In a recent interview with The Guardian, Mindy Kaling, the creator, showrunner, and star of The Mindy Project, discussed the responsibility that she feels to answer questions about feminism and diversity in her work and on her show:
“I get angry with people in the public eye who say they’re not a role model, and they don’t want people to look up to them. Because it’s incorrect. It’s important for me to be someone people look up to — most directly, minority girls who want to do what I do. Maybe it’s narcissistic, but I think it’s important.”
This reply is in response to a discussion of the slings and arrows that Kaling has withstood for her show. In an interview at SXSW, her blunt reply to a question became a headline on this site and others: “I’m a Fucking Indian Woman Who Has Her Own Fucking Show.” When she was on the cover of Elle, the Internet went wild with fury (Sample hed: “Here’s Why You Should Be Upset Over Mindy Kaling’s Elle Cover, Even If She Isn’t“) over the fact that it was just a black-and-a-white picture of her face, which looked like the magazine was hiding Kaling’s race (Indian) and body (not the Hollywood norm, a size 0). She is consistently criticized for the parade of white guys as romantic interests on The Mindy Project. Our website hasn’t always gone easy on Kaling, either.
As a role model, Kaling’s success is held up as all things to all people who don’t necessarily fit the status quo — of course, some of that could be thanks to Kaling’s publicity team, in all honesty — and everything that she does that doesn’t deviate from that status quo is seen as a source of outrage. It also doesn’t help that The Mindy Project hasn’t been a confident sitcom; it’s all over the place, although it is improving. Kaling notes, correctly, that she’s in a can’t-win position in a lot of ways, since when questions of feminism and racism are presented to her, she’s not in the same position as, say, a Judd Apatow. She can’t just say: nope, next question.
Kaling recalls watching a panel with the director Judd Apatow where he discussed Girls, on which he is an executive producer. “Lena [Dunham] gets asked a question about people’s issues with Girls, and she feels she owes it to them to answer, because it’s about sexism. But Judd had a question about black people on the show, and he goes: ‘I think that’s a boring question and I’m not going to answer it. Next.’ And a man says it, and your inclination — well, my inclination — is that it’s within his rights. It’s cool. A woman says that and it’s immediately the headline.”
It’s interesting to see Kaling note that example. Both Kaling and Dunham, as the brains behind their shows and the public faces of them, carry a lot of responsibility. As people who are relatively new to being public figures, and as women with a need to please, they feel an obligation to engage with provocative questions. They don’t have the luxury, per se, to say no, to disengage. When Dunham was a relative unknown and Girls was a wildcard, she was apologizing right and left for the whiteness of Girls‘ NYC. She’s been course correcting in real time, with results that have been awkward and risky (remember Donald Glover’s Sandy the Black Republican?), but not necessarily enlightening.
A lot of the security people like Apatow feel stems from power — he has made a lot of money for a lot of companies. The Mindy Project, (and even Girls, whose audience size has never matched its buzz) on the other hand, has never been a hit show with many viewers, making lots of money; rather, its ratings are low and it’s been getting a lot of chances to stay on-air.
But Kaling’s insights here make sense — it’s why talking about “what it’s like to be a female in the entertainment industry” can get tiring on panels, how women who’ve achieved a lot yet are aware of the tenuousness of success (at least in the entertainment industry) can have a hard time discussing their work in the light of topics like sexism and racism. (Nora Ephron, in particular, often talked about how sick she was of Women In Film panels.) It’s why it’s a good thing that despite this exhaustion, Kaling is answering the questions. She’s talking, openly, about these topics, about her fuck-ups and her accomplishments in equal measure, starting a conversation at the very least. But I still have mixed feelings about every “chubby” joke she makes at her own expense.