…felt half seen
Please note: spoilers for the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” and internalized ableism will be discussed in this essay.
Never have I ever been so deeply conflicted about a teenage comedy-drama show.
Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,” which follows high school sophomore Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) through her reconciliation with her father’s passing, has made waves for centering the Indian-American narrative in the midst of a cast of characters that represent a wide spectrum of identities.
As a Tamil-speaking Indian American, I’m taken aback by the surprisingly accurate portrayal of South Indian culture in the show, my initial concerns about the execution subdued by the relatable jokes and details sprinkled in (or at least enough to excuse the mix-up of North and South Indian festivals and the mispronunciation of “thakkali sambar”). As a disabled person, I’m less than impressed.
In the pilot’s preface, tennis player John MacEnroe rapidly recounts the past year of Devi’s life, from the death of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) at a school concert to Devi’s burning crush on Sherman Oaks High School swimmer Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) to her sudden temporary paraplegia.
Typically, prefaces are used to set the scene and provide necessary background information for a series. While Mohan’s death and Devi’s crush on Paxton are key elements of the show’s plot, the introduction of Devi’s past disability serves only to emphasize her status as a high school outcast and justify her numerous attempts to change that image.
Over the course of the series, Devi’s former paralysis is brought up a handful of times through immature jokes, uncomfortable interactions with adults, and conversations with her therapist. But those references have such minimal effect on the episodes they are part of that they could be dropped altogether without drastically affecting the storyline. The only function that Devi’s disability actually serves is to rationalize her fall to the lowest rung of the social ladder and normalize social exclusivity on the basis of ability.
Not only is this a harmful idea to perpetuate, but, based on my personal experience, it also misconstrues reality. I never felt that using a wheelchair harmed me socially in high school, and the comments that Devi receives and witnesses just don’t happen in my real life.
In one scene, a student passing by mockingly calls Devi by the nickname “FDR.” Firstly, I wouldn’t even call that an insult, considering that the disabled president is famous for leading the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II and for passing Social Security. Secondly, most high school students have enough maturity to know that they shouldn’t make fun of someone’s disability, and I have never experienced such an insult from my classmates — avoiding the topic altogether would be a much more realistic move. In another scene, the principal of Sherman Oaks (Cocoa Brown) reassures students that Devi’s paralysis is not contagious. This is an extremely uncharacteristic and unprofessional statement for a school administrator to make, and Devi’s visible disgust at those words reflects mine at the writers’ misdirected and tasteless attempt at humor.
Nevertheless, my sister and I got many laughs out of the show’s numerous depictions of South Indian culture. From the amusingly earnest prayer she made before swamis on the first day of school to the discomfort she felt about wearing a sari in public, Devi’s troubles and concerns shine through in a lighthearted, relatable way. But there were a handful of awkward moments, instances that were too real and problematic but which went unchallenged by Devi’s headstrong nature and sharp tongue. One of these was when an Indian aunty at Ganesh Pooja stated that she felt “relief” that Devi was “no longer a cripple.”
The sentiment here and the language used to convey it reflect both the ableism and the ignorance that run deep in South Asian culture. I have personally been approached by many such acquaintances who promise me a cure using prayer and/or herbalism, all of whom mistakenly assume that I want to be different from how I am now and that my current state is a tragedy. A clever comment to quash this sentiment could have easily been snuck into the many slyly sarcastic remarks made by Devi and her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) during that conversation, but the opportunity slipped by unnoticed.
That theme continues through the series — the few accurate (in my opinion) portrayals of reactions to Devi’s past paraplegia perpetuate and normalize harmful narratives instead of addressing what makes them problematic. For instance, when Devi introduces herself to Paxton after swim practice in the pilot episode, he only recognizes her after she mentions that she had been paralyzed the year before. Her discomfort at this is something that I am painfully familiar with.
At the beginning of high school, much like Devi, I worked hard to distance myself from the disabled part of my identity. I was desperate to be known as the girl from New England, the Model UN girl, the girl who asked all the questions in history class — anyone other than “the girl in the wheelchair.” I saw my wheelchair as a constant reminder of how my classmates would never view me like they do each other, and I just wanted them to acknowledge that I brought more to the table than what they could see on the outside.
It took me some time to come to terms with my internalized ableism, and it started (unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me) with a history project. By reading the stories of the disability rights movement and meeting and befriending disabled activists during my research, I grew to appreciate the rich culture I had been cut off from my entire life. I realized that I didn’t need the approval of my classmates — nobody’s perception of who I was and what I could do could trump my awareness of myself and the actions I could take to express that.
As “Never Have I Ever” prepares for its second season, I hope to witness Devi have a similar realization. The first season has laid the groundwork for substantive discussions of minority experiences, employing a vibrant and intersectional cast of characters that are beginning to acknowledge and explore their identities. However, that’s not enough.
The writers of “Never Have I Ever” have eagerly embraced its intent to be a diverse and inclusive show. In order for the series to fully deserve that reputation, however, it must engage meaningfully with all minority groups. One way to do so would be to take steps similar to what gave Mindy Kaling her break in the entertainment industry: hiring a disabled writer. At the very least, having a disabled person involved in the screenwriting conversation would filter out distasteful or inaccurate jokes. At most, it would illuminate different perspectives to mainstream audiences and create dialogue that broadens people’s understanding of the world.
Vyoma Raman is a rising sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley with academic interests in the digital flow of information and its interaction with societal power structures. She is passionate about social history, data visualization, and murder mysteries. Vyoma has written an award-winning column on disability for the Daily Californian and seeks to blend her love for writing and computer science to better analyze issues faced by the disabled community and communicate them to a mainstream audience.
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