Return to Article Details Identity and Humor in Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever and Ambivalent Identity

Never Have I Ever (2020-2023) is a Netflix show that explores the story of the 15-year-old protagonist Devi Vishwakumar, who portrays a layered and ambivalent perspective of her Indian American identity through humor. The premise of the series entails features of a high school teen comedy show, which usually consists of conventional characterizations and worldbuilding. School becomes an important setting in such narratives as it is a crucial social institution that shapes and influences teens’ identities, relationships and social status. Stock characters of high school comedies include nerdy, overachieving and extremely academic types in contrast to hip, cool, popular, charming, and sports enthusiasts (Quail 461). There is a hierarchy and categorization where cool characters are placed higher in the social order of the school ecosystem than the geeky characters, who are usually portrayed as outcasts (Lane 5-8). The world building of an American teen comedy also consists of major conversations, conflicts, and revelations mainly taking place in the school hallway around the lockers, school gyms/sports events, in classrooms and at parties that are thrown by cool and rich teenagers in the absence of parents. Teen comedies and dramas furthermore include unrequited crushes, budding first relationships and, most importantly, discovering and exploring oneself and creating an evolved and appealing identity by the end of the series (Garcia-Munoz and Fedele 136).

Never Have I Ever incorporates such tropes and the setting of high school to highlight the source of Devi’s conflicted Indian and American identity. The first scene of the show portrays Devi requesting the Hindu gods to give her thinner forearm hair, the opportunity to turn down cocaine, and facilitate a relationship with a “stone cold hottie” (Season 1 Episode 1, 00:00:34). This scene already sheds light on the merging of her Indian and American identity. She prays with full dedication (as she is supposed to do) but the content of her prayers involves her desire to be elevated from her status of an outcast at school, an “unfuckable nerd,” (Season 1 Episode 1, 00:00:40) to a popular and likeable teenager, instead of praying for better grades and getting admitted to Princeton. Devi’s Indian nerdiness, accompanied by her previous psychosomatic paralysis after her father’s sudden death, positions her as an outsider more intensely. Similarly, her best friends Fabiola and Elanor seek interests and hobbies that are stereotypically nerdy: Fabiola is obsessed with robots and is the captain of the robotics team, while Elanor is significantly interested in acting and takes part in the school theatre. Primarily, the narrative of popular teen shows focalizes on the perspectives and lives of the popular teenagers, who are predominantly white as can be seen in current shows such as Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl and Riverdale. Similarly, shows such as Gilmore Girls, Community, Modern Family, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory consist of characters that are conventionally viewed as ‘outsiders’ and produce relatability and identification. Never Have I Ever predominantly focuses on the nerdy and the unpopular group of the school, instead of the ‘cool kids’ group, its narrative allows identificatory potential with such groups. Here, teenagers who are placed lower in the social ranking are the central protagonists instead of being reduced to minor characters.

Humor plays a crucial role underlining various contestations Devi goes through in terms of grappling with different aspects of her identity ranging from that of the American, Indian, Indian American, to being a geeky outcast and finally her so-called self-identity. Identity here is not a fixed, unchanging concept, but rather a cultural identification that is “a construction, a process never completed – always ‘in process’ (…). Identification is, then, a process of articulation, a suturing, an over-determination or a lack, but never a proper fit, a totality” (Hall and Du Gay 2). Identity formation thus involves fragmentations, fractures, contradictions and positions (Hall and Du Gay 4). Such processes of fragmentation occur particularly when ambivalences arise between collective dimensions of group identity in contrast to the individual.

Devi is a character who constantly faces such ambivalences and juxtapositions across the different social institutions (school, family, the Indian community) and cultural contexts she engages with and in, and she frequently experiences these as a state of in-betweenness and hybridity. She hesitates to fully embrace her original culture because she feels it is regressive, highly focused on traditional values and rules and sometimes being overwhelming and stifling. Devi’s ambivalence regarding her identity can be understood as a process of ‘othering’ in which she creates a binary distinction between the Self and the ‘Other’ within her self-identity. The self in Devi’s case represents the norm, which is part of the dominant discourse, of the American self, through with which she aligns herself more strongly, while the Other is excluded from the norm that she desires to be a part of. As Robins explains,

"[T]he juxtaposition to the Other […] remains the essential, albeit never the sufficient, condition of self-understanding […]. The story of how this temporal contrast became mapped on to a geographical polarization – with the dynamic West distinguishing itself from the static and immobile Orient – is now a familiar one. Its Other was made to symbolize whatever was alien to Western modernity and its project of development (62)."

Devi’s attempts to be more American can be attributed to this geographical and cultural polarization. Her father strived for the American Dream when he moved from India with his family in pursuit of a better life. Devi has always been closer to her father, whom she idolized and wanted to be like him in every way, and therefore her inclination towards building an American identity is due to her father. Moreover, Devi is also the only Indian girl in the school and she believes that this positions her on the periphery of society, so she strives to feel more accepted and included in a Western, American cultural setup. As a second-generation Indian American, Devi has also grown up with conservative stereotypes and representation of the Indian community, making certain things sometimes embarrassing for her. In this complex context, Devi’s perception becomes a defining statement for her cultural and political identity. However, Devi’s love interest in the school is Paxton Hall Yoshida, also a second-generation immigrant, a Japanese American, but unlike Devi he wholeheartedly accepts his identity. He passes as white as nobody knows that he is half Japanese hence and when he reveals it, both his classmates and Devi are taken by surprise implicating how race is inadvertently linked to physical and biological markers of appearance. Devi’s shame in following her cultural norms also arises from internalizing the above-mentioned negative stereotypes and limited perceptions of her own culture. However, she is also not simply defined by her conflict between her aspiration of being a cool American teenager and a perfect Indian daughter but also, in the quest of being popular and likeable, Devi becomes selfish, hurting her friends and mother and committing terrible mistakes, some of which can be attributed to denial and the suppression of her grief and pain of her father’s death. Therefore, Devi’s character becomes a complex, flawed and totally humane one.

Ambivalent Humor

As Devi’s identity is infused with ambivalence, in-betweenness and paradoxes, the humor of the show mirrors this identity conflict and becomes one of ambivalence. Humor generally is an inevitable part of an individual’s life, yielding power and significance in forming social relationships, in creating in-group identity, in reasserting one’s position, identity and tradition. Humor acts as a tool to (re)inscribe one’s social and cultural position when it is performed by the members of the dominant society or in alignment with hegemonic norms. Humor can also act as a mode of resistance and subversion to such hegemonic norms and stereotypes where one is always determined and identified as one of the dichotomous elements in her relationship with the dominant discourse. However, the show’s humor highlights a discrepancy between the so-called Western and ‘Other,’ non-Western narratives, focusing on the stereotypes, conventions and perceptions Western views hold when viewing the ‘Other’ as one-dimensional and reductive, but at the same time, certain conventions and norms have elements of relatability and truthfulness which shapes and defines a special ‘Other’ narrative in the show. Never Have I Ever therefore uses this ambivalent humor while playing on the familiar tropes of Indian culture and representation through gossiping aunties, controlling mothers, patriarchal uncles, arranged marriage setups and overtly strict customs. These tropes are stereotypical and exaggerated but they are highly relatable to both Indian and Indian American audiences. Therefore, Devi’s embarrassment and conflict with her Indian heritage is also relatable to that kind of audience who are in a similar position as her.

However, Devi’s ambiguity towards her culture does not immediately diminish her role and positionality in resistance against overused ways of viewing her culture. Rather, this ambiguity makes both questions of humor and identity complex, multi-layered evolving outside the strictures of set binaries of both cultures. The show, accordingly, subverts and produces layers through stereotypes by portraying fissures and tensions between these established cultural norms through humor. This subversion takes place when humor is enacted exaggerated by the members of the ‘Otherised’ group and when the ambivalence both in humor and identity enables postcolonial and diasporic discourses to negotiate with the mainstream American context to grasp differences, incongruities and contradictions in terms of hyphenated cultures and norms. The political and ideological effect of the humor in the show in terms of opposing domination is not “a violent counter-force (which can reproduce domination in another guise); nor a revolutionary, sovereign subject” but shows that “there is a degree of mutuality and complicity between the agent and the hegemon, even if each may want to deny it” (Kapoor qtd. in Källistig and Death 8).

Ambivalent humor and identity are hence embedded in each other: embedded in both Western and ‘Other’ discourses and narratives. Despite this entanglement, elements of resistance and subversion always remain and therefore become pronounced. For example, Nalini believes that therapy is meant for white people but in the finale episode of season 1, Nalini finally accepts in front of Devi’s black therapist that she always tries to be tough in front of Devi and does not know how to deal with her grief. She finally accepts that it is okay to show her pain and starts crying. Her rejection of therapy comes from a cultural and individual perception because going to therapy and being vulnerable is considered a foreign state of mind from her point of view. Similarly, when Indian aunties taunt Nalini for coloring her hair, she argues that she did not want to let go of herself completely and her love for her husband would not become less if her grey hair are not showing.

The show also plays on the formulaic perception of Indians being community-oriented but subverting these stereotypes by making fun of and presenting the communal event such as the one on the Ganesh Puja that act as a space for the Indian community to come together, celebrate and pray but also as a site for rivalry and gossip. Nalini is already at the bottom of the social order of her community because she has recently lost her husband and wants to outdo these aunties who constantly taunt her in some way. The priest begins his prayers in Sanskrit but translates them into English, resulting in some funny cultural clashes as well as some amusing syncretism which are all portrayed in a humorous fashion. Moreover, when the priest asks women who would want to drop him off afterwards, Nalini raises her hand and wins. Here she does that to show that she is diligent and cares for the priest but the priest actually wants to go not really home but to the nearby Home Depot to buy a fountain.

School and Identity

When another Indian girl, Aneesa, joins the school, Devi feels threatened in her position as the only Indian girl of the school brings out another paradox of her identity where she is not comfortable in accepting her marginalized Indian aspect but also feels uneasy when Aneesa snatches away that ‘only one’ part of her marginalization which provided her ‘uniqueness’ in some sense. Aneesa acts as a foil to Devi in school and the show employs humor to highlight their differences. Aneesa is athletic and smart; she quickly becomes the member of the cool group in school because she is not a geek like Devi. Geekiness calls attention to a level of exclusion and rejection from a dominant social group especially in school setting. Aneesa is not really a geek but she he subverts her level of stereotypization (of Indians being nerds) by indulging herself in cool activities. She also impresses Devi’s favorite teacher, the only Indian one who has always favored Devi because of their shared heritage. Aneesa also starts flirting with Devi’s ex-boyfriend, Ben. John McEnroe, the former professional, eccentric tennis player is the narrator of the show and he emphasizes Devi’s insecurities pointing out that “Devi was in awe of this cool Indian teen. She had always assumed her unpopularity was because of racism, but this new kid was proving that Devi might just be objectively lame” (Season 2 Episode 4, 00:01:18). Unlike Devi, Aneesa does not equate and constantly internalize her Indian aspect of identity with that of an ‘Otherised’ marginalization. Devi chooses to believe that such internalized ‘Otherised’ focalization of her Indian identity as the sole reason of her unpopularity. Aneesa uses rather her quirky retorts to the cool group and her interests in football making her more like the cool kids where her being Indian is not a defining factor of belonging to the cool group. The difference thus between Devi as outsider and Aneesa as insider is not solely about their Indianness but more about their interests and personality traits.

Aneesa thus also functions to highlight Devi’s Indian identity as a crucial and determining part of her overall identity. Even when Devi is in constant conflict with her Indian heritage, this still defines her and provides her with a distinct status at school, which is taken away from her by Aneesa. As the narrator points out, Devi also uses her Indian identity to explain her lack of popularity and blames everything on something or somebody else except herself. At one point, Devi’s Jewish history teacher, Mr. Shapiro, accidentally calls Aneesa by Devi’s name, and one of their classmates says, “Aneesa’s like Devi 2.0. … No offense, Devi 1.0” (Season 2 Episode 4, 00:01:58). These differences and similitudes between Devi and Aneesa show how minority communities and identities that do not fit the hegemonic order get assimilated into one kind of separate identity. Devi’s nerdy and unpopular Hindu Indian American identity cannot coincide with Aneesa’s cool, jock, Muslim Indian American identity (coexistence of Muslim and Hindu communities in India has been regarded more recently with heightened tension and, in this context, their friendship shows that it is not always the case, hence subverting this dominant stereotype of the Hindu-Muslim conflict). While one might expect Aneesa and Devi to become friends and bond over similarities of their culture however, Devi nevertheless feels a bit threatened by Aneesa. As Kylie Cheung points out,

"[T]here’s always been an unspoken paradox for women, people of color and all marginalized identities, who are often the one, token member of their community in a number of settings. Being the only person who represents your community in any given space can be exhausting and lonely — yet, when other members of your community do join you in the space, their presence can feel like a threat, or competition, mostly because traditionally white, male spaces offer so few spots to anyone who’s different from them." (Cheung)

Usually in hegemonic spaces, ‘Othered’ communities do not have the space to include more members of their community because the predominant (usually the traditional) norm only allows a token number of members and Devi feels the burden of being this token member, so she shies away from this part of her Indian identity. However, when Aneesa is in school, she feels threatened because her token identity and she takes different position so Devi will be ‘amalgamated’ with Aneesa on the basis of only the ethnic, Indian marker of identity, diminishing their complex identity features. Devi and Aneesa, despite having a similar cultural background, have diverse high school experiences, highlighting different aspects of their South Asian diasporic experience. Both are Indian but with different religious backgrounds, practices and norms. Devi and Aneesa’s Hindu-Muslim friendship is refreshing, unusual and a huge step towards representation of such communities’ bonding and reconciliation. The show reveals that India and especially these two diasporic communities do not always exist in opposition but that they can easily reconcile, subverts the presumed antagonism between these two communities. At the start of the series, Devi was identified as the paralyzed Indian girl, later dates two boys at the same time, appears to be unable to control her anger and cope with her grief, lashes out at her friends, gets bitten by a coyote, becomes responsible for Paxton’s accident, and ultimately gets labelled as the crazy Devi. Aneesa, in turn, expresses her own push and pull with her identity when she defines herself with the following terms: “I wasn’t just the only brown girl in the group. I was also the Muslim brown girl whose mom insisted she wear a full sweat suit to every pool party” (Season 2 Episode 6, 00:14:16). The cool girls usually make fun of her and only compliment and like Aneesa for being skinny. Just like Devi, Aneesa desires acceptance and likeability, which ultimately lead to her developing an eating disorder. In her previous school, Aneesa was invited into the cool girls’ group because she was skinny and, being doubly marginalized as both Indian and Muslim, she craved this kind of community acceptance but maintaining the only perceived appealing factor of herself from a dominant (white) perspective resulted in an eating disorder. Both Aneesa and Devi thus have different sets of insecurities and ambivalences in terms of their self-identification and perceived cultural identity showing that such differences show problematic cultural representations.

India as a very complex country, consists of different communities, religions, castes, languages, ethnicities, traditions. In regard to this complexity, Devi’s Hindu Tamilian aspect of identity highlights only one kind of identity, which should not be assimilated with every Indian American identity. During Aneesa’s sleepover at Devi’s place (Season 2 Episode 4), Devi attempts to outdo Aneesa at being cool by sneaking out of the house and getting a nose piercing from a shady tattoo center. In the morning, Nalini sees the piercing and starts yelling at her, but Aneesa saves Devi by invoking their shared culture knowledge, stating that Devi did the piercing to express her Indian femininity. This example reflects how teenagers like Devi and Aneesa balance different and contradicting aspects of their identity while forming new bonds within their own second-generation status.

Devi subverts another aspect of her Indian identity by exploring her sexuality, which creates further ambivalence. In the very first episode, Devi asks Paxton if he wants to have sex with her even though Paxton does not know her. Later, Devi also rubs Paxton’s abs and strongly fantasizes and dreams about having sex with him, opposing the cultural expectations which compel Indian women to hold the traditional values of being chaste, pure, not having premarital sex or engaging in a relationship before marriage. But Devi is already acculturated into the American context which induces substantial changes in the way she behaves not only in school but also with her peers of the opposite sex. There is, in this sense, a truly comic scene that portrays a young teenage girl’s fantasy who acts it out as a way of resistance when it positions Devi as Indian American. The humorous display of her fantasies produces a new negotiation where Indian women could also explore their sexuality irrespective of their parents’ disapproval. as Khera, Gagan S. Khera and Muninder Kaur Ahluwalia write,

"as South Asian Americans come from collectivistic, hierarchical cultures and value interdependence acculturation can be an influencing factor in whether and how South Asian Americans follow traditional beliefs and practices. Typically, children of any age, even in adulthood, are considered reflections of their parents and carry the honor of their families. For many immigrant parents, dating is equated with pre-marital sex and physical intimacy, both of which are still frowned upon and result in impurity for marriage, particularly for women." (21)

Here, upholding the tradition of one’s culture lies more evidently on women, but both Devi and her cousin Kamala subvert those norms, having imbibed and following mainstream American dating culture as indicative of the constant juxtaposition of cultural identities.

Identity and Mother-Daughter Relationship

Devi and Nalini are similar to each other in spite of their constant conflicts. Both Devi and Nalini are headstrong, hot-tempered and adamant. For Devi, the major source of embarrassment regarding her Indian identity emerges from her mother as she articulates this to her cousin Harish at the Ganesh Puja (Season 1 Episode 4, 12:36:00). Nalini persistently desires her daughter to connect and be close to her culture, which leads Devi to rebel and oppose the strict rules that her mother has established even more. For example, Devi lies to her mother and goes to a party without permission, she gets bitten by a coyote, and throws a party in the house when her mother is in India. Nalini’s role as the natal one in the sense of “the family and culture into which one is born” (Hai qtd. in Munos 182), gets invariably constructed as “the site of origin, restriction, or formation of the old self from which the individual must break away to form a new self” (Munos 355). Devi’s second-generation hybrid identity is a constant push and pull against Nalini’s first-generation immigrant identity because she aims to rebel against the restrictive and inventive notion of

"the authentic Indian immigrant family’ by the first generation, the second-generation women’s rebellion against this invention, and their attempt to reinvent their identity in a going back and forth between at least two cultures (…). Each process -invention, rebellion, reinvention-requires an understanding of these women were expected to signify what was ‘Indian’ about their families, their communities, and how those signifiers were tied to class status and enforcement of monogamous, endogamous heterosexuality." (Gupta 574)

Such difference between Indian identities of both generations creates different attitudes towards desi identity and Devi being acclimatized and born in America is unable to grasp this need to hold on to the traditional and sometimes conservative ideals of being an ‘ideal Indian’. In terms of such diasporic South Asian narratives, the mother-daughter relationship has always been unsatisfactory, controlling and mostly strained. In Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham, for example, it is the mother who is completely unsympathetic towards her daughter’s desires, is filled with stereotypes and hence being laughed at. As Maxey indicates, writers frequently use “such schematic archetypes as the unfeeling birth mother, the warm maternal surrogate, and the prematurely deceased biological father” (28). Similarly, for Devi Nalini represents an end to her agency (Munos 357), an enforcer of patriarchal values of her culture, whereas her father, Mohan, acts as a role model, “offered unconditional love and unquestioning acceptance of his daughter” (Maxey 27).

Never Have I Ever attempts to go beyond this strained mother-daughter relationship and aims at highlighting how both women are navigating cultural expectations, identity and grief, which often leads to conflict, but at times, also creates strong bonds and an empathetic mother-daughter relationship. When Devi is upset that her mother has started dating and moved on from her father (Season 2 Episode 9, 00:27:19), Nalini shows her an old video in which her father says that he is excited to meet their daughter when Nalini was pregnant. In this scene they both are open about and vulnerable to the pain of losing Mohan. Similarly, when Nalini convinces Aneesa’s mother to let her continue her school (Season 2 Episode 7, 00:22:00), Devi hugs her mother and says that she is the “best mom ever” (Season 2 Episode 7, 00:23:17), which makes Nalini extremely elated. In this scenario, instead of declining Devi’s request of persuading Aneesa’s mother and being angry with her, she listens to Devi and accepts her request. The humor of the show, especially the one between Devi and Nalini takes the form of bickering, fights, retorts and scolding, revealing various negotiations between two different kinds of hybrid Indian American identities and pointing out different interpretations of ‘Western’ and ‘traditional’ Indian ideologies without amplifying these binaries. The humor of the show employs stereotypes because “‘humor is only possible because certain boundaries, rules and taboos exist in the first place’” (Lockyer and Pickering qtd in Davies and Ilott 10) and, at the same time resisting the short-sighted, unilateral perspective of such presumptions with moments of cracks and resistance within them.

Although Devi and Nalini have a complex and tough relationship, they are not completely aloof nor alienated from each other, but attempt to compromise and understand each other’s demands and needs, so they rebuild their relationship revealing a mother-daughter relationship filled with layers of contradictions, irresolution and uncertainty. Rather than ‘Othering’ either of the figures, Never Have I Ever uses humor combined with disagreements and fights to show how they both are equally struggling with navigating their multiple and overlapping identities and major life changes while fumbling with developing a connection with each other.


Never Have I Ever portrays the figure of Devi and her inclination towards Western and American lifestyle by emphasizing that this does not emerge solely because she rejects her culture but because she is just confused about how to navigate her multi-layered identity, from which she ultimately has to carve out her own sense of self. Moreover, the show subverts the generational transference of patriarchal traditional norms and strict adherence to one’s culture through various relationships between women: Aneesa, Nirmala, Nalini and Kamala. Aneesa is the counterpart-friend of Devi; through Nalini we see a balanced diasporic brown motherhood coated with humor with Nalini’s multiple identities and roles in an American setting unearthing tensions, ruptures and conflicts that first-generation Indian American women go through, including various contestations with their children. Humor in its many forms of subversion, acts here as an instrument of resistance as well as reinforcement of stereotypes, bringing out counter discourses that lie dormant within dominant discourses of contemporary Americanness. Humor also provides a creative space for hybrid Indian American identities to flourish in an intermingling of dominant and non-dominant narratives.


Works Cited