The Quixotic Search for South Asian Media Representation

Never Have I Ever, the Netflix show co-created by Mindy Kaling, became a flashpoint du jour for the South Asian community in recent weeks for its depiction of an upper middle class Indian American family in Southern California, and again raised the seemingly-perennial questions about what counts as good “representation.”

For many, this has been a moment of feeling “seen,” for a major platform to center a narrative that features Hindu rituals, family dosa dinners, arranged marriage drama, and needle-drops of Bollywood songs.  Critics from both India and the diaspora have praised the show as “a win for Asian representation,” and “worth the wait,” with nuances that “could only have come from experience” that make it a comfort viewing, “because it feels good to consume as much of it as possible.

Characterizing the show as feel-good comfort is presents a telling contradiction – POC narratives are fraught, political acts by their very existence. What gets lost in chasing that tone? Others have taken it to task for being a superficial portrayal that propagates images of an upwardly mobile, class-invisible lifestyle that tries to make a statement about diaspora life without taking on the racist and casteist systems that all Indian Americans contend with, whether overtly or subconsciously in their day to day lives. These ills are covered comprehensively in a piece in Wear Your Voice Mag, in which writer Monica M details how “the show effectively normalizes casteism, Islamophobia, purity culture, and racial supremacy in what it presents as a relatable experience of ‘brownness.’”

Perhaps its biggest sin, for a show billed as a comedy, is that Never Have I Ever is painfully unfunny, caught between wanting to be an earnest representational work, but also resorting to cheap expositional dialogue and cultural references that are detached from the contemporary context, feeling more like an expression of Kaling than her characters.

So we are left with two poles of criticism for a text: success in ethical representation versus success as art. Through the show, I want to examine these two in relation to each other – how the pursuit of “representation,” “being seen” and “authenticity” are compromised by conventions of artistic style and genre. Further, if audience mirroring is the goal, then much of that success is determined not by the creators, but instead the audience, reading into the show’s cultural signifiers through their own nostalgia. Depending on where you fall generationally or politically in the diaspora, the goal of “being seen” is at best, quixotic, and at worst – despite the progressive veneer – stagnant.

Television series (and films) by their collaborative nature will have a much less acute depiction of a POC narrative than say, one of the many recent YA novels that follow Desi teen girls similar to Devi. Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher’s team has more non-South Asian writers and directors than Desi creators, which suggests a prioritization of the art first, representation second.

This is not the first show nor major Hollywood work to center South Asian American characters. Master of None, Silicon Valley, and Kaling’s own The Mindy Project already paved this ground. Never Have I Ever feels different in its attempts to straddle, perhaps cross a line, between being a show where identity is one plotline of the breezy comedic whole, which also implies that identity is becomes a storytelling tool for comedic effect, which is markedly different from say, The Namesake or Bend it Like Beckham. This also implies that the story is primarily intended for the mainstream white gaze.

Kaling’s vision is a type of liberal propaganda, a statement of POC allyship from Hollywood. But this conflicts with Kaling’s other purported aim: to be a representation of Indian American culture, for Indian Americans. For the white gaze, as an outsider, they can only see a collection of images detached from any cultural significance or nostalgia, which is validation enough. For the Indian American, the aim for genre tropes strays from any sense of authenticity.

This is the extent of Kaling’s diversity, one where inclusion still must meet standards of what fits into the perky popular television heroine vision she has for Devi. M argues that the show, in aiming to be a bubbly, soap-y teen dramedy in the vein of Riverdale, falls short where “Kaling is more interested in packaging Indian upper-caste Hindu American identity for the white gaze than she is in authentic storytelling.”

But what is “authentic storytelling?” Some argue that this is one Indian family’s story, and not every family’s, including the (charismatic but hamstrung) star herself, or that the recognition and empowerment is its own artistic merit.

The portrayals of South Asian culture in the show are broad and clichéd, which on the one hand is in keeping with the sunny, bubblegum aesthetic of the irreverent teen comedies it wants to be – the Cluelessesand Mean Girls of the world. Yet, unlike those, it lacks the irony or perspective. Those films, while set in white heteronormative worlds, present more lived-in worlds for their heroines, Cher Horowitz and Cady Heron. They spend their films trying to break out of and into, respectively, the social structures of their schools – which, even within the constraints of “high school cliques,” allows for exploring a sense of class division that NHIE elides, ever interested in having its characters leap across their personal trials to get to the punchline, or Devi’s next academic or sexual conquest. It’s too interested in the present to create a sense of structured history to its world.

What we’re left with is a collection of detached images, which means the representational success lies in how much a South Asian viewer reads into it – in essence, “being seen” by a show is also a type of seeing the self.

Of this viewership, Adichie has warned of the “Danger of a Single Story” and all that. But where Adichie cautions against substituting one story for an entire group, the growing popularity of “diverse” narratives makes them more diffuse; they lack specificity of image, perspective, backstory – the engines of effective storytelling. No, it’s the idea of diversity that’s the goal, but this overriding priority compromises how authentic the narrative can be.

Watching NHIE, it is impossible to tell what is meant as a humorous observation of culture, and what is a hyperbolic punchline. At one point, Kamala and Devi sit down to watch a Bollywood movie on Netflix, Kamala says it’s “only seven hours long” — Devi does not laugh nor roll her eyes. Who are these scenes for? Jokey dialogue for jokey dialogue’s sake undermines representation. It is ultimately a checklist of signifiers and references cobbled together, some from Kaling’s own life, some from the collective South Asian American imagination, and the rest just general 2020 referential zingers.

Jordan Calhoun’s review of the show on Black Nerd Problems correctly locates the source of many of these problems in the competency of the show’s writing, highlighting several of the same glaring issues of dissonance: it is “full of gags that undermine its well-written parts” or that “nerds are portrayed as endearing, but then the show bizarrely has a clumsy, food-obsessed nerd as an erroneous punching bag.” Calhoun pins the show’s failures, rightfully, on lack of a focused audience: “Is it meant for those who went to high school in the 90s, at the time of creator and writer Mindy Kaling, to relive the nostalgia of her high school experience? Or for today’s teens, for which Kaling’s experience is 3 decades outdated?”

The show hopes it just all blends well enough for the intended subliminal effect – what Walter Benjamin referred to as the aura of a work, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But with this three-decade dissonance, how do we reconcile the work that is artistically lacking, yet seems to fulfill at least some of its audience (including Kaling herself)? Does “authenticity” stem from the creator of the work itself, or is it more in the hands of the viewer?

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Recently, the writer VV Ganshananthan tweeted, “Representation isn’t worth much to me if it gives up critique.” While it’s not clear if it was directed at the NHIE, Ganshananthan’s comment crystallizes the lost punch that would make the show worth taking more seriously (but then again, here we are).

The POC artists who reach the greatest heights in the entertainment industry are those with the most acceptable forms of whiteness and its systems, but the flipside is a distancing from the community they represent. These are not exclusive binaries, but for a creators like Mindy Kaling or her South Asian American contemporaries, it takes a considerable effort for the work to have one foot in each space. It’s the paradox of the artist, that to create idiosyncratic work requires an outsider’s point-of-view looking in, one of skepticism and interrogation.

Ironically, the episode that has gotten the most criticism for its cultural depiction is also what I think is the relatively-best written:  “Never Have I Ever…felt super Indian,” is the most dramatically palpable of the series. Devi, her mother Nalini, and her cousin Kamala, attend Ganesh Puja at a high school gymnasium. Characters are dressed in beautiful saris and kurtas. Devi feels out of place, as the title suggests, while Nalini darts the glares of snobby aunties who’ve seen her for the first time since she was widowed, and Kamala, dreading her impending arranged marriage, befriends a divorcée facing shame from the other aunties after marrying a Muslim.

In doing so, it does present something the other episodes do not have: a sense of place, of history, of conflict. The characters are faced with choices, and though they make the anti-woke ones, it fulfills a narrative need. But the episode culminates with a catch: with the three appealing to a comical priest character for blessings, by offering him a ride to Home Depot, in a sort of “refound myself” Eat Pray Love ending that though, again is in tone with the show’s intended genre peers, is a function of white gaze – mystical eastern spirituality will calm all life’s ills. Even more egregious, is that by doing so, Kaling also cosigns a reverence to Hinduism at a time when Hindu nationalism has spurred authoritaian violence in the subcontinent, and through those social and religious hierarchical structures, has permeated into contemporary Indian America; as Monica M notes, “[Indian Prime Minister] 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.” Kaling’s awarness of these issues, or their space to be interrogated in the episode, is either nonexistent or not important in pursuit of writing her own experiences, combined with the desire to fit genre’s conventions. In the end, the torch-wielding show of diversity is erasing very real violence, and in pursuit of “being seen,” many South Asians are being hidden.

To what extent can we hold Kaling accountable for articulating this in her own fictions? It’s not surprising of course – despite her rising to one of Hollywood’s most prominent and successful Indian American creators over the past decade, she’s remained ignorant or silent on violent Hindu Supremacy or substantial introspection of being brown-skinned in America. Much like Devi, her identification never goes much farther than pointing at something and saying, “Hey that’s super-Indian!”

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Indians are suckers for American shows that feature other Indians, partly because we are curious about what our counterparts are up to in other parts of the world, and partly to shit on them with ‘What would they know about Indian culture?’ But the fact is, we still watch it, and love to hate it, or hate to love it.

Pallavi Pundir and intern Satviki Sanjay

In “An Indian Millennial and a Gen-Z Review Netflix’s Never Have I Ever,Vice staff writer Pallavi Pundir and intern Satviki Sanjay discuss this divergence in diaspora viewership, themselves separated by barely a decade. Pundir, who acknowledges she was “crushed” by the show’s use of stereotypes, concludes, “Initially, I thought it’s an age thing. Maybe I’m just too jaded for a teen show. But then I realised, hell no, Kaling writes for our generation, one that doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed to a cliché or a label, or caricatured.” Meanwhile, Satviki laments it as an unoriginal “buzzkill,” that “had a lot of potential to really talk about navigating high school as a POC, without inserting the stereotypical romance arc every-fucking-where.”

The need for mainstream entertainment to squeeze under-representated narratives into genre presents several issues: a compromise of nuance, a turn toward the white gaze, and in essence co-opting into a propoganda of diversity rather than, well, actual diversity.

As comparison, take the films of Gurinder Chadha, whose Bhaji on the Beach and Bend it Like Beckham are singular works that examine British South Asian womanhood, they are at once “her” story and yet not. There is little autobiographical in those films, but they are rooted in those experiences and remain lauded these day, despite having some of the same gross exaggerated cliches of overbearing aunties. Chadha is not without her own flatlined attempts at transcultural mediation with the gaudy and abrasive Bride and Prejudice or the soapy imperialist-fawning Viceroy’s House, perhaps steering too far away from the personal and into a global milieu she’s unable to root with proper nuance – locked, like Kaling, in genre constraints of a Bollywood melodrama or a British upstairs/downstairs sitcom. The zeal for genre itself becomes a sort of re-colonization of the imagination.

The extended project, we wish, of these creators like Kaling and Chadha is of course, to create a new collective consciousness for our communities, which until now have not been centered on the global media stage. But if “Seeing yourself” is a function of nostalgia, wanting to see the ways in which we grew up, before we went out in the world and had to negotiate, in tangible, independent ways, our identities with the larger heteronormative white mainstream, then this is already going to be a fundamentally different experience from our ancestors. How does “my” story become “our” story?

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In “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia,” Fredric Jameson argues that Benjamin’s critical writings on literature and politics work as a type of historicity – an attempt to collectivize lived experience – and fall into anxious gray areas between symbolism and allegory, unable to articulate whether they are, respectively, “psychological” breakthroughs or abstracted expressions.

As Jameson writes, Benjamin believed “The problem of propaganda in art can be solved, by attention, not so much to the content of the work of art, as to its form: a progressive work of art is one which utilizes artistic techniques, one in which therefore the artist lives his activity as a technician.” Perhaps the problem with Never Have I Ever is not that it fails to be a (truly) progressive portrayal of an Indian American family, but rather it is not able to make that work, while also committing to the conventions of a teen sex comedy.

With major Hollywood representational narratives, we are stuck between symbolism, the checklist of signifiers and references and allegory, in the conventions and archetypes of its genre. Or, as Calhoun notes on Black Nerd Problems: “Never Have I Ever exists as its own type of identity crisis within the genre of teen romance comedy. It neither leans into it like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, or aims to subvert the nerd-versus-popular-kid tropes like Sex Education or Booksmart. The result is a messy in-between space where Never Have I Ever relies on its Indian-ness to re-tell an old and tired story with 00s-era writing with a 00s-era message.”

If it is a South Asian cultural viewership that these works seek, then they are rarely presenting any actual version of reality, rather, reproduction through osmosis – ideas and objects that are tangible, familiar, and yet unrooted. What affect the audience does derive, I would argue, comes from a subjective reading into the next, derived from the viewer’s own nostalgia for their version of that reality.

In her essay “Nostalgia and its Discontents,” writer Svetlana Boym ruminates on how “nostalgia and progress are  Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that makes the division into “local” and “universal” possible.”

Boym goes on to argue that nostalgia can have a prospect toward the future: “The consideration of the future makes us take responsi­bility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory.” She presents the term “off-modern,” which “makes us explore side shadows and back alleys, rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narratives of history. Off-modernism offers a critique of both the modern fascination with newness and the no-less-modern reinvention of tradition.”

When the storytelling is not strong enough to support clear psychological character motivation, such as a scene where Devi’s paralysis, mysteriously brought on from the trauma of her father’s passing, is suddenly “cured” when she wants to sneak a look at a boy across a grocery store parking lot, and simply gets up — who is this for? How can we cheer our hip South Asian avatar hero’s triumph in a crass show of ableism?

Jameson posits a similar idea when he draws a distinction between Benjamin’s notions of allegory and aura: “where the broken fragments of allegory represented a thing-world of destructive forces in which human autonomy was drowned, the objects of aura represent perhaps the setting of a kind of utopia, a Utopian present, not shorn of the past but having absorbed it, a kind of plenitude of existence in the world of things, if only for the briefest instant.”

At the Ganesh Puja, the show decidedly moves away from this. The main characters’ arcs (both Devi and her mother with their loss, and Kamala’s impending marriage), hit at the crossroads the psychological – the authentic, real stuff they contend with – while being a woman and diasporic subject are in constant embattlement. There is a clear move toward the show standing in as an a representation, or allegory, for the collective experience of its intended audience. But in keeping with its genre, or aura, it is preferable for it to end on xenophobic caricature, with the clownish bon-mots of the Hindu priest. The aura cannot posit a utopia for Devi or her family, because it does not allow for a clear reckoning of the past.

In this way Kaling bends backwards like Chadha, placing her character a safe genre-specific archetype that renders him not only safe from any substantial critique of, say, Hindu patriarchal society, but also chops the leg off of the cultural nuance the show claims to have in the first place.

Of course, never did Kaling ever see her show as being anything other than a proud stride forward for South Asian Americans, and as much as we may continue to unpack the meaningfulness of her work ever since the Diwali episode of The Office, it is important for art – even goofy comedy – to look beyond comfort-food fulfillment of the past. The validating hit of “being seen” by a show like Never Have I Ever has less to do with smart, progressive storytelling, and risks creating a feedback loop of nostalgic recognition between author and audience that fails to bring in the voices that are most continuously marginalized. Worse, the allure of a pop, “mainstream” vehicle will, by its construction, whittle away any sense of authenticity, and leave us with little more than symbols and references that don’t truly amount to representation.

As a storytelling goal, “being seen” amounts to making a television show nothing more than a mirror. It instead becomes a de facto propaganda for those same systems of power and exclusion, while championing a white heteronormative gaze that will place it right on top of the Netflix home screen.

Aditya Desai’s stories and essays have appeared in B O D Y, Barrelhouse Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Margins, District Lit, The Kartika Review, The Aerogram, and others. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. He lives and teaches writing in Baltimore.

Author: Aditya Desai

Aditya Desai's stories and essays have appeared in B O D Y, Barrelhouse Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Margins, District Lit, The Kartika Review, The Aerogram, and others. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. He lives and teaches writing in Baltimore.

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