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Why ‘Never Have I Ever’ is More Than Just Another Teen Rom-Com
When I was in high school, I loved teen dramas. From Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., to Degrassi, I couldn’t get enough of the classic coming of age troupes of first loves, female friendships, and figuring out how to navigate life after high school. Fast forward to today as a 28-year-old adult, I have found it pretty hard to re-watch my favourite shows growing up without cringing or criticizing the excessive plot lines, and the styling and makeup of the actors. Perhaps I’ve become cynical after some years spent in the ‘real world’. I mean, weren’t these supposed to be teenagers? The issues these characters faced in the shows I once loved felt so out of step with my own experiences. That being said, when I heard Mindy Kaling was developing a new coming of age rom-com featuring a young Tamil-Canadian actress I was intrigued but remained skeptical.
Shanelle Kandiah
Public Servant
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Cue to the opening scene of a brown skinned teenage girl named Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), asking a set of Hindu gods for help with a number of requests, including, but not limited to, having less hairy arms. At the onset I quickly forged a bond with this character, that for one, bared a resemblance to an actual teenager, and two, voiced insecurities that I myself experienced growing up as a child of immigrants. 

As the show goes on we see Devi manage life as a teenager in Southern California, juggling at times competing expectations as a daughter, friend, high school student, and Indian-American. Added to this is an unexpected tragedy which tacks on the emotions of grief and loss to the day-to-day pressures and goals she shoulders of being a good Indian daughter, going to her dream university, becoming popular, and finding a boyfriend. 

While at first glance this description may seem like nothing new, as there have been several movies in recent years that have depicted experiences of first and second generation Asians, including The Big Sick, To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Blinded by the Light, Never Have I Ever brought another much needed layer to the experiences of this historically underrepresented group on screen.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard points out the show’s diversity as being aggressive and forced. Devi is best friends with both a Chinese-American girl, Eleanor, and Afro-Latin American girl, Fabiola. Her older cousin Kamala dates a Chinese-American boy, Steve. And her high school crush Paxton is half Japanese. Not to mention, Fabiola is also a queer character. 

This criticism went right past my head as it didn’t register to me at all while watching. On a personal note, I went to a diverse high school where everyone I rubbed shoulders with hailed from a different ethnic background than myself. My dad is Tamil and my mom is Filipino, so seeing the relationship between Kamala and Steve did not come across as contrived, but real. It reflected and resonated with what I have seen reflected in my parents own relationship. And as a mixed race person, seeing Paxton as a male love interest was welcomed, especially considering what I have come to expect in a love interest from this genre — a white male. 

Another criticism I’ve heard is that the show sugar coats the immigrant experience and fast tracks the characters into suburban middle-class life, thus failing to highlight some of the struggles immigrant families face, including dealing with language barriers, managing feelings of alienation, and working low wage jobs.

While I agree that the show does not tackle these issues head on, I ask — does it have to? 

The experiences of Devi and her family provide a glimpse into the many wide, complicated, and diverse experiences of Tamil families living under the backdrop of the Western world. Of course they should not be taken as representative of every Tamil family. What the show does and should be given credit for is spotlighting a Tamil family, something that up until a few weeks ago I had never seen in a mainstream TV series.

Don’t get me wrong, the show certainly has its fair share of cheesy moments that you come to expect in a teen rom-com, but by turning the spotlight on the life of a young Tamil girl, in that action alone the viewer is exposed to moments that might not otherwise be shown to public audiences — celebrating Ganesh Puja, and people living in the U.S. gearing up for an arranged marriage, for example. 

To me, Never Have I Ever offered a much needed and highly relatable take on the experiences of a brown teen growing up in North America. I only wish it would have come out over a decade earlier when I was still in high school. 

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Shanelle Kandiah
Public Servant
Shanelle joined TamilCulture in 2014 and has written several articles on people and iss...
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