Paxton’s Arc in Never Have I Ever Season 2 Is Important for Japanese Diaspora
When Netflix’s Never Have I Ever first premiered in 2020, the series was hailed as a groundbreaking coming-of-age series with a South Asian lead. Its lead characters are incredibly diverse. For starters, Devi Vishakumar and her immediate family members are Indian-American. Devi’s two best friends are Fabiola Torres, a queer Afro-Latinx character, and Eleanor Wong, a Chinese-American character.
Devi also finds herself in a love triangle with two boys. One love interest is Ben Gross, a Jewish sophomore with whom she frequently verbally spars, and the other is Paxton Hall-Yoshida, a popular Japanese-American junior who is on the swim team. While season one gave Ben an entire episode to further explore his character, Paxton was left out to dry, much to the chagrin of fans of the character. Season two remedied this and gave Paxton a significant amount of material and character development that focused on a number of important issues related to the depiction and history of Japanese-Americans.
**Spoiler warning for Never Have I Ever seasons 1–2.**
When Japanese-American actor Darren Barnet was originally cast to play Paxton, his character was not Japanese. It wasn’t until he was overheard speaking Japanese on set that his character was altered to be mixed-Japanese. Barnet recalled this story in an interview with Buzzfeed:
Originally I was Paxton Hall, typical preppy white heartthrob kid. I was speaking Japanese with Yuko [Ogata, an assistant director on the show] and I knew by her name she was Japanese so I asked her if she spoke Japanese and we started conversing. Sal got wind, the wardrobe designer, and told Mindy, and then Lang [Fisher, the series co-creator] came up to me being like, “Hey, were you speaking in Japanese with Yuko?” I thought I was in trouble for a minute. I knew that not many people knew I was part Japanese. I’m like ambiguous…
…she asked, “Oh, are you part Japanese?” I was like, “Yeah, I am.” Immediately, she said, “Do you mind if we make your character part Japanese?” I didn’t know they were gonna run with it until we went to the next table read and I saw a hyphenated Yoshida at the end of my name. I was really nervous about it. It’s an identity I’ve always had a struggle with and it’s kind of a pocket that I’m filling and representing. There’s many people like me—you can’t tell what they are and they’re very proud of their heritage. When they say it, people either don’t believe it or they question it. It was cool because I feel like that’s a pocket that I’m somewhat representing.
The misrepresentation, stereotyping, and exclusion of Asian men dates back to the earliest chapters of Hollywood history. The popular detective character of Charlie Chan was adapted from books into films in which the character was always portrayed by white actors donning yellowface and a stereotypical accent. There has been a longstanding stereotype in Western media of Asian men being effeminate and sexually undesirable with only occasional stars that manage to break through, such as Sessue Hayakawa during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s, and Bruce Lee in the 1970s.
One hundred years after Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese Hollywood heartthrob, Darren Barnet and the creative team behind Never Have I Ever have gone above and beyond to deepen the story and character arc for Paxton Hall-Yoshida. Beginning with the most superficial layer, Paxton has always been treated as a heartthrob. This is an important subversion from those old racist stereotypes against Asian men.
Given how barren the landscape is for Asian romantic leading men, Paxton being the good-looking, popular boy is a subversion of Hollywood’s status quo. Beyond the superficial aesthetics, the show was hinting early on that there was more to Paxton than his appearance, despite the lack of a standalone episode for him. He is particularly protective of and close with his sister Rebecca, who happens to have Down’s Syndrome.
Paxton’s characterization also presents a necessary subversion from the model minority trope. Historian Ellen Wu explained in her book, The Color of Success, that the model minority stereotype began to rise significantly in the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement. Asian Americans pushed an image of themselves that appealed to respectability politics. According to Wu, white political leaders coopted this image of Asian Americans in an effort to appear less discriminatory when seeking alliances with foreign nations.
The model minority stereotype as it exists today paints Asians as industrious, intelligent, law-abiding, and professionally successful. In entertainment media, this often results in depictions of Asians as highly academically successful in school, overbearing parents who care about academic success more than their children’s emotional well-being, or the most predictable model minority profession of all: doctors.
In season two of Never Have I Ever, Paxton’s struggles with school are more deeply explored. After a car accident results in the loss of a potential swim team scholarship that would have granted him access to a prestigious university, he is forced to reevaluate his plans for the future and his approach to school.
It is all but unheard of to see an Asian character in a lead role shown to be struggling with his academics. The Stanford University School of Medicine published a research paper on the tremendous stress that Asian American students feel because of the expectations placed on them to succeed in school. The paper explains at length how an increasing number of news stories and research findings have been published that convey that these expectations are incredibly detrimental to the mental health of Asian American youth.
Paxton initially guilt-trips Devi into doing his school work for him, as he is still holding a grudge against her for cheating on him. When Rebecca finds out about this, she shames him for conducting himself in this manner and for not doing the academic labor himself.
Over the course of the season, he experiences highs and lows on his journey to raise his grades. One low point is when he is given an exam and walks out because of a stress-induced panic attack. Showing Paxton struggling with academia defies the model minority stereotype, but to go so far as to show how it negatively impacts his mental health is just as important and an accurate depiction of how the model minority stereotype harms the wellbeing of Asians. In the end, he is able to develop the skills to do well in school and raise his grades enough that he will have a chance to get into a university even without a sports scholarship.
Without a doubt, the most powerful part of Paxton’s story is revealed through his grandfather. Season two finally shows more of Paxton’s home life, including his loving parents and his elderly grandfather, Theodore Yoshida. Paxton has a close relationship with his grandfather, who gives him a box of books during one of his visits.
During Paxton’s journey to improve his academic performance, Devi encourages him to go above and beyond, which leads him to take on an extra credit project. The assignment is for students to “face history” by giving a presentation in which they relate something from their personal family history to the broader historical context of the time in which they lived.
Paxton looks through the box of books given to him by his grandfather and discovers a personal journal and photograph of his ancestors at Camp Manzanar in 1944. This inspires him to give a presentation on the U.S. government forcing over 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II. He also brings his grandfather in to speak to the class and share a firsthand account of this internment. Despite being born in the States, Theodore Yoshida and all the other interned Japanese Americans were treated as a foreign threat.
Though some have noted that actor Clyde Kusatsu, who portrays Theodore, is too young to portray a survivor of Japanese internment, the margin isn’t far off enough to detract from the emotional impact of the arc. The importance of this story being told on a streaming juggernaut like Netflix is paramount, particularly given the recent wave of conservative zealots pushing to remove education about the history of U.S. racism from schools.
Theodore Yoshida shares with Paxton’s class how seeing Paxton step outside of his comfort zone has inspired him to do the same, hence his willingness to speak about this deeply traumatic experience. He is a survivor of Japanese internment, just like the survivors that are still alive today in real life, such as Star Trek legend George Takei. Takei has taken these experiences and put them into different creative works, including his graphic novel They Called Us Enemy and the musical Allegiance.
Theodore admitting to not having spoken about experiencing internment speaks to how much shame is experienced by victims of trauma. He goes on to say that, as he is one of the last people to remember Manzanar, he needs to tell his story so no one ever forgets. It’s a sobering conclusion to the most meaningful portion of Paxton’s season 2 arc. If the government refuses to protect Japanese and Asian citizens and immigrants, then the burden will continue to fall on artists to keep history alive, and I’m glad the team behind Never Have I Ever is doing so.
(featured image: Netflix)
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