover idli and sambar to school for lunch and somebody asked me what I was eating I’d say something like, “Oh it’s just Indian food,” shamefully assuming that they wouldn’t understand if I told them what it was called. By being amongst people who are so wonderfully understanding and appreciative of diversity I’ve learned to be confident in sharing my culture.
Now, when my friends ask me what I’m eating, I tell them what it’s called, cook extra to share with them and give them the recipe so they can learn to make it too. That shift in attitude has been slow and gradual. So slow in fact, that Devi's conversation with her friend took my breath away because it so flawlessly reflected my own transformation.
Never Have I Ever reminded me of the importance of not just seeing racial diversity on screen, but of exploring the facets of life that are unique to different groups of people. From migrant parents, to conflicted first generation teens, to confident, culturally proud young adults. We all have unique and nuanced stories. Seeing those stories reflected back at us helps us all to stand taller and own who we are and how far we’ve come. But ultimately I think it makes the case for the need to champion diverse writers and support them in creating art that tells the stories which are true for them.
Zoe Victoria is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @Zoe__V