Three writers and fans of Mindy Kaling’s Fox show sit down to talk about Kaling’s take on race, gender, body image — and what it means for viewers who don’t often see themselves reflected in television.
Fox’s The Mindy Project returns this week after its winter hiatus. Mindy Kaling’s series has been criticized for the exclusive whiteness of its romantic plotlines and her commentary on race as a woman of color. Many of these criticisms Kaling has refused to engage beyond expressing contempt or defensiveness. As fans of the show, three writers spent some time talking about the scrutiny applied to her casting choices, her jokes, and the various projects of The Mindy Project.
Ayesha Siddiqi: I think we’re all aware of the impulse to add a disclaimer to conversations like this, of risking looking like we’re dissing one of the few women of color leading a sitcom and the only South Asian.
Heben Nigatu: Yeah, I’ve definitely been reluctant to share critiques of the show publicly.
Durga Chew-Bose: I also have to keep in mind the pressures she must feel from her network. The only way to make any changes is to stay on the air. Which is in some ways an analogy for how I’ve been in my life. I’ll have to work through this thought but, being brown, or first generation, but only to a degree. Keeping up with cultural references that aren’t necessarily mine, for instance. I sometimes worry that I only write about white directors, or films with only white people.
AS: I can remember every time I ever saw another Desi at a show — like, five times, total — and we were always both too surprised to feel anything but “caught.” Which is so strange, because that response only reinstates the notion we didn’t/don’t belong there. Like, what were we supposed to be doing? Waiting for our mom outside a Patel Brothers grocery or something?
DCB: It’s like the scene in the show where Mindy meets her ex’s new girlfriend. And the new girlfriend exclaims something like, “I’m Indian too!” And Mindy goes, “Yeah, there are, like, a billion of us.” That was the show’s single best moment.
AS: Yeah, I love that she doesn’t traffic in or ever promote Indian stereotypes. Moment of silence for the horror show that was Outsourced.
HN: Yo, moment of silence indeed. How could I forget about that show?
AS: I don’t think she needs to reference Indian culture because that’s to claim she isn’t entitled to American culture.
DCB: I don’t think she needs to reference Indian culture either.
AS: It’s one of the rare moments that hints at Mindy K.’s savvy more than Mindy L.’s somehow. But it also evinces her reluctance to express any solidarity with, let alone acknowledge, other Indians, South Asians, people of color in general, which has always struck me as a conspicuous choice. And that’s definitely a reaction Mindy Kaling would resent; she always bristles at people responding to her as a woman of color instead of a just a [white] woman. She acts as if race is something that doesn’t exist in whiteness and can therefore be diluted through it.
HN: I am kind of struck by how there are no other people of color on the show — besides the nurse character, which has so many problems. She dates a lot of people.
DCB: I think the show that they were addressing that in was titled “Mindy Lahiri Is a Racist.”
AS: That episode might as well have been titled “No, You’re the Real Racist.” It was essentially about how anyone who finds the nurse character problematic is just judging her. And then she awkwardly tries to ask a black guy out and it doesn’t happen, so she continues with her nebbish white-guy fetish.
DCB: Also, the black guy was already dating “Tyra.”
AS: Also, “Black guys love me.”
HN: It gave off “everyone’s a little bit racist” vibes (à la Avenue Q) to me, which is a flattening sentence that is never really helpful in any conversation. But anyway, there was a point in that episode when they called her out and said she only dates white guys. And her response was something like, “Not true — there was an Asian guy; his small hands made my boobs feel big.”
HN: Yeah, that episode was a lot. Oh god, is this the part where I talk about my dating life? Obviously brown people date white people; the show takes this project up so strangely. Does it bother you that Mindy only dates white guys?
DCB: It doesn’t bother me. But in relation to the whole show, the characters, the jokes, the directions it’s taken, the Meg Ryan-y vibes, I question it.
AS: It bothers me. She is allowed to be attracted to whomever she wants. It’s fine if she has a type; it’s clear she does. But when the racial economics of desirability are so obvious, it’s awkward. And here I’m drawing a lot from her book, but she clearly grew up the chubby brown kid not coded as attractive or even a romantic option for the people she’s around. And the people she’s around, and the romantic comedies she loves, most often warm to some rando who isn’t even that good-looking but just purely and conventionally “white dude.” It feels like engaging a fantasy that shouldn’t have appeared fantastic in the first place.
Based on her book, I see her casting choices as a way to seek validation from an environment that effectively rendered/renders her sexless. The project in The Mindy Project seems to be “Take that, high school — I can too attract white guys.” So why isn’t it a Channing Tatum type instead of literally Seth Rogen? What bothers me is these guys don’t have to be/never are anything special. They’re just white and available, have stable jobs but rarely any distinguishing traits to speak of. And she is enthralled. Meanwhile the women these guys date are bombshells: Ed Helms with the “other Indian” girl, Mark Duplass with Maria Menounos. It maintains an apparatus that falsely inflates the value of whiteness and further undermines the self-esteem of brown kids. It’s her own show and her character doesn’t do better than random doulas and DJs? Even Liz Lemon dated James Marsden and Jon Hamm. In a fairer world the guys Dr. L dates would not be considered leading-man material, at least not opposite the women of the show. I don’t need the show to make her race explicit but rather whiteness — to do the bare minimum of what is honest and acknowledge that whiteness is not a neutral position from which the rest of us deviate/should aspire to.
HN: Yeah, I think this is why I find it so frustrating she doesn’t date any POCs. If black guys love you so much, why are you so intent on settling for subpar white dudes? Although, I really like Danny for the record. I swoon.
DCB: I love Danny. He may as well be called Danny Darcy. Though I cringe when women go nuts about Jane Austen. I’ve always been more prone to Brontë: dark, disobeying women who are so-called “out of control.”
AS: But even Danny, presented as the guy she’s supposed to end up with, is the definition of clichés about white American masculinity. He’s like the dad of all her friends growing up, right down to the Bruce Springsteen records and emotional repression.
DCB: He’s the man, with a script that reads, “CUT TO: Danny sharing a sweet smile with Mindy.”
HN: Ooof, the dad though?
DCB: His dance to “Try Again” was pretty dad.
HN: True dad dance. I like the way the show plays with the way he wears his masculinity on his sleeve.
AS: The running jokes about his manliness are supposed to endear him to us. Because Dr. L is supposed to be a “spaz” and needs someone to give her a fatherly hug and an unfatherly once-over before her dates and to remind her, “You’re beautiful.” And then Uncle Sam winks and it’s like, “Looks like we made it.”
DCB: I cringed when he told her to stop sucking her stomach in. Unprompted advice from men about our bodies is just NO.
AS: Even for a show paying homage to romantic comedies, it was all so contrived.
HN: Yeah, that moment was so awkward to me. I feel some type of way about the kind and number of fat jokes on the show.
DCB: Sometimes I feel guilty for liking Nora Ephron. And her influence is all over the show, and in Kaling’s own writing she’s waxed about Ephron before. Because, and I’ve said this to friends who mostly don’t understand, that I feel pretty white. My influences, the writers I read and re-read. The movies I love. I guess my question is, with paying homage to the rom-com, how could Kaling elevate the discussion? A lot of what I’m feeling has to do with my own personal worries that I can be very white. About everything. Life, who I date, style, writers I read, films I love.
AS: Do you mean your tastes are populated by white people or do you identify your tastes as white?
DCB: Hmmm, that’s interesting. Both I think.
AS: Because the latter makes me wonder what you consider to be white — an absence of “Indianness”? What is that even, you know? What do you consider to be white tastes?
DCB: I don’t really consider it that way. I’m just me, and it’s like I’ve left my Indianness at home, with my parents. Ugh, this is making me sound awful.
AS: No, just honest.
HN: I feel you.
AS: But that you define Indianness as something you can relegate to certain spaces is interesting. To be clear, being culturally literate or sophisticated is not the same thing as white tastes.
HN: It’s not the same, but I kind of think about the way people make jokes about things like “Starbucks is for white girls” in a similar way to how people make “first-world problems” jokes — in that things are coded as white, completely flattening that brown people live textured lives.
Durga, I’m really curious about what you mean when you say “Indianness.”
DCB: I’m not sure I mean anything. I’ve never used that word before actually. What I mean is that I’m not white. But sometimes I feel I may as well be. I went to a super-privileged small liberal arts school. I’ve only dated white guys. Most of my friends are white. There’s some kind of erasure of self going on, I think.
AS: Yes, I do think that’s what’s happening.
HN: Mmmm, man, this is bringing on the feels.
AS: I also went to private white schools, had mainly white friends, took part in activities where I was almost always the only person of color. But as a non-black Other, America doesn’t really have a frame of reference for my non-whiteness. So my race is either ignored or the ways in which I don’t conform to ethnic stereotypes is taken not as a refutation of the stereotypes, but rather as a refutation of my authenticity as South Asian. Cue the “You’re pretty white for a _______.”
Durga, you and I don’t have white tastes; we have taste. We shouldn’t “might as well be white”; we’re unceasingly South Asian. We don’t have to define what that means — it’s just what we are. “There are literally billions of us.” We’re not rare, just dispersed. And the surrounding whiteness does not determine our identities.
DCB: I think from a very, very young age I realized I wasn’t going to get a lot of “me too” moments.
HN: I don’t know if y’all watch Scandal, but the opening scene of this season was this speech about how black kids have to be “twice as good,” and it blew me away that TV could actually relate to my life. Like, I forgot that this could happen. No room for mediocrity. I’m sure Mindy feels this angst.
AS: It’s frustrating the show never takes for granted she’s an attractive woman. She’s always apologizing for essentially not being Gwenyth Paltrow, the Macklemore of white beauty standards. Like when she says, “I’m not skinny and blonde, Danny!” it’s not riffing on society’s standards, but herself.
HN: And a lot of the fat jokes are people just sort of repeating that to her.
AS: I wish it was an edgy way to acknowledge race and white privilege, but so often it comes down to “let me try to get a guy despite how undesirable I am.” But maybe that’s ungenerous. Her desirability is present, but trumped by the assumed desirability of every portly thin-haired white guy around her.
DCB: She seems to think that she has to be the punch line. Or like a casualness that reads as a forced tweet, like from the Jennifer Lawrence school of “I ate a burger before the red carpet” or whatever.
AS: Which on her is less careless swagger and more “Isn’t it awkward I’m even here?”
DCB: I wish I knew what kind of conversations they have in the writer’s room. I wrote a parody episode once ‘cause it was fun to play around with. I was thinking about how my feelings toward the show are probably strong because in many ways, I do really enjoy it. Like a lot.
HN: Yeah, same.
DCB: And that’s why when things fall short, it bothers me more. Or when it’s offensive. I get sad-mad.
HN: There’s a lot that I like about how they show her love life, and her awkwardness during sex, and her sexiness. I love that they sometimes get as close to naked as you can get on network TV. I like that that part of her dating life is shown, but sometimes I just wish it were taken more as a given that she’s fly as fuck. There was this one tiny scene where she was shaving her arms in her bathroom as she was getting ready to go out. I love that tiny detail. (I did that once in middle school and my god I’ve never regretted a decision more.) I want the show to take it as a given that she’s attractive but also give her room to be insecure about things and make self-deprecating jokes, etc.
AS: Like being flawless doesn’t mean being literally flawless? The radical reality that women didn’t “woke up like this.”
HN: Lolol, yes. I kind of wish she had friends she talked to about this.
DCB: I was thinking about how if Mindy was white, would this show’s plots even be interesting to viewers? Like if she was played by, I don’t know, Alison Brie.
HN: Good question.
The lovely Max Greenfield guest stars on the show but not as Schmidt. A new character. Still handsome.
DCB: Sure it’s funny, very much so. But that kind of Twitter punch line humor can sometimes read as just that, a punch line. There seems to be a need that her character be constantly witty.
AS: How much of that do you attribute to Mindy being both writer and actress? Alison Brie wouldn’t be writing her own jokes.
HN: I like Alison Brie, so I might watch that show… but it’d be an entirely different show. The economies of desire would be so basic, though. I was just thinking about shows like 30 Rock when they present Tina Fey as if she’s not a thin, attractive, conventionally admired woman. Alison Brie is hilarious to me, but I don’t need to see another show about a Brunette Woman Who’s Kind of Awkward.
AS: Liz Lemon and Dr. L are both successfully employed in intense careers but are presented as perpetually struggling goofs. Is that just comedy or is that “let’s make this cool, attractive, well-off woman a failure somehow to make her relatable and ‘nonthreatening’ while emphasizing the importance of romantic relationships”? These women could have everything going for them (chiefly dope apartments), and yet if they don’t have a boyfriend they can’t even walk straight.
HN: Yeah, I think that’s why every woman in a rom-com literally has to fall.
DCB: I think nonthreatening has A LOT to do with it. Side note: I really appreciate the ways in which the male doctors on The Mindy Project are flawed. I don’t think network TV can handle intersectional anything… yet. The Mindy Project is for the most part incredibly traditional. Success is still very Mary Tyler Moore-type tropes, which is fine, sure. But the writing appears to be working on only one plain. I’m sure she feels, as a writer on the show, some of those pressures to, like, be representative so to speak. But she’s written an otherwise confident character who always brings up her weight. An entire episode was dedicated to working out.
AS: “Excuse me, I am not overweight; I fluctuate between chubby and curvy.” I love self-assured Dr. L.
HN: Yesss. Those are the kind of fat jokes I’m here for.
AS: This show needs other women so bad, though.
HN: They sort of featured her friends in some episodes of Season 1, but I was disappointed they didn’t try to develop them. It’s just ridiculous to me that she doesn’t have anyone to share boy talk and gossip with other than the people she works with.
AS: So much of the show is about how boy talk and gossip are her faves, and her interests only become more conspicuous in the all-white male fratty context. I like that the show doesn’t shame being ultra “girly” and into “girly” things. Danny makes fun of her for it but she genuinely delights in, say, the American Girl store and rhinestoned tops. It’s the anti-April Ludgate character, which, by the time we got an April Ludgate, was already a tired cliché. Whereas I think New Girl treats Zooey D’s character’s tastes as a way to undermine her as a person worth taking seriously.
DCB: I love how Mindy shows up to the gym in a sparkly polka-dot sweatshirt.
AS: How much does The Mindy Project depend on there not being other women around? The show started with women who could’ve reasonably had romantic plot lines; Shauna was so cool. But now there’s Betsy, who may have something along those lines eventually, but much of the character right now depends on her being a virgin punch line. And then the old nurse who is desexualized through her age.
HN: And then there’s Tamra, who is in a relationship with “Ray Ron.”
AS: I can’t with that name, but I’m the real racist because he ended up being Josh Peck. Which I guarantee was a casting decision that came way after the character was named.
HN: I hated that whole plot line, and the whole reveal of Ray Ron is not who you think he is ::goofy boingy sound effect::. Yes, I thought the same thing about casting.
DCB: I not-so-secretly loved The Wackness.
HN: So where does this leave us with Ayesha’s question?
DCB: That there need to be more women that aren’t bit parts or punch lines.
AS: But does the show depend on there not being? Like is Mindy’s “girlyness” so central to the show that women who share her tastes would undermine it? Danny as a foil wouldn’t be as effective or endearing maybe? There could of course be women who don’t share Mindy’s tastes. But so far, other women have mostly only been competition on the show. Most romantic comedies have female BFFs.
HN: Yeah, my hope is that they develop a real friendship for Mindy that doesn’t have to undermine her.
DCB: I was watching her interview when she addressed her Elle cover. And she says that she felt good that they wanted to focus on her face. I feel like women of color are forced to be their own spin doctors, but to appease the world. Like WOC are forced to focus on one good thing. Or what’s easy for others to swallow. Am I making sense?
HN: Yaasss, absolutely.
DCB: Like, as a kid it was about owning my good skin, or, like, thick hair! Or some bullshit like that. Now it’s, like, “eyebrows.”
HN: Lmaooo, yo you right — eyebrows are in.
DCB: When white girls tell me not to pluck, it’s like, I’m too lazy to pluck. My bushy eyebrows are the ones I was born with and I get a little sick when white women, unprompted, suggest I leave them the way they naturally are.
AS: Shout-out to every sperm-browed Becky who asked if I had caterpillars on my face in middle school but now spend their nights googling eyebrow implants/tints.
DCB: Exactly. Something about Mindy waxing about feeling good that they chose her face for the cover really set me off. Because I’ve done that too, my whole life.
HN: Yes, please speak on it!
DCB: Like, I had to own the compliments that were given to me rather than just feel everything I was as a whole woman. The amount of moms at soccer practice who loved my thick hair or people always tell me I should wear more color because colors look good on me.
AS: Wow, really heavy thinking about how much of that was part of my life that I just took for granted. For a long time I just assumed adults commenting on your body and touching it without your permission was just part of American culture. Only recently have I learned it’s not something I should/ever should have put up with.
DCB: Another one: dark rings under my eyes. The amount of people that ask me if I’m tired all the time. I’ve never once covered the dark rings under my eyes, and worse is when white girls are like, “No that’s in”
HN: (You can’t hear me right now but I keep just saying “Mmmm” to myself and feeling all emotional.) OMG the deep-set eyes thing!
DCB: I never get my makeup done. I also barely wear any makeup, but when someone else does it, the first thing they do is put some white stuff under my eyes and smudge.
AS: White people don’t have a frame of reference for our beauty; they wile out. Here we’re talking about growing up having white people rationalize our looks to themselves, framing their unsolicited commentary as a compliment we’re supposed to be grateful for. To be constantly put in a position to thank them for the white gaze applied to us. To be the source of their confusion is so grating; it’s dehumanization to be treated like a novelty rather than an equal.
HN: And all that time you spend being a source for their confusion really warps your mind. I remember the first time I ignored my mom and insisted that I get my hair done at a “regular” hair cuttery and feeling just so not human after I left. The fashion and beauty world in general just makes me feel so fundamentally not human.
DCB: My mom is Anglo-Indian so she’s got all kinds of bomb roots, but we look sorta nothing alike. And when people see her, they’re like, “She’s so white!” It always makes me mad. Like my roots surprise other people, like I’m just supposed to be Bollywood brown or something.
AS: A lot of the compliments I get from white people have been like when Regina George does a suspicious once-over and says, “You’re like, really pretty” and the implied “Howw whyyy?” hangs in the air. Honestly that there’s no frame of reference for WOC beauty that isn’t highly warped is so damaging because that’s why there are so many young South Asians who date white people and consider themselves lucky for being able to “get one.” Because they don’t consider themselves attractive, and learned not to find each other attractive, they so often don’t even know how to. It’s the oppression of invisibility. And the visibility is a fun-house mirror. Hollywood regularly asexualizes South Asian men, treating them as dickless jokes, while hypersexualizing South Asian women, preserving their availability for white men.
DCB: Oh wow. So true.
AS: And that’s why I’m so aggressively dissatisfied with The Mindy Project. It elevates the very whiteness, culturally, racially, erotically, that becomes a barrier to more Mindys or any other actor-writer of color. We don’t need yet another vehicle telling us Seth Rogen and the dude from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are hot. Hate that I meet so many South Asians with no self-esteem because we’re told plain-Jane Gwyneth is supposed to be a babe, but our phenotypes are something we must overcome. When do our bodies and faces stop being something we have to either correct or let be exoticized into a parody of itself?
DCB: And then the worst part is when the criticism comes. [Mindy] gets asked about it everywhere. And she gives an answer that, while it might be true to her, appeases everyone else (i.e., re: the Elle cover).
AS: She doesn’t have the luxury of being apolitical — none of us do as POC.
DCB: To give myself perspective I was thinking about how things would be for me had The Mindy Project existed when I was a teen.
AS: That’s a really good question to ask. What do you think? Feel like it wouldn’t have been all that different for me.
DCB: I think for me it would have, just having her there on Tuesday nights when I’m, like, done with dinner and not doing my homework. Or talking about it at school, like if The Mindy Project existed when Friends was on the air, for example.
HN: Sometimes in conversations about race and television, I feel like we forget that the ’90s happened. Like there were so many black sitcoms where the world took it as a given that brown people are attractive and full humans with complex interiors. And I was glad I had shows like Girlfriends growing up, or even corny-ass Sister Sister. And now in conversations about “diversity in media,” we act like it’s so hard to have this present. Come on, fam, we just did this 15 years ago. It would’ve been great to have The Mindy Project in high school, but I feel like it would have affirmed too much of my angsty “why won’t a white boy like me” feels.
AS: Mindy’s attractiveness isn’t even taken for granted in her own show.
HN: Like, there was a period in my life where I was convinced wearing American Eagle would make me white and dateable. Mindy kind of affirms this, except with Kate Spade.
DCB: I was the same, and it’s not like I had any interest in wearing kurtis to school. It was just that mall-wear made me blend in.
AS: I remember having to learn that being different wasn’t dope, because for my first few years in the U.S., I thought it was. I was like, “Y’all are mad basic,” and when I felt like it, I wore a kameez shalwar to school just to stunt and I was funny and smart and got away with it. But then 9/11 coincided with middle school, when issues of romantic desirablity become salient. Suddenly being different was the worst thing you could possibly be. The first time I was sexually harassed based on race was first grade, by another classmate. All the times since have also been rooted in my perceived “ethnicness.” I’m saying a lot of things here that I’m saying for the first time in my life.
DCB: That’s how I’ve felt about this chat series we’ve been having and it’s been so important to me.
HN: Sameeeee. I feel known.
AS: Such a rare feeling.
DCB: I think I’ve always felt desirous, but in the Othering sense of the word. Desirous, Desi-rous, like, “Ooh, foreign beauty.”
AS: Yeah, that. It doesn’t make me feel beautiful, it makes me feel consumable.
DCB: Right, but, like, that’s what I thought desire was: to be consumed.
AS: Peace to bell hooks’ “Eating the other.”
HN: My experiences have been similar; I do feel sometimes that racial critiques of shows are often framed in terms of blackness. Sometimes when people say a show is not “diverse,” they mean there are no black people, so I’ve been trying to give y’all a little room to speak to your experiences. The critique of SNL somehow turned to “there are not enough black women on the show” instead of “the show is white as fuck, let’s hold special auditions for all women of color,” or something like that.
HN: I just wish people had better responses to criticism. I feel [Mindy’s] frustration, but the Seinfeld school of thought as a reply to a real critique of your show’s racial politics is just silly and frustrating. HAVE WE LEARNED NOTHING FROM SHONDA RHIMES?! Her shows always have a diverse cast and it never feels like they’re stock figures or stereotypes. Their humanity is felt. And she carries her network! It is in fact lucrative to be diverse (if that is an incentive you need…). Critiques are important, critiques are humbling, and critiques will make your show better. But I do hear what she’s saying about the uneven amount of criticism her show gets, versus, say, Modern Family.
DCB: Yes, uneven criticism is the plight of every minority, though.
AS: I’d hesitate to try to gauge how much criticism her show even gets. From where I’m standing it’s pretty even, but I’m standing in a Twitter timeline full of critics.
HN: That’s true, actually, it is hard to tell. Actually, I haven’t really heard that many people raise these critiques.
DCB: For years everyone knew that Kaling was the best writer on The Office, so shout-out to her for getting her own show. I’m really happy it was renewed because I like the show and I do think that, although that link from SXSW makes her appear to have been defensive, these conversations are happening and she can hear them, and they will, I believe, have an impact on the show’s writing.
AS: At the very least, they impact our viewings.