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  • Riya Kumar

“Never Have I Ever…” Seen Misogyny in Desi Culture Accurately Displayed in Media

Never Have I Ever, the hit coming-of-age dramedy starring Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, recently released the third season for fans to binge on earlier last month. Directed by Mindy Kaling, the original release of Never Have I Ever in 2020 was a monumental success, both for Netflix and for South Asian representation in media. One of the first of its kind, the show follows a South Asian teen navigating high school in the US, written by actual South Asian people. For many viewers, the narrative hit right on the nose, depicting the many struggles of what it’s like to grow up brown in the United States—from dealing with stereotypes to nosy aunties to college admissions.

[Photo Credit: The Quint] Devi and her Season 1 + 2 love interest, Paxton, walk through the halls at Sherman Oaks, fulfilling Maitreyi’s dreams of fitting into popular society in the same way many white girls do in the media.

While the first two seasons of the show focused a lot on Devi’s struggles to “fit in” with American teenagers—especially after facing trauma in the years before high school—season 3 ended up being a long-awaited era of character development. The season begins with a seemingly more confident main character Devi, walking through the school hallways holding Paxton Hall-Yoshida’s hands. It was a clear picture of everything Devi had wanted from the beginning of the show: the hot boyfriend, popularity, and good grades! Frankly, the scene was something you’d expect to see at the end of a season, a happy ending to all the suffering Devi put herself through on the journey to “belonging.” But, of course, the relationship didn’t last long, bringing with its end lessons of what a “happy ending” truly is.

[Photo Credit: Teen Vogue] Devi and Des at a debate tournament, a situation where a South Asian boy like Des would easily receive more kudos than Devi, even if they performed equally well.

But even then, as Devi’s therapist wanted her to learn so badly, a relationship did not solve all of Devi’s problems! The introduction of her new love interest, Des, acted as a stepping stone for Devi into a new view of her culture and her worth, maybe realizing being Desi isn’t too bad after all (especially when the boys are as cute as Des). Des is the perfect brown boy every Desi mother wants — he’s passionate (about sea slugs), handsome (in the PG-13 long eyelashes way), and charismatic (to the aunties, of course). We see Devi begin to relax, seemingly enjoying her relationship for once. She’s moving in the right direction, learning that her fellow South Asians aren’t that bad (yay for eliminating internalized racism!) and that enjoying a relationship is way better than lurking in bathroom stalls trying to catch gossip about one. She also moves out of her internal tendencies to tie her worth to men and sex, desexualizing her relationship and viewing it more as a slow build to an exciting level of intimacy (another yay for eliminating internalized misogyny!) It really seems like Devi’s learned, and Des is perfect!

[Photo Credit: Radio Times] When Des first walks into the party, Devi is immediately lovestruck.

But then… shit hits the fan. When Nalini and Rhyah found out about the relationship, Rhyah brutally broke off the relationship by telling Des that Devi has “too many problems,” and she’s “not good for him.” All this came, too, after she comforted Devi during a PTSD flashback—which Rhyah very soon used as ammo against the teen. Suddenly, all the little signals throughout the season became clear. Des and Rhyah were always too close for Devi’s own good. Rhyah worried excessively about Des, even at one point asking Devi to bring him to a party. While she was sulking outside of Nalini’s house over it, Des reported that he has plenty of friends and didn’t seem to be concerned about his mom’s behavior. Red flags everywhere!

This theme just might be the best Desi representation the show has had [some are saying] and points out the widespread population of coddled brown boys whose moms are their everything. Kaling was clearly reaching for a very nuanced facet of the South Asian experience here, bringing together the themes of patriarchy and family obligation that are so important to family life in the culture. Those things both contribute to a cycle of patriarchy that’s incredibly hard to break—it’s deeply entrenched in most men and women in the community.

A lot of toxicity exists in the way many Desi women spend their time—bringing down others to further uplift themselves. In fact, throughout the entire season, Rhyah seems to be acting in her own self-interests—to the keen eye, the backstabbing at the end may not be as much of a surprise as it felt to the general viewer. Nalini is pretty quick to point this out too. When Rhyah tries to guilt trip Nalini about having been such a good friend to her in a time of need, Nalini hits her with one of the best lines in the whole season.

“You don’t think of me as a friend. You think of me as a little project that you can feed seeds to.”

[Photo Credit: Huffpost] Devi’s mother Nalini with her ex-bestie Rhyah, sits on the porch as Rhyah sulks about her all too perfect son.

This moment illustrates so clearly how Rhyah was just taking advantage of Nalini, to make herself a “saint” figure. We see this ultra-fakeness in “aunties” throughout the show, from Devi’s grandmother’s phony well-wisher friends who come to Navratri to aunties in earlier seasons who condescendingly question Nalini about her decision-making. This sort of behavior comes down to a phenomenon caused by the same misogyny many South Asian women harbor within themselves—the idea that life is a “woman eat woman” endeavor. When the patriarchy instills ridiculously unrealistic expectations into every Indian woman in the show, it’s only natural that each and every one of them tries to live up to those ideals of a “perfect life,” even if that means betraying their closest friends. Rhyah always subtly embodies this, commenting on how much of a golden boy Des is when Nalini opens up to her about Devi’s traumatic year and generally making condescending comments about Nalini’s lifestyle.

[Photo Credit: The Envoy Web] Rhyah painting Devi as a villain figure during the main confrontation between the two mother-child pairs.

It’s interesting, too, because the same patriarchy that causes Rhyah (and most Desi women) to be so competitive is precisely what Rhyah perpetuates by coddling her son so much. “His future's so bright, and I just wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of that,” she says to the mom-daughter pair, batting her eyelashes sweetly and holding her dear son’s arm. It’s precisely the “dear son” rhetoric that leads to such an uneven balance of power and responsibility in Desi society. When a boy does well, it’s the biggest news in the world and makes the mother look even better to the community. Desi society also tends to value women based on their ability to raise children, specifically sons, so Rhyah gets extra kudos for making sure Des is the ideal Desi boy. This also “justifies” Des’ admission into Stanford and all his other talents suddenly paving the way for his sudden cruelty to Devi.

Men in Desi families are conditioned to not have to compete the way women do in Desi society: we never see an uncle worrying what another will say about him, or a Desi boy fretting over marriage and children in the same way we see those things happen to women. Boys receive praise and attention for doing, honestly, ANYTHING- entirely because of backwards mindsets like Rhyah’s. Her view of the matter suggested that Des was a saint for even considering dating Devi. Once again, what’s left is a situation where men feel comfortable to do as they please, regardless of the consequences on the people around them, while women have to work twice as hard in the relationship to receive even an ounce of that validation.

[Photo Credit: Fangirlish] Nirmala (Devi’s grandmother) closely watches what her judgmental friends think of Devi, a scene which portrays the way Indian women use their children as tools to get ahead in society.

The show broaches this same pattern of coddling in the growth arcs we see for Kamala (Devi’s cousin) and Nirmala (her grandmother). Kamala spends two seasons drowning under the patriarchal pressure from elder women in her life to get married, play the dutiful daughter, and simultaneously balance issues at work and living in a new country. Even though she is undoubtedly the ideal Indian daughter—beautiful, kind, chaste, smart, self-motivated—she doesn’t receive an OUNCE of praise from aunties about working at one of the most prestigious universities in America. Kamala’s growth emphasizes her escape from this narrative, actively defying and ignoring the pain that comes with the judgment, and ultimately deciding to move out to pursue the relationship she wants free of it, even though her grandmother Nirmala doesn’t approve.

[Photo Credit: TV Insider] Kamala and love interest Manish awkwardly sit through Navratri, trying to get Nirmala to accept Manish as an adequate suitor.

However, the cycle of coddled brown boys even ties into Kamala’s life. While Kamala and Nirmala struggle with outwardly defying each others’ wishes, the two have a heart-to-heart where Nirmala puts aside her biased convictions about Manish and explains her reasoning. Nirmala’s husband didn’t amount to much in life and consistently shirked his responsibilities to provide for their family in a sufficient way because he never truly pursued a career. Nirmala’s husband acted as a prime example of what happens when brown men are spoon-fed attention and praise. Nirmala said he was “more of a dreamer than a doer” which is never accepted for women—Kamala’s dreams and ambitions consistently rank second in what her family expects her to do, especially during the arranged marriage plot. Those dreams are barely even far-fetched, too.

But, Nirmala’s husband spent a lot of time even in between jobs, which would just spell social death for someone like Kamala. Thus, Nirmala is unhappy with Kamala’s relationship with Manish (Devi’s teacher), because she’s concerned he too would have the experience of never really having to secure a stable job. Nirmala showcases something uncommon in Desi communities, which is truly opening up about generational differences and cycles of struggle to her granddaughter. Her doing so means so much for her growth and Kamala’s, allowing them to come to an understanding and put aside their differences.

The women in Devi’s family all struggle with their internal misogyny and the effect Indian patriarchal systems have had on them—the nuances in the season 3 storyline depict them with humor, grace, and the Mindy Kaling touch. The show weaves together complex concepts which plague South Asian culture into a digestible format, and it’s so important to recognize because these are not just dramatized. The same situations exist firsthand in many Desi people’s lives. Representation in the media just allows for these issues to gain traction and exposure, for Desi people to feel seen and understood, and to emphasize just how ridiculous the patriarchy really is.

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