What’s With The Islamophobia In Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’?

“Are you out of your mind? You heard me say he was Muslim.”

By

Elizabeth Aziz
Screen grab from Netflix

In the words of the great Kelly Clarkson, “Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this.” This week, I was “people” and “a moment like this” was tuning into Never Have I Ever, a TV show created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, which premiered at the end of April on Netflix. 

Finally, the teenage dram-rom-com with a brown female lead I have been craving my whole life. And not just *any* brown female lead, but a strong-willed, difficult, grieving, imperfect brown female lead named Devi Vishwakumar (played by the wonderful Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). One with a temper, who smashes glass on the ground at school in front of her whole class when her nemesis scores higher than her on an exam. Not to mention… she has a single mom? AND goes to therapy? Progressive. Unheard of. I’m in. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, was I in for a ride. I started the show on a Wednesday. I spent the first couple of episodes falling in love with Kamala (played by Richa Moorjani), the seemingly perfect, clueless cousin from back home who lives with Devi and mother Nalini (Poorna Jaganathan) while studying in the US. I instantly felt invested in this all-female South Asian family unit. I related to and cried inside for each one of them for completely unique reasons at various points during the ten episodes which comprise the first season. 

By the time episode four rolled around, I almost forgot that I was yet again watching upper-caste Hindu Indians get to be the official face of South Asians in Hollywood™. I was fully invested by now and wanted to know how this family of strong, independent ladies were going to fare. 

In one episode, we see the ladies at a holiday party, their first since the death of Devi’s father Rohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) eight months prior. After an unsavory run-in with a swarm of judgmental aunties, Kamala and Nalini search for a place to sit and eat in peace. 

They happen upon a lovely woman dressed in purple (Aarti Mann) sitting at a table alone, who Kamala attempts to approach. Nalini keeps walking, “Come, come,” she insists. The cousin lingers for a moment in the woman’s presence, confused, ultimately following her aunt’s orders. The dialog that ensues next was, let’s just say… a moment.

Kamala: Why could we not sit there?

Nalini: That’s Jaya Kuyavar. She came from Chennai, went to UCLA for her doctorate, parents found her a nice boy back home to marry. Then she ran off with an American man… a Muslim. 

K: *gasps*

N: Parents never spoke to her again.

K: Did they come for the wedding?

N: Are you out of your mind? You heard me say he was a Muslim.

K: I feel bad for her. We should sit with her. 

N: Mm-mm, can’t risk it right now. We’re already borderline outcasts.

 

Pause. “Are you out of your mind? You heard me say he was a Muslim.” 

This line has been playing over and over in my head for days. Hats off to Poorna Jaganathan for tackling that character’s dialog with the hatred of thousands of Islamophobic aunties that came before. When she said that, I felt that. For those of you who haven’t seen the episode, there isn’t even an ounce of jest, let alone compassion in Nalini’s comment about Jaya’s situation. 

One part of me feels like art imitates life. Another part of me wants this entire episode pulled. This line was frankly very distracting from trying to convince myself this show is worth watching, something I didn’t question for a second when I first heard it was coming out but now found myself scrambling to justify watching at all. 

I collected myself. Okay, there are six episodes left. Maybe this topic gets resolved by way of a Muslim friend Devi makes, or some kind of positive encounter to cleanse the palette after this hellish moment. Nothing.

 

The season finale comes and goes, the credits roll, I grab the remote and pause the screen. What did I just spend the last two days watching? A hairy-armed, boy-crazy teen coping with the untimely death of her dad, who happens to have an affirmative-action style social life that includes exactly one person from every major ethnic minority group as per the U.S. Census. Why couldn’t she have a Muslim friend? Why couldn’t she at least have a hijabi lab partner? That seems like an easy place to insert a neutral/positive Muslim character. Maybe a brown boy crush that’s a different religion than her to spice things up? Anything? I could barely spot even a background character who seemed like they could maybe be Muslim.

This feels like a MASSIVE missed opportunity. How much more groundbreaking could this show have been if they weren’t afraid to somehow mess up the bag by including a single Muslim person? How freaking cool would that have been? 

I’m really hoping for some kind of turnaround in season two, if there is one. I would love for this topic to be explored, and for young Muslim girls to see themselves represented in this show that’s supposed to be some kind of watershed moment for South Asians. 

I don’t really feel like this show is a watershed moment for anyone. Not if it had to require putting down Muslims with absolutely no recourse. That doesn’t mean my 12 year old inner child wasn’t extremely psyched to see her own hairy armed, white boy-crazy reflection in the form of Devi, but like… ouch. Either way, she’ll be right here, waiting for season two with an open mind and heart. Can Nalini do the same?

READ MORE: ‘Skam’ Is The Hijabi Representation We Needed