After Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) decided to date two boys at once, start a vicious rumor about the new girl at school and let two classmates take the fall for it in Season 2 of "Never Have I Ever," fans of the Netflix series may have started to wonder: Why would a teen comedy make its main character so unlikable?
But when it comes to Devi's relationship with Aneesa (Megan Suri), whose transfer makes her the only other South Asian girl at Sherman Oaks High, there's more than meets the eye.
Last season, Devi reflected on the trauma of watching her father die, which briefly left her paralyzed by psychosomatic shock. Now, with a new, "cool" Indian student on the scene — one who has dealt with her own mental health challenges — she starts the relationship off on the wrong foot, overlooking the bonds they may share as South Asian teens.
And what stands in the way of their friendship is nothing new for women of color: societal expectations and stereotypes.
After all, women of color too often feel compelled to compete for success, stemming from the myth that there can only be one marginalized person to succeed, especially within traditionally white-dominated environments.
"I think there needs to be some grace granted to Devi this season, because of some of the faulty beliefs she has about her culture, or the idea that there is only room for one, I think are not total figments of her imagination," explained executive story editor Amina Munir, who wrote the Season 2 episode "... had an Indian frenemy." "Because when you still look at the way that racial diversity is in highly competitive spaces, there is often only one woman of color in a position of power."
Munir's episode, like much of the season, captures the consequences when an overall lack of diversity leads to people of color being treated as tokens. When Mr. Shapiro (Adam Shapiro) accidentally calls Aneesa "Devi," for instance, he shows that he can't tell them apart and immediately reinforces Devi's fear of being "replaced" and becoming a social outcast.
"When someone arrives at [Devi's] school and starts getting all the things that she wants and looks like her, naturally she's going to feel jealous and feel competitive in a way that I think is wrongheaded," Munir said. "But Devi is someone with good intentions who makes bad decisions very often."
Ramakrishnan added that for South Asian people, what contributes to the myth of only one is when someone finally achieves an esteemed position and "they're exhausted and someone else knocks at their door ready to claim what they fought hard for": "It's like, 'Excuse me. Hello. What? You just came here. I fought tooth and nail for this.'"
Referring to a male classmate who problematically refers to Aneesa as "Devi 2.0," Ramakrishnan said, "[I]n this case, [Devi's] saying, 'I have spent years knowing Trent and Trent still doesn't know [me], but now he's talking to [Aneesa] about soccer.' But it's so crazy because you want Devi to realize quicker, 'Girl! You're just jealous,' and she knows it."