There’s a moment right at the beginning of Never Have I Ever, the new Netflix series, where Devi (the 15-year old protagonist) sits down in front of her home’s shrine (think of it like a household church altar, but for Hindus) and addresses the gods “Hey, gods… what’s a-poppin’?”. That’s right before praying to be invited to “a party with alcohol and hard drugs,” for her “arm hair to thin out,” and for a boyfriend who’s a stone-cold hottie.” Afterwards, I promptly posted online how I was glad I wasn’t the only one praying this casually, only to receive a reply saying “I guess I’ve been praying wrong this entire time *laughing emoji*.”
Although at first I was hurt by the reply because I felt it invalidated my experience, I slowly realized that feeling was due to the mentality that being Indian could only mean one thing. However, the vast variety of experiences encompassed in one culture are all valid. This is precisely what good representation should affirm, and it’s what NHIE does best. It is impossible to represent everyone through just one person. However, NHIE’s three main South Asian characters, and the interactions between them, make it possible to show a range of Indian-American experiences, therefore letting that many more people know their experiences are valid. They managed to keep the authenticity without reverting to stereotypes (no doubt due to the show’s creator, Mindy Kaling). NHIE is far from perfect, its portrayal of disability and use of actors faking accents have been criticized by viewers, but the type of representation it features is a definite step in the right direction.
We’re increasingly seeing this type of representation in shows like the recent Hollywood, which effectively portrays the tension between Asian-Americans who pass for white, and those who don’t have the privilege to. Not to mention one of the trailblazers in this area, Fresh Off the Boat, which showed the Chinese-American experience across three generations and recent movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell. It seems like the media is finally getting representation right.
Although we might like to believe it’s all due to entertainment executives becoming more socially conscious, that’s probably not the case. The rise in better representation is most likely due to profit, as most things are. Fresh Off the Boat was the second most watched new comedy in 2015. Crazy Rich Asians made over $33 million in the box office just in its opening weekend, with only a $30 million budget. NHIE was the most viewed series in 10 countries after its premiere. Organizations like Gold House even buy out whole movie theaters to support representation in the media. On the flip side, viewers, the people who control the profit made, have used social media backlash to deter anyone who dared to tread near an inauthentic accent.
It’s unfortunate that the amount of diverse, representational programming is controlled by projected revenue, because the comparative lack of pressure on more familiar projects, to be financially successful, means that they are still the default. However, hopefully with time, executives will realize that diverse programming doesn’t constitute a larger financial risk. If the show is good, people will tune in regardless of whether the family says amen or recites sanskrit prayers.
Written by Suraj Singareddy