Never Have I Ever Been so Disappointed in “Never Have I Ever”

Never Have I Ever Been so Disappointed in “Never Have I Ever”

“Never Have I Ever” Season 3 hit Netflix on August 12, bringing ever more crazy twists and turns to the protagonist Devi Vishwakumar’s (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) high-school journey. This season finds Devi finally achieving her dream of dating her high school’s heartthrob, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). She now has everything she wants, but still struggles with insecurity, getting a handle on her temper, and the death of her father.

The show’s third season was perhaps its strongest yet, with Devi looking even further inwards, and unpacking her grief even further through her interactions with her mother and grandmother. But it brought disappointment too, after it sidelined the single Muslim character on the show, Aneesa Qureshi (Megan Suri), who was introduced in Season 2 as Devi’s primary competition at school. Devi had never had an Indian classmate, and her insecurity about her identity became even more difficult for her to battle. 

I was excited by the introduction of Aneesa, who is Indian and Muslim, because there are very few Indian Muslims represented on screen. Aneesa’s character also signaled a potential improvement to the show’s lack of Muslim characters and erasure of Muslims in India, an issue for which it had been criticized in the past

For example, in Season 1, there is an episode dedicated to a Ganesha Puja, a prayer ceremony performed during the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi to honor the Hindu god Ganesha. Throughout the episode, Devi describes Ganesha Puja as an “Indian” festival and tradition, only clarifying that not all Indians are Hindus towards the end of the episode. 

The same episode includes a scene where Devi’s mother and cousin decide not to sit at a table where a woman is sitting alone, made an outcast in her community because she married a Muslim man. The show clumsily tried to tackle Islamophobia, but only ended up further supporting the status quo of not marrying outside your religion. At the end of this episode, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also mentioned in passing, seemingly in a praiseworthy way, although Modi’s Hindu supremacist government has made several attempts to alienate and endanger the Muslim community in India.

My disappointment with Aneesa comes from the squandered potential in her character.

Considering the show’s previous mistakes when it comes to depicting Islam and Muslims, I was very cautiously optimistic about Aneesa’s introduction. At first, she felt like a breath of fresh air: there was no sign of a terrorism-related arc for her character, and no rhetoric about oppression, which already put Aneesa’s character above many depictions of Muslim women and girls on screen. 

However, while I appreciated that her identity as a Muslim was not made into a big deal, Aneesa’s character arc was rather confusing. In Season 2, she was paired with Ben Gross, Devi’s ex-boyfriend, in a plot that made Devi’s insecurity and jealousy lash out in a bad way. Aneesa transferred from another school to Devi’s because her former classmates found out that she had anorexia. Devi, in a fit of rage and jealousy at the thought of Aneesa and Ben together, says to two of the popular clique of girls in her school that Aneesa is probably anorexic, not realizing that she actually is. The rumor spreads and Devi eventually owns up to the fact that she started it.

Aneesa’s mother also makes her only appearance in the series during this episode. But whereas the rest of Devi’s friends and love interests have fleshed-out relationships with their families and their communities, Aneesa is not given the same time or attention. 

In Season 3, Aneesa has broken up with Ben and, in a moment of heightened emotion, kisses Fabiola, one of Devi’s best friends. Awkwardness ensues, as Aneesa struggles to understand her sexuality, and as she and Fabiola both struggle to understand their feelings for each other. Eventually they settle on just being friends, and Aneesa is put back on the bench. 

My disappointment with Aneesa comes from the squandered potential in her character. Her first major plotline mainly had her playing the role of a mirror to Devi, and the second just fizzled out. Though her character has appeared in the show for two seasons, we still don’t know what part of India her family is from, or what language they speak. There is no specificity in her depiction as an Indian Muslim. We barely know anything about her life beyond high school and the soccer team. We only get one scene with her mother, but nothing else about her family. 

Whether or not Aneesa should have been more obviously Muslim is a debate in which there are no right answers. There is a case to be made for her being just a person who happens to be Muslim, and her portrayal in “Never Have I Ever” definitely fits that bill. Many Muslims are tired of Muslim characters who are defined by their religion and their religion alone. 

However, there is also a case for a little more of her identity and religion to be worked into her portrayal. We never see Aneesa pray, for example, and we never see her talking about Ramadan (which would probably line up with the timing of each season’s end). For the most part, Aneesa’s existence as a Muslim character in “Never Have I Ever” does not serve much purpose beyond drawing an occasional chuckle from someone who shares her identity, most notably when she, Devi, and Eleanor sneak out and Aneesa calls it a “halal moment of rebellion.” 

Considering the show’s history of portraying Islam, Aneesa could have been a significant step forward. Her character could have been an opportunity to remedy the show’s previous blind spot regarding Muslims and its conflation of Indian identity with Hindu identity. Aneesa also had potential as a character in exploring her sexuality, but the writers chose to focus on Fabiola’s feelings for someone else instead, which made for an entertaining story for Fabiola, but pushed Aneesa to the sidelines.

I hesitate to put the burden of representation on a character that deserves to have her own unique story, since doing so often pushes characters into a box that they can’t break out of. But I take issue with the fact  that she isn’t given time and space to grow in the same way as the other characters in the show.” Never Have I Ever” keeps itself interesting by exploring the journeys of all the characters, not just Devi’s, setting the stage for Aneesa’s character to receive the same treatment — but she didn’t. Aneesa would have been a much stronger character if we got the chance to understand her motivations and what she cared about more, beyond just her interactions with her friend group and romantic relationships. Instead, her storylines came and went, without doing much to serve her character’s growth. Aneesa is an unfortunately tokenized character, despite her potential. 

“Never Have I Ever” is refreshing because of its frank discussions of mental health and matter-of-fact diversity and representation of characters of all kinds of backgrounds. The show complicates its characters to make a compelling and moving story, and Aneesa’s character was a chance to add more nuance to it by correcting one of the show’s major mistakes in the past. It’s possible that Aneesa will be given more time to shine in the next season, but for now, I am left disappointed with the way Aneesa is tokenized and used as little more than a step to advance other characters’ growth.

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