Warning: This article contains spoilers.
It’s a breakup line worse than just being ghosted, and brown girls everywhere know the feeling.
“You’re cool and all, but dating you isn’t worth pissing off my mom.”
In the newest season of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” it’s uttered by main character Devi Vishwakumar’s first Indian American boyfriend, the hot son of her mom’s new friend. Hearing those words signaled the end of her relationship — and she seals the deal by throwing an iced coffee in his face.
“Never Have I Ever” has made a name for itself by going deeper on the Indian American teen experience than any American media before it. And when its third season hit Netflix last week, audiences took notice of the quintessentially South Asian theme it brought to the table this time: the boy whose mom puts him on a pedestal.
“There’s no getting around the fact that overprotective parenting, especially the relationship between mothers and sons, is a reality of many South Asian cultures,” said Harleen Singh, associate professor of women’s studies and South Asian literature at Brandeis University.
It takes the form of private school student Nirdesh (Anirudh Pisharody), or Des, introduced to Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) when her mom forces her to bring him to a party with her friends. The two fall for each other while trying to make Devi’s ex-boyfriend jealous.
Des is charming, funny and smart, and shares more interests with Devi than any other boy that has been in her life. For the first time, she is able to connect with a boyfriend on the daily realities of being Indian American.
“On the count of three, say where your mom thinks you are right now,” Des says on his first frozen yogurt date with Devi.
“Debate practice,” they both say in unison.
Parallel to their budding romance is a growing friendship between Devi’s mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Des’ mom Rhyah (Sarayu Blue). The two talk about their kids — Nalini explains the turmoil Devi experienced after the death of her father. Rhyah responds by saying she’s grateful that her son never had any problems.
It’s a subtle nod to a commonality in South Asian households, Singh said. Mothers are often conditioned to favor their sons, putting them on pedestals and treating them like they can do no wrong. But the cultural phenomenon of young women being forced to withstand that dynamic in dating, often reduced to the “evil mother in law” trope, has roots that run deep on the subcontinent, she said.
“It isn’t just about mothers and sons, it’s about gender,” Singh noted. “Generations of women have been told that they’re only worth something as mothers if they can produce sons. Their overprotective attitude toward their sons, it’s about patriarchy. It’s the value we place on women’s bodies.”
Singh said the portrayal of Rhyah was biting, but nuanced. She appreciated the moments of genuinely good parenting that shone through. At Devi’s orchestra concert, the teen has a memory of her dad and starts breaking down in the bathroom. Rhyah finds her there and helps talk her through her feelings.
But later, she pulls her son aside and tells him to stop dating Devi, saying the emotional problems she witnessed would derail Des.
“I don’t think that either of these moments contradicts each other,” Singh said. “Because she’s showing care in both instances…With her son, she wants him to be a successful human being. She wants him to be with a girl who doesn’t have problems, who will help him like his mother does. And that’s where I think she’s being very short-sighted.”
Because of what his mother tells him, Des does break things off with Devi, and a confrontation between the two mothers ultimately gives Nalini a chance to stand by her daughter.
Without much focus on fatherhood besides the flashbacks Devi has of her dad, “Never Have I Ever” showcases the brown mom at her best, worst and everything in between.
“You have both these strong mothers that are raising their kids on their own,” Singh said. “And yet, somehow, the young man’s choices on who he dates are attributed to the mother’s interference. When he says, ‘You’re not worth it for me to go up against my mother,’ it’s a devastating comment for a young girl to hear. Imagine how many people have probably experienced the same.”
South Asian fans of the show say it rings true in their lives.
“the most accurate south asian rep in never have I ever was des being a mommas boy,” one person tweeted.
“des doing whatever his mom wants him to do is so accurate,” another said.
Viewers might describe Des as “your typical brown mummys boy with no backbone,” but Singh says he might not be irredeemable.
Before their breakup, the two shared quiet, uniquely Indian American moments together. When the two single moms brought them together for family dinners, Devi and Des were condemned to playing footsie for the evening and hiding their relationship.
“We tend to think about romance mostly in terms of the freedom it brings and the things that we can do,” she said. “Indian teenagers are subjected to so much control by their parents. The Indian environment adds to their relationship not just in terms of their understanding of certain issues — knowing what Diwali is or Navratri is. But it creates a whole other dimension; a hidden channel and subdued interaction that maybe would have been absent from any other relationship with Devi.”
She wants to see Des and other Indian teen boys like him learn to give women the respect they deserve, but also gain an understanding of themselves outside of their families.
“My hope for Des would be that he finds a way to recognize the love that his mother gives him without thinking he is somehow the center of everybody’s world,” Singh said. “That he acknowledges her labor but he can also free himself of that kind of attention as something that is due to every Indian man.”