I got together with Nadia Misir and Derica Shields for an AIAC Roundtable to discuss why Mindy Kaling went batshit when she was asked, at the recent SXSW, why there are no other characters of colour in senior positions of authority (i.e. other doctors) on her show, The Mindy Project. After saying that such inquiries about diversity are “insulting”, she reminded reporters that she is a “fucking Indian woman” with her “own fucking network television show”. Kaling, who is generally non-confrontational on most political issues, defended her creative decisions this way: “And I’m like, oh wait, it’s not like I’m running a country, I’m not a political figure. I’m someone who’s writing a show and I want to use funny people. And it feels like it diminishes the incredibly funny women who do come on my show.” She maintained that her show is diverse: “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore—and I won’t name them because they’re my friends—why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”
Derica: First of all, that last bit is just patently untrue. Did she really miss the yearlong convo about HBO’s Girls (see NPR interview, and here)? Kaling’s good friends with Lena Dunham, the creator and lead actor of Girls – which has no people of colour, despite being situated in NYC (not North Dakota).
Nadia: Well, the SXSW showdown isn’t the first time Mindy’s supposed role as minority spokeswoman in Hollywood has been the focus of headlines surrounding the popularity of her show The Mindy Project. In January, her cover photograph for Elle magazine’s “Women in TV” issue was scrutinised because it was printed in black and white, starkly contrasting the colour cover photos of her other White colleagues Amy Poehler, Allison William and Zooey Deschanel (on the cover, Elle also used a head shot of Mindy, rather than the traditional full body shot, obviously because Mindy does not fit the anorexic cover model idea that they always use, but that’s another issue). Mindy responded to the frenzy by tweeting “I love my @ELLEmagazinecover. It made me feel glamorous & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen dates with me.”
Neelika: So what is going on here? It’s really more than just a question of slotting the “right” collections of “race” representatives on any given show (or succumbing to tokenism, the excuse Lena Dunham hid behind…there certainly seems to be a lot of white tokens in the show, but no one says that).
Nadia: It speaks to the age old problem of American pop culture and mainstream media refusing to keep pace with the reality of a country where national identity is a constantly evolving chimera.
Neelika: Like everything on TV, The Mindy Project does not represent reality in any remote way. On a recent hospital visit to a friend who has brain cancer, and sitting with her for a few hours: it’s a total UN in there. Everyone with accents that speaks to the globalisation of medicine. Eastern Europeans, Indians, a Nigerian (basically, from anywhere where people are given some opportunities to study and qualify, but where the state has failed that educated class – or they simply want to make more money). Nurses: Americans of every ethnic background. The desk chiquitas were white/local, chortling and flirting, and making the atmosphere a little more bearable in the ICU. And that’s Upstate New York – not exactly diversity central. So no, mainstream TV – including shows claiming to be hip, edgy, and representative of America – does not project any sort of reality, but a fantasy with which America tends to remain enamoured.
Nadia: We know that one woman of color cannot champion on her own. It is a burden too great for one person, a labor that should be shared between people. And Mindy’s voice is not the voice of every person who is not white. That much should be obvious. However, after two and a half seasons (the second season is currently on hiatus and left off at—GASP—Danny Castellano and Mindy finally locking lips at high altitude in the back of an airplane near the food carts) of Mindy making out with different garden varieties of pretty white boys, one does begin to wonder why they are the only ones her otherwise strong, stylish and quirky character so desires.
Derica: All three of us watch the show regularly; obviously, we are fans. But sometimes, it seems like Kaling is trying to show that a brown woman can do “bro” humour as well as any bro, the main problem with that being that when it’s not physical, bro humour is dull, racist and sexist.
Neelika: And it’s not just that all Lahiri’s boyfriends (and potentials) have been a disappointing series of Standard Prettyboy Whiteboys. (See them all rated here. The show’s writers even knowingly include jokes about her only going after whiteboys.)
Derica: It’s also that Kaling’s representations of other brown people have been shitty, especially in the first season. A whole section of the series was devoted to her, and then-boytoy going to Haiti to live in a tent. It was awful and went nowhere.
Neelika: Er, yes. Haiti served as the backdrop for them to do mysterious Samaritan stuff, and to fill up the time for what the lead character did over the show’s summer hiatus. (Also for white dude to propose to her when the show came back for the fall season, while the insects of Haiti made an appearance to disturb Lahiri during the “perfect moment”.)
Derica: Then there was the pointless, logic-less joke at the expense of hijabi women – apparently, they don’t have health insurance (don’t ask us). The black woman orderly was a raging cliché before they started to shade in her personal life a little (she has a useless white boyfriend named Ray-Ron). In “Christmas Party Sex Trap”, a pretty flawless episode in terms of lols and romance plot fantasy, she “baits” the white dude she’s crushing on by pretending to hold a conversation with a black African dude dressed like an extra dug up from Coming to America. The joke is a two-parter: (a) she talks to standard Exotic African because he “looks cool” (novelty); (b) Mindy would never desire him (that it goes without saying, but her crush doesn’t know her well enough to know that). In the following scene Mindy is humiliated when the embodiment of feminine perfection (in the universe of the show and in America) sings a sexy rendition of “Santa Baby” and all the men in the office go goggly-eyed for her. We get to feel with Mindy and experience her rejection at not being blonde, thin, white etc., but we’re not encouraged to feel with any of the black/brown characters who people the show, largely because they are used as plot scaffolding or punchlines.
There are times that the show gets race while also managing to be funny. We appreciated basketballers episode when in the line for the club outside Lahiri asks “will there be black guys here? because black guys love me” and then explains that with her ass + long black hair she’s many black men’s non-white ideal. Watching her take on the taboo in this completely oblivious way is really funny. In terms of writing it’s bold because it’s exactly the kind of tension that’s rarely addressed on television/in comedy (especially not from the brown woman’s perspective). The show works best when it seems that behind the sympathetic, booksmart-but-not-particularly-aware Mindy Lahiri, there’s a much smarter woman—Mindy Kaling—who is poking fun at the ludicrous elements of being a brown, chubby, highly educated woman in America . . . but it doesn’t always feel that way.
Nadia: Wishful thinking aside, 75% of the lines on the show feels at times like a cruel tease. It leaves room for generations of viewers who have been fed the same network doses of glamorized whiteness to hope for something different, only to be given the same white prototype—the lawyer, the doctor, the hipster, and even the in-deep/recovering cocaine addict (yes, one of Mindy’s serious boyfriends)—whom we are supposed to view as the epitome of desirability, episode after episode.
Neelika: It seems like there is a tension between Mindy Lahiri (the character) and her accomplished doctor/strong, witty, smart personality, and her very troubled and un-decolonised mind that keeps her imprisoned in choices that evidence just how much one can be influenced by a dominant culture’s voice. That influence can be so over-arching, so expected, so accepted—by those who supposedly benefit from dominant culture, and, more troublingly, by those who do not—that people may react vociferously when questioned about their choices and behaviours.
Why not acknowledge and change, especially when one’s behaviours may be damaging to one’s own psyche, and (if one’s in a position of power, as Kaling is as the creator of her own “fucking show”) even perpetuate problematic views for the consumption of the greater global public? Partly, that’s because you’d lose advertisers. What if The Mindy Project’s doctors were all immigrants with accents, and all variations of an otherness that Americans—who continue to feel reassured when their people in positions of authority are white men—are not ready for? So yes, Lahiri’s show can have one person of colour character who’s a lead, but forget about representing any form of reality.
Watching these shows made me want to give Lahiri (and Kaling) a reading list: Ngũgĩ ‘s Decolonising the Mind. Judith Raiskin’s Snow on the Cane Fields: Women’s Writing and Subjectivity. And also articles about the biology of imprinting: many birds and mammals—especially those known to have a high propensity for imitation—raised by humans try to court, and even mate with humans when they reach sexual maturity. The imprinted knowledge is retained for life, and of all forms of learning, imprinting is the least likely to be forgotten or unlearned. Most importantly for this discussion, sexual imprinting establishes animals’ preference for a certain species: so Mindy Lahiri, raised among whitebread, has it in her head that this model is all she can be attracted to and desire. In her sexually mature years, that’s what she wants to hook up with, and aspires to romantically.
Before you put me front of the firing squad: I know, I know: we are not geese, who famously follow their parental figures (then follow each other as they trek across vast distances for winter).
Nadia: The imprinting thing may piss some people off, but it is totally accurate, I think. The act of watching television (itself a large part of how we’re socialized when we’re young into the norms of dominant American culture) is basically negative media imprinting.
Neelika: Right. And unlike geese, we can learn and change how we behave, even if it’s something as basically imprinted in us like our sexual responses, and even if it’s all reinforced by crap TV. Perhaps it would help Mindy Lahiri the TV character (and even Mindy Kaling, the real person) to learn that jackdaws raised by a (male) human researcher will later court his favour by presenting him with juicy fresh earthworms — although when not sexually aroused, these birds happily join other jackdaws in flight. It certainly explains a lot about the enormously confusing feelings that second generation children of immigrants (and the anger that their parents feel, as they realise that their children only want to date or be romantically attached to those who are representatives of the dominant culture) deal with in their teenage years.