Netflix’s quirky teen comedy Never Have I Ever has gracefully tackled messy issues such as grief, immigration, and queer identity. Mindy Kaling’s sharp screenwriting has done an excellent job giving the show’s protagonist, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), all of the nuances of a first-generation Indian-American teen girl. At the same time, Kaling’s writing team also took time to give depth to secondary characters, particularly Devi’s relatives. Kamala (Richa Moorjani), Devi’s live-in cousin, was the subject of the series most serious and topical narrative to date. After the Bon Appetit racism scandal and so many other corporate diversity reckonings last year, Never Have I Ever explored the tribulations facing young female and BIPOC professionals today.
At the start of season two, Kamala jumped at an opportunity to join a research lab to advance her PhD studies. Once enrolled, she quickly discovered that she was the only woman the lab. One of her colleagues, Evan (P.J. Byrne), immediately treated her as a subordinate, making her clean beakers instead of allowing her to get down to scientific business. He also mispronounced her name after Kamala’s fruitless attempts at correcting him. As her mentor abused his longer tenure in the lab by making her work extra hours, Kamala slowly figured out that her work was being taken for granted. Despite working harder and showing superior intellect to her peers, sexism and racism determined her place in the hierarchy of the lab.
In art as in life, putting up with inferior treatment on the basis of race, gender, or both never ceases to be shocking to the person enduring it. In fact, the shock may be so great that one may not believe it’s happening at first. An excellent characteristic of this storyline’s writing was how Kamala was dismissive of her own mistreatment initially. When you’re someone in Kamala’s position, there’s an urge to make excuses for microaggressions, a psychological need to explain away condescending comments to avoid cognitive dissonance about being a victim.
That’s the trap of white patriarchy — denial of our victimhood within it is understood by the powerful as acceptance of its abuses. In Kamala’s case, her compliance with Evan’s wishes in the beginning was the set-up for worse transgressions down the line. It didn’t help that Kamala’s grandmother and boyfriend encouraged her to be submissive to her peer’s demands, telling her in so many words to shrink herself to escape from the lab rotation unscathed. Kamala’s boyfriend Prashant (Rushi Kota) told her more than once not to "burn bridges" to ensure her career longevity. In a comical scene, Kamala questioned Prashant about his advice, which was to somehow keep her head down while holding her chin up.
Even as she followed his advice by attempting to assimilate into the lab group’s nerdy activities, she was still treated as inferior. When Evan and Setseg came to pick Kamala up to go to a cosplay event, Nilani referred to them as her friends, but Evan was quick to correct her by saying they were Kamala’s bosses. After humiliating herself by putting on ridiculous costumes and pretending to like K-pop, Kamala discovered that her name had been omitted from a research paper she’d worked on that was to be submitted for scholarship.
When Kamala brought the issue to Evan’s superior, Dr. Peters (John Mawson), he gaslighted her by assuring her she was likely excluded from the paper for a reason. He told her that he didn’t get involved with the “politics” of the lab, and that she shouldn’t waste the hour he’d set aside for her talking about coworkers. He then proceeded to talk about himself as Kamala sat silently defeated. This reflects the fortification of oppressive structures in the U.S. Any perceived threat to the established social order is to be silenced, dismissed, and downplayed as noise. People with stakes in the system, typically those with interests in preserving their status within it, will always defend those who act in alignment with the status quo. Dr. Peters taking Kamala’s concerns seriously would have meant conceding power. He would've had to admit that biases existed within his science practice to keep women and people of color away from positions like his. Cutting marginalized folks’ confidence at the knees ensures that such exposure never happens.
But after weeks of gaslighting from her peers, it was none other than Devi who gave Kamala a dose of courage. Devi affirmed to her cousin that her gut instincts about being abused were correct, and encouraged her to fight for her dignity. Thus, near the end of the season, Kamala channeled Devi’s teen angst and, with the help of Setseg (Eugene Prokofiev), added her name to the research paper. When Evan caught her in the act, she threatened exposing him for the racist and sexist scum he was. Ironically, it was at this moment that Kamala’s lab mates erupted in cheers. This showed (perhaps unintentionally) how apathetic people are complacent to watch abuse happen until it is rightfully recognized as such, and will subsequently pretend they were on the victim’s side all along.
The lesson that this narrative illuminates is that it’s impossible to hold your chin up while keeping your head down. You can’t make yourself small and expect others to treat you with the dignity of someone who boldly takes up space. Acquiescing white supremacist patriarchy is letting the system win; swallowing down blatant oppression in the name of “being a team player” will keep women and BIPOC in a vicious cycle of suffering. The only way to shatter an oppressive structure, as Never Have I Ever showed us, is to growl valiantly in its face.
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