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In defence of Mindy Kaling, my problematic boo

By Aarthie Ratnakumar.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the people you love and respect will soon come to disappoint you. As People of Colour and as Women of Colour especially, this is a truth we very quickly learn, and I would argue, is a problem that is unique to our experience.

So, you’re a White person and your favourite actor/director/writer/musician is problematic? Yeah, it sucks, I know. But you have the privilege of discarding or calling out your faves with ease and minimal distress, because representation isn’t an issue for you. Film, literature, music, television, art – almost every aspect of society is White-dominated, and most importantly, is there for you. You will never see how your complexity as a human being is repeatedly reduced to racist stereotypes or peripheral characters, subordinate to the White protagonist who always represents ‘the human experience’, or even worse – there is a total absence of people that look like you on screen.

It is with this background that I write with conflicted emotions about my problematic boo. If you know me or have had the misfortune of adding me on Facebook, it is clear that I, Aarthie Ratnakumar, fucking love Mindy Kaling. At its most basic level, it’s because Mindy is just SO MUCH fun. On a deeper level, however, this love stems from my position as a Woman of Colour, from my need to see myself and others like me represented on screen, but also the dreams and possibilities that Kaling embodies by virtue of being a first.

Her enormous and unlikely success as an Indian-American comedian in White Hollywood reads like a fairy tale. At just 24, Kaling was the youngest and only female writer hired on The Office, rising to fame as the annoying and adorable Kelly Kapoor. Almost a decade later, Kaling is not only the lead actress on The Mindy Project (which is in itself remarkable), but is also the creator, writer, executive producer and director of the show – essentially, holding almost total control over her own representation. Kaling’s portrayal of the loveable Dr. Mindy Lahiri never dapples in stereotypes of Indian women, affording Lahiri a complexity typically reserved for White characters. Her character is a smart, funny, sex-positive, boy-obsessed and at times insecure. But it’s also her unapologetic femininity, amazing style, and confidence in her appearance both on and off-screen that is so refreshing, and one reason why she is a role model for so many women. Kaling repeatedly defies the misguided view that loving clothes, boys and being girly is somehow incompatible with intelligence and feminism. Yet more significantly, it is Kaling’s position as a dark-skinned, curvy and confident Indian woman that Kaling’s self-love emerges as a highly political act; in a world where skinny White women define beauty and where Women of Colour are repeatedly told they’re worthless and ugly.

Despite the positives, the racial politics within The Mindy Project have seen the show come under fire (and rightfully so) by a wide range of critics, especially from fellow Women of Colour – this makes my love for Kaling a highly questionable affair. The most common critique leveled at the show is that of the fourteen men that Mindy Lahiri dates or sleeps with on the show, all happen to be White. The point is not about policing who Mindy Kaling personally dates or is attracted to. The point is that given the long history of Women of Colour being paired off with White men in television and movies (often as the fetishised ‘Other’), and of White men being positioned as superior and more physically attractive than Men of Colour, Kaling’s perpetuation of this representation is highly problematic and inexcusable.

The Mindy Project has also been criticised for a lack of diversity beyond love interests, in terms of cast and writing staff, who apart from Kaling are all White. Kaling appeared to address this criticism initially with news that Black actress Xosha Roquemore would be joining the cast as the only other Woman of Colour, playing the character Tamra. That was before Roquemore actually appeared on the show, as quite possibly the most racist stereotype of a ‘ghetto’ Black woman that Kaling and her staff could have written in terms of accent, sassiness, and her initial portrayal as lazy, incompetent and a nurse who actually sang her one-liners like Beyonce. The ‘ghetto’ stereotype of Tamra is furthered through Ray-Ron, her inept rapper boyfriend who embodies various racist stereotypes of Black men: from his being lazy, stupid, uneducated, lower class and deadbeat (which the show tries to pass off through the fact that Ray-Ron is actually White). These are not human or complex portrayals, and these minor characters only exist as the punch line. Anti-Blackness in society exists on a spectrum, and there is no separation between ‘innocent’ stereotypes and actual anti-Black violence in society. All this coming from a non-Black Person of Colour like Kaling is disappointing, but sadly not surprising.

Personally however, what has been most frustrating is the response by Kaling herself. In a widely reported moment, a Woman of Colour in the audience at the SXSW panel this year asked Kaling about the lack of diversity on the show. Clearly after being asked it one too many times, Kaling responded: “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, okay?” She went on to say that “No one asks any of the shows I adore… why no leads on their shows are Women of Colour, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.” Kaling has repeatedly made statements in public expressing frustration at being constantly asked questions about diversity, and instead pursues a desire to talk only about her comedy.

Mindy’s critique at the, sometimes unfair, level of criticism hurled at her show is valid, so far as it is related to any White critic who chooses to call out The Mindy Project for diversity issues without calling out literally every other White-dominated show on television too. But for the most part, this criticism has come from Women of Colour, and Kaling’s desire to move ‘beyond race’ repeatedly perpetuate the dangerous idea that we are living in a post-racial world, when this is clearly not the case. But more hurtfully, it delegitimises the genuine concerns from fellow Women of Colour who look up to Kaling.

Despite its serious flaws, there’s one reason why I just can’t stop supporting the show. I believe The Mindy Project is far more significant and far more radical than we have given it credit for (although the extent to which this is intended by Kaling is debatable). What I’m referring to is the show’s loving nod to the Patron Saint of romantic comedy, Nora Ephron. The pilot episode even opens with a shot of When Harry Met Sally playing on a television, with Kaling’s distinctive voice over, ‘When I was a kid, all I did was watch romantic comedies and do my homework.’

With its bubbly lead, its numerous rom-com clichés, and the fact that Danny and Mindy’s relationship is clearly based on Harry and Sally, it is easy to write off The Mindy Project as just another silly romantic comedy. But from my perspective, Kaling achieves much more than this. She is not merely derivative but is rather, in a radical and active way, inserting herself and by extension Women of Colour audiences into romantic narratives that have previously centred on the White female lead. It’s not Meg Ryan waiting at the top of the Empire State Building; it’s Mindy Kaling, in a world that she has total power over. Sure, it’s pure fantasy, but as a Women of Colour and especially as a South Asian woman, you have no idea how empowering that feels. However, I do realise for many Women of Colour this will not be enough, and that Kaling will always be a source of severe disappointment.

Mindy is far from perfect. I will always call her out because of the power she holds and also because I know she can do better. But for now she’s all we’ve got and, for me at least, that still means something.