Written by: Serena Sengupta
Growing up, I longed to see someone like me in the media.
All my friends in elementary school had their idols – Hillary Duff, Vanessa Hudgens, Taylor Swift. Turning on the television, many of them could easily find a protagonist on any show that they immediately could resonate with; one that shared their own lived experiences. A character that was real; they might have had flaws, but they had depth and dimension, multiple interweaving layers that came together to form the character.
The only female character who “looked” like me was Princess Jasmine — but even then, she was from an Arabic background as opposed to being South Asian, like myself. I clung to this tiniest bit of representation I could find because it was all I had.
In elementary school, my friends and I would play “High School Musical” at recess – we would all pick a character from the movie, and pretend to be them. One of my friends chose to be Gabriella, and the other chose Sharpay. When it came to my turn to pick, they would shuffle uncomfortably, suggesting I play Taylor McKessie, Gabriella’s best friend. I agreed out of fear of being left out of the game, but part of me was saddened — no, disappointed — that they appointed me, the only person of colour in our friend group, to play Taylor, the only main woman of colour in the movie. To complicate things, Taylor was African American as opposed to being South Asian like me. It felt like they didn’t care about me or my background, they didn’t want to learn and educate themselves, and they assumed all people of colour are the same due to the lack of diverse representation.
Over the years, there was some South Asian representation in television shows, but much was left to be desired. First came the character of Baljeet in the Disney TV series Phineas and Ferb, followed by Karan Brar’s character of Ravi in the show Jessie. Although this was some representation, it played into stereotypes of how South Asians are supposed to act: introverted, ‘nerds’, easy targets for bullies. They had no depth and no realness about them. Both Ravi and Baljeet offered little value to their respective shows beyond comic relief; the forgotten side-kick character whose purpose was to compliment the main character.
I remembered watching these shows thinking, why don’t I see anyone like me? It was a damper on my self-esteem and made me think that I did not deserve representation in the media.
Fast forward to 2020. A new Netflix show, Never Have I Ever, launches and is instantly a hit. The main character? Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian-American teenager. Through seasons one and two, the characters are rich with diversity: Devi’s cousin Kamala, her best friends Fabiola Torres and Eleanor Wong, and even one of the main love interests, Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
Devi is a perfectly imperfect teenager: she makes the worst possible decisions that will have you screaming at your television, she is selfish, and she jumps to conclusions faster than I thought humanly possible. She can be inconsiderate at times and is extremely hotheaded.
She also is determined, hardworking, vulnerable, and compassionate. She feels insecure like any teenager and suffers from ongoing grief at the loss of her father.
Devi is real. She has multiple complex layers, as does any person, and she makes mistakes and learns from them.
The series itself is not perfect. However, watching it for the first time made me feel seen. Topics related to therapy and mental health, dealing with grief at the loss of a loved one, and even an overbearing mother that I had not seen before in this context made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my experiences.
An example of this is the fact that Devi goes to therapy. At first, her mother is not entirely supportive of this and picks jokes around the topic. While for the average watcher this may just seem like an interesting scene, these interactions meant so much more to me.
Mental health is often misunderstood in Asian communities, and it is not a topic that can always be openly discussed. It is often seen as a “Western concept” and a sign of weakness. The inclusion of this serious topic is crucial for viewers to know that their experiences are not isolated, and to see resolutions of it in the media.
Seeing proper representation in the media is powerful. It sends the message that everyone is welcome, and everyone has a place in the world. Never Have I Ever is one step closer to a world of representation in the media.