Welcome to Fix It, our series examining projects we love — save for one tiny change we wish we could make.
I have notes on the representation in Never Have I Ever.
Not the South Asian representation, which I love, and which I will mostly save for nuanced private discussions and not the internet. But Season 2’s constant negging of nerd culture grew real old, real quick.
Making fun of nerds is not new, on TV or off. Social stratification predates Netflix, predates John Hughes movies, predates Hollywood itself (probably). For as long as there has been culture, there have been those designated as cool for how they look and act, and those who, well, aren’t.
And as much as Hollywood sings the song of the underdogs, putting nerds at the center of stories like Stranger Things, Booksmart, and Mythic Quest, there are shows like Never Have I Ever that manage to contradict themselves. black-ish is a recent and egregious example that tackles various issues through its characters, but never skips an opportunity to roast Junior (Marcus Scribner) for liking Game of Thrones (you know, that show millions of people watched for eight years). How is it that after decades of television we still have reductive nerd representation at every turn?
Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez), a nerdy queen!
Credit: ISABELLA B. VOSMIKOVA/NETFLIX
And Never Have I Ever is a show about nerds. Its main character Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) wants to go to Princeton and spars academically with her on-and-off flame Ben (Jaren Lewison). Her best friends are robotics whiz Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and theatre geek Eleanor (Ramona Young). In Season 2, Fabiola in particular falls in with a new crowd — the cool queer girls at her school who support her sexuality yet comfortably judge her cultural blind spots and love of robotics. The arc gets more or less resolved without addressing the hypocrisy directly.
But another woeful representation of nerd culture really got to me this season: Kamala’s life at the lab. In Season 2, Kamala (Richa Moorjani) begins a lab rotation that ends up being a crash course in workplace sexism. Unfortunately, this storyline resorts to some archaic and frankly cringey stereotypes about gender and nerd culture. Kamala’s lab mates love comics, gaming, and LARPing (Live Action Role Play). Kamala likes none of these things because she is conventionally attractive and has a boyfriend — never mind that she’s a biomedical PhD candidate.
Evan: “You probably have like a really hot boyfriend right? Sorry you have to work with a bunch of gross nerds like us.”
Kamala: “You’re not gross.”
Lab research is just one of many male-dominated workplaces, and the crew’s interests point mostly to male-dominated cultural spaces with a history of sexism and gatekeeping. Yet this parallel never comes across. When Kamala finally pretends to share their interests, her lab mates are delighted to include her socially. She might not share their cultural references for various reasons — including growing up in India — but she instinctively scorns everything the guys do for fun, whether or not she’s familiar. Even laser tag.
I would have loved to see Kamala actually share any of these interests instead of just lying about it, perhaps by playing video games with Devi or listening to BLACKPINK and finding that she is like Rosé. She could have enjoyed socializing and nerding out with her colleagues, which would heighten the stakes of her boss’s relentless casual misogyny.
I am not sure this can be called Loki for legal reasons but I KNOW A LOKI WHEN I SEE ONE
Credit: screen shot / netflix
Even the cosplay scene and its potential commentary on oversexualized female characters falls flat; Kamala wears what she says is least suggestive outfit she could find (“sexy Martian flight attendant”), but Evan shows up for this same mystery event dressed as Loki. Yes, that Loki, the one millions watched on Disney+ this summer. So Kamala could just as easily have dressed as Black Widow or Gamora or Loki’s mother Frigga, a literal queen. Or any non-female Marvel character! Destroy gender boundaries everywhere you find them, Kamala!
As a result, Kamala’s lab mates end up unfairly judged for their nerdy interests. There’s a subtext of “How is this guy calling the shots?” not only because Evan sends Kamala on menial coffee runs but because he loves Dungeons and Dragons. Nerds can be bigots as much as anyone, but it ties in to power structures, cultural toxicity, and the individual himself — not the actual nerdy interests.
Listen, I love Never Have I Ever dearly. I love its difficult protagonist, its complex mother-daughter relationship, and its representation of a nerdy Indian woman hot enough to be a model but still obsessed with science. I know many women like this, and I love them too! But if Kamala’s going to work with nerds, she has to recognize that in many ways, she’s one of them. And maybe watch a Marvel movie.