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Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ is more interested in packaging upper-caste Hindu American identity for the white gaze than she is in authentic storytelling.

TW/CW: this article contains spoilers for Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever”, and mentions Islamophobia, anti-Dalitness, anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, ableism, and fatphobia. 

By Monica M

Mindy Kaling’s new series Never Have I Ever follows 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she navigates her sophomore year of high school while coping with the death of her father by pursuing an attractive white-passing boyfriend to improve her social status at school. While attempting to center Indian-American girlhood and address colorism, the show effectively normalizes casteism, Islamophobia, purity culture, and racial supremacy in what it presents as a relatable experience of “brownness.” 

Never Have I Ever comes as an answer to a longstanding cry for “representation,” presumably directed at Kaling herself as one of few Indian-American TV writers. Unsurprisingly, its origins are in Kaling’s lacking any conception of the fraught nature of South Asian American identity and diversity, where ‘Princess Jasmine’ is the extent of how American media has failed South Asians in terms of representation.  Since it premiered a week ago on Netflix, the show has held the number one viewing slot on the platform in multiple countries. It’s been lauded as the platform’s ‘best teen comedy to date’(Forbes), an “empathetic exploration of grief” (The Verge), and like “homemade chai” (The Juggernaut), along with some lukewarm criticism for its reliance on cliches (The Swaddle) and “dumb tropes” (The Cut). 

The show functions at multiple levels: there’s its place in America’s long lineage of teen dramas, which it acknowledges by poking fun at Riverdale, a much more nonsensical teen show with a primarily white cast. Never Have I Ever is also a coming-of-age story, a first-generation migrant story, and so on to the point that one reviewer at Indian publication applauds her character for shedding “desi identity baggage” and making her Indian identity purely “incidental.”  This is a hard argument to swallow, considering the writing misses no opportunity to point out how desi Devi actually is (her name literally means “goddess” in Sanskrit), nor does it reconsider the use of clunky and generic “Indian” accents on her mother and cousin. She’s rebuffed several times at Ganesh Puja, where her friends tell her that she shouldn’t be embarrassed of being Indian, but proud. In fact, the writers work overtime to make this a show about being an Indian-American girl growing up in California.

As COVID-19 devastates the world, it seems joyless to waste energy on criticizing a series that’s brought so many people much-needed pleasure. But consider the background of this crisis in terms of the show: COVID-19 has given new fire to Islamophobia in India, a year after nationalist strongman, Narendra Modi, and his BJP party were re-elected through a campaign funded, in part, by upper caste Indian-Americans that resemble Devi’s family. The first act of this government was to place Kashmir under lockdown and then to launch one of the largest genocidal projects in the world with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. This same man, the “Butcher of Gujarat” is affectionately mentioned by Devi’s mom, who shakes her head at the idea that he would ever have to get Postmates. Imagine a white woman in Degrassi making the same joke about Hitler or Mussolini. 

It seems inept and out of touch to make a show like this and not be aware of this political moment. Like the creators behind shows like Elmhurst and Family Karma, Kaling is more interested in packaging Indian upper-caste Hindu American identity for the white gaze than she is in authentic storytelling. Shows like these continually erase the complex dynamics of South Asian experience and place their heads in the sand when it comes to critical socio-political realities that ground their shows. And this is frankly dangerous.

Representation vs. Equity

As South Asians have noted on social media , there are glaringly problematic issues in the show ranging from casteism, anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, ableism, to fatphobia. They call into question whether diverse representation is really equitable storytelling. For example, all the Black and other people of color in Never Have I Ever exist in a cultural void and have little texture other than to be cultural props for Devi.  Whether it’s Devi’s two friends or her therapist Dr. Jamie Ryan (Niecy Nash), their flatness is disturbing and offensive.  Devi’s Jewish nemesis-turned-friend becomes the butt of an oddly anti-Semitic joke about Nazis killing Jews while the show pretends like genocide is something only found in history books.

In the first ten minutes of the show, Devi is seen praying to an altar of Hindu gods, right before white tennis star John McEnroe explains to us that she lost her father, and until recently, she was paralyzed. In what can only be described as a gross display of ableism, Devi is miraculously able to walk after seeing her crush at the grocery store. Her paralysis functions as a totally meaningless plot device, which receives no further context in the show beyond being fodder for schoolyard insults. There’s also the tired model minority tropes, including a scene about Devi being just another smart Indian girl who is struggling in college applications, that surface uneasy reminders of how Kaling’s brother used blackface to get into medical school. 

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This is to say nothing of the show’s casual Islamophobia, where Jaya, a Hindu woman is ostracized by the Hindu community for marrying a Muslim. She tells Kamala that she regrets the marriage as a subtle universal message to Kamala that marrying the man your family picks is always better. Instead of using this moment to challenge Islamophobia, Kaling perpetuates casteist Islamophobia, in a time where India’s 200 million Muslims are being killed by Hindu nationalist mobs. Ultimately, Kamala gives up her Asian American boyfriend to accept pursuing a tentative relationship with the upper caste man her family found, since caste endogamy is a lot more desirable. 

The writers seem to try and subvert the typical arranged-marriage-is-bad plot, but get ahead of themselves by not only making Muslims bear the brunt of the joke but also doubly emphasizing caste endogamy as a natural and acceptable cultural practice. As Equality Labs historic 2018 report, ‘Caste in the United States’ showed, caste crosses borders, meaning that this practice of marrying within your caste and class has a long history of being mired in toxic purity politics and is being made defensible for Indian American Savarna (caste-privileged) people. Devi’s family is similar to many Tamil Brahmin Indian families living with the benefits of caste-privilege even while othered in the American racial imagination. 

These retrograde punchlines and questionable scripts deserve articles in and of themselves to examine their impact, beyond the scope of this piece itself. What I would like to focus on instead is what kind of stories we need as South Asians to have real power not simply something that looks like power. By vying to look diverse, the show seems to think that its various cliches and weak plots are above reproach. This isn’t unique to Never Have I Ever. A similar effort shows up in Netflix’s other pop offers: in Siempre, Bruja, where an enslaved Black woman falls in love with her master, or in Insatiable, where a girl (played by a thin actress in a fat suit) loses weight to become popular.  

Too often the liberal taxonomies of “new diversity” programming are used to help further old tropes of anti-Blackness, casteism, misogyny, islamophobia, and fatphobia. Where a creamy elite in each of our communities of color reifies these hegemonies with lazy storytelling and visual language rooted in diversity, not real equity.  

Normalizing Complicity

A scene from Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’

When Never Have I Ever aired, the bulk of the criticism it faced online focused on a screenshot where the object of Devi’s fantasies compares her beauty to that of Priyanka Chopra, whom she admires. The purpose of the scene attempts to point out how there are too few comparisons for Indian American girls in pop culture and media. It sidesteps Chopra’s long history of being sympathetic to Hindu nationalism. The very fact that Devi idolizes her signifies Chopra as a role model at a time when we need role models who will not maintain caste, religious, and racial hegemonies. 

Ironically, Kaling, who once said her primarily white cast at The Mindy Project should be seen for more than their race, now has truncated diversity in our own community. This is a writer who felt too intimidated to address an issue as serious as abortion in her show but hypocritically claimed that anal sex was controversial enough to be written about. In this latest endeavor, religious oppression and Islamophobia are too serious to be considered, but a plot point of adults lusting after an underage minor gets the green light. Writers like Kaling, who themselves were diversity hires, like to pretend they have no accountability to the identities they market.  As someone who was once marginal, Kaling should be conscious of her positionality to those margins. Her path, after all, was paved by Black and brown artists who made sacrifices to create this space for her.

Kaling’s lazy writing normalizes casteist alignments in burgeoning reconstructions of racial and ethnic identity in the US for a whole new generation. It shapes the emerging cultural cognition of its target demographic of young Indian-American girls who are desperate to be represented at whatever cost. At the heart of Never Have I Ever is an age-old assimilation narrative that goes even further by using a white narrator and overblown Indian accents to help its caste and class-privileged Indian-American viewers self-orientalize until they’re comfortably arranged inside the racist American imaginary, not outside of it. 

Against the backdrop of Donald Trump and Modi’s friendship, this recalibration of upper-caste identity as proximate to whiteness is damnable. As viewers, we push South Asian screenwriters to acknowledge these demons rather than brush them under the carpet of caste and white supremacy, while making way for new talent. The point is not that Kaling should have written a different show, (although we could have done without the blatant ableism and fatphobia) because she can only write about what she knows — casteism. Instead, the point is about our vigilance as an audience, particularly the show’s target viewers, in challenging its veiled attempts to render oppressive cultural homilies as acceptable. The stories we tell about ourselves matter now more than ever before because in a time of such deep polarization they can either help to bring us closer to genocide or help pave the way to understanding and for healing.

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This essay is not meant as a review of the show, but as a call to all of us in the South Asian American community that we deserve better storytelling. And that how we watch is as important as what we watch. In the work of caste abolition, we need to be aware of how upper caste creators pitch emerging cultural narratives under political circumstances that are constantly, intentionally, attempting to fit them into the logics of casteism, islamophobia, and white supremacy. By all means, those who want to watch a teen YA drama on Netflix and take politics out of it, can and should do so, but to celebrate the show for its representation ignores the millions of caste and religious minorities who are standing up to complicit storytellers. Never Have I Ever mediates the imagination of Indian-American identity in a time of deadly nationalism — and never has that mattered so much.

Monica M is an Indian organizer based in Brooklyn, NY, whose work focuses on responding to state violence and building South Asian power. Find more resources on caste apartheid through @equalitylabs.

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