by Erin Riordan
If you have not yet watched Mindy Kaling’s new show, the Mindy Project, you need to get on that. The pilot is a little rough, but it get’s better fast. The show is funny, it’s smart, and it’s a fantastic example of a T.V. show that successfully handles a strong female character.
In the show Mindy Kaling plays Mindy Lahiri, a NYC-based obstetrician-gynecologist. She is funny, independent, hardworking, determined, occasionally shallow, romantic, and sarcastic. She is not pigeonholed, but instead lives a fully drawn life as a fully drawn character.
Continuing the tradition of shows like 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, which focus on both the personal and professional lives of their female leads, the Mindy Project regularly features Mindy at work, with work-related story lines. The show devoted an entire episode to a work-based plot in which Mindy struggles with asserting her power at work. When one of the four partners in Mindy’s practice leaves, the decision-making is handed over to Mindy and the two men she works with. Immediately the two guys, Danny and Jeremy, gang up on Mindy and exclusively side with each other in decision-making, essentially rendering her voiceless. Frustrated and upset, she ultimately triumphs when the men need her leadership and her strength in resolving a dispute between their practice and the midwives upstairs. The outcome of this is that Mindy earns the respect of Danny and Jeremy, and everyone else in the office, and she is able to be an effective voice in office decision-making again.
In her book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” Kaling writes, “I am slightly offended by the way busy working women my age are presented in film…Having a challenging job in movies means the compassionate, warm, or sexy side of your brain has fallen out.” This stereotype is very real in a lot of movies and T.V. shows, and as writer, producer, and star of The Mindy Project Kaling does a lot to dispel this stereotype. Her Mindy is professional, independent, and hardworking but she also reads tabloids, dreams of finding an awesome boyfriend, obsesses over romantic comedies, and is a supportive and funny friend. In the show we see that women can hold high-powered, demanding jobs and excel at these jobs while still being full people with full lives. We don’t see many portrayals of women like this, and it is important that Kaling is presenting one here.
I also love the way the show handles, and respects, Mindy’s body. Mindy Kaling is by no means a large woman, but she is not the same size as most lead actresses on T.V. She frequently describes herself as “chubby” in her aforementioned hilarious book, and on the show her weight is discussed, but almost always in a way that is respectful, and that doesn’t pass judgment. When her weight is mentioned, the show avoids the fat-shaming standard set in Hollywood that reduces any woman over a certain size to a joke. The Mindy Project instead respects her body, and discusses her weight in more nuanced ways that challenge the body privilege Hollywood gives to skinny women and the high standards it holds women, and their bodies, to. While Mindy does have some insecurities and vanities, she also has a lot of body confidence, and she rocks bandage dresses and sequin shifts while declaring herself “hot.” This is a refreshing take on women and their bodies, and certainly sets a positive model for how Hollywood could, and should, better represent women’s bodies.
It is also significant that Kaling is the first South-Asian actress to star as the lead in a T.V. show, and the way she handles race is significant as well. So often the only non-white characters in a T.V. show or movie are given small, side-kick style roles (see Mindy Kaling as the best friend in “No Strings Attached”) to add token “diversity” to a show or movie. When a movie does feature a South-Asian actress in the lead role, her race often defines her, and is a huge, integral part of her character and her storyline (“Bend it Like Beckham” stands out as an obvious example). While race and ethnicity are important, and certainly contribute to who a person is and their life experiences, they are not all of who a person is, and when we only see a few portrayals of South-Asian women (or really any women who aren’t white) it matters that there are stories that show the diversity of experiences South-Asian women have. When we see the same portrayal of a South-Asian (or Latina or African-American) woman over and over again, the message that is sent is that this is the only experience South-Asian women have. Kaling challenges this notion, and challenges the way we see race on screen.
A final element of the show that I think is fantastic is Mindy’s personal life, and the way she thinks about relationships and sex. Often in feminism we are told there is this dichotomy between women who only believe in casual-sex and one-night stands, who reject the idea of commitment and scorn women who choose to settle down, and then there are women who prioritize realtionships and finding a partner and settling down and abhor women who run around having sex with whoever. Sex and sexuality are both so much more complicated than this, and the way they play out in women’s lives often does not fall into some nicely crafted box. Mindy is a woman who adores romantic comedies and wants a boyfriend, but she is also comfortable with waiting for those things, and having fun (and sex) in the meantime. The show does not force her to choose, and does not present any of her choices as morally superior to the other. She has casual sex with a co-worker with no serious consequences as a result of that decision, and dates Josh, her boyfriend on the show, for several episodes before [Spoiler Alert] discovering he is cheating on her. Pre-break-up both relationships are presented as healthy, natural parts of Mindy’s personal life. She isn’t forced to choose between being celibate or a slut, and Kaling is clearly sending the message that it is okay to want and enjoy casual sex, and it is okay to want and enjoy relationships as well.
There are many other things that make The Mindy Project a great show, from it’s strong supporting cast (I’m looking at you Chris Messina) to it’s incredible guest stars (Seriously, Seth Meyers, Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Allison Williams, and Mark & Jay Duplass have all appeared on the show and we’re only 14 episodes in to the first season.) Ultimately though, Mindy is the show’s star, and she is the one that makes this show so successful in my eyes. Beyond being wildly funny and entertaining, Kaling’s show presents a strong image of an independent, complex woman that defies the standard Hollywood offerings and instead pushes the boundaries of how we see women on screen.