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'Never Have I Ever' Complicates Its Asian American Characters. That's The Whole Point

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar In <em>Never Have I Ever</em>.
Isabella B. Vosmikova
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar In Never Have I Ever.

If it's tough being a teen, try being 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar from the San Fernando Valley. She's still processing the death of her father while trying to climb up the social ladder and get into her dream school (Princeton). But now she has a new frenemy to contend with; not one, but two boyfriends and her mom's trying to move her to India.

But as Devi would say, she's "chill as a slurpee, bro."

The second season of the Netflix series, Never Have I Ever brings back the cringe and chaos as Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), her mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) navigate their own conflicts at work, at school and in their love lives. But this time, the Mindy Kaling-created show assigns more depth to the Indian-American female characters by complicating their storylines — which is exactly the point.

Featuring Asian American women protagonists as ones with layered and multi-dimensional stories is essential to breaking down decades-old stereotypes of Asian women in Hollywood, says Harleen Singh, director of the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

"When we talk about racism and stereotypes, it's not just the ability or the freedom to vote and to become doctors and have degrees and do successful things," Singh told NPR, "It's also to just be human beings who have errors, who have wants, who are contradictory. Pardon my French, but to f*** up as much as anybody else."

The characters are more three dimensional

And that is what Devi does. We see her balancing Indian American identity and forgetting what she learned in therapy and accidentally spilling secrets. Nalini becomes more of her own character this season, trying to build a life after the death of her husband. Kamala feels constrained by her ridiculously nerdy co-workers and her sort-of-arranged-boyfriend. The characters each become three dimensional in their own stories.

(L To R) Ramona Young as Eleanor Wong, Lee Rodriguez as Fabiola Torres, And Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar in <em>Never Have I Ever</em>.
Isabella B. Vosmikova / Netflix
(L To R) Ramona Young as Eleanor Wong, Lee Rodriguez as Fabiola Torres, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever.

And it's not just the Vishwakumar family that breaks the mold.

Devi's friend Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), queen of the drama club, who is Chinese-American, is dealing with the shock of her mom walking out on her to pursue an acting career. She starts dating a fellow actor student who is emotionally manipulative, sparking concern from Eleanor's friends. The school's hottest jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), who identifies as half-Japanese, spends most of the season trying to raise his grades, and is struggling with people's perception of his intelligence.

The season shakes up the assumptions about Asian Americans

Then there's Aneesa Qureshi, played by Megan Suri, who brings another dimension to Asian American representation in the U.S. Aneesa, while also Indian American, is Muslim.

And that, says Melissa Borja at the University of Michigan, is noteworthy.

(L To R) Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar, Megan Suri as Aneesa, and Darren Barnet as Paxton-Hall Yoshida in <em>Never Have I Ever</em>.
Isabella B. Vosmikova / Netflix
(L To R) Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar, Megan Suri as Aneesa, and Darren Barnet as Paxton-Hall Yoshida in Never Have I Ever.

Borja, who teaches American studies with a focus on religion, says Aneesa's addition is a recognition of the religious diversity in the Asian American diaspora. It shakes up the assumption of who's considered Asian American, and who's considered Indian American. At the same time, Aneesa "complicates stereotypical portrayals of Muslim American people, especially Muslim American women," Borja told NPR.

Asian Americans are the racial group in the United States with the most religious diversity, most languages spoken and widest economic and education gaps.

Borja says this season was "really trying to offer a more complex portrait of Asian America," a step up from the first season.

"I would say that, overall, this whole season felt like a series of after school specials about various issues teens might experience, combined with an intro to an Asian American studies course," she said.

It dealienates what it means to be on screen and to be seen

Never Have I Ever isn't the first show to celebrate and expand on Asian American characters.

In the last few years alone, we've seen the hit trilogy To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Ali Wong's Always Be My Maybe, Crazy Rich Asians and even Kaling's The Mindy Project. Shows like NBC's Superstore also feature multidimensional Asian Americans, even as side characters in the series.

Jagannathan, who plays Nalini, points out the important difference between simply being on screen and being seen.

Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in <em>Never Have I Ever</em>.
Isabella B. Vosmikova / Netflix
Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever.

"As minorities, our screen time is increasing," Jagannathan told the Los Angeles Times, "We are featured more and fill more and more roles. [It's] a huge win. But our 'seen time' remains low. ... Character arcs for minorities still feel underdeveloped and stereotypical. As a result, the audience doesn't fully see us. They don't get the three-dimensional version of us, and it's that version that moves the needle. That's the version that can create empathy, understanding and change."

A recent study found that of the 1,300 top-grossing movies over the last dozen years, just 44 featured an Asian and Pacific Islander actor in a leading role.

The significance of Never Have I Ever, though, is that it doesn't just bring Asian Americans to the forefront. The show quietly smashes perceived stereotypes by simply allowing its characters to be fully human. And it gives Devi and others the space to be what Asian Americans are often denied on screen: the chance to be in charge of their own narrative, as complicated as they want.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
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