The Unending Heartbreak of Great Expectations: Why I Can’t Watch The Mindy Project Anymore

MindyProject_still.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeMindy Kaling is a boss. Widely regarded by her coworkers and by critics alike as the best writer for the popular sitcom The Office, since September she’s been staring in, writing, producing and directing her own primetime TV show, The Mindy Project, which just wrapped up its first season and has been picked up for a second. The Mindy Project is the first TV sitcom staring an Indian-American: definitely an historic achievement. Importantly, just a few days into the start of the season, trolls, in the form of TV-critics-who-write-under-cover-of-internet, lost their collective minds and began harping on Mindy Kaling’s smug and self-satisfied nature. In a twist of what amounts to the most ironic of ironies, that bastion of independent thinking and critical analysis, Gawker, called Mindy the “human equivalent of a retweeted compliment.”

Writer Nisha Chittal wrote a great piece for Racialicous in which she breaks down the root causes of this tedious and predictable resistance to Mindy’s success, comparing it to the kind of response given to young white women leading a show:

When Lena Dunham launched Girls, Dunham was praised for creating and portraying a character not typically seen on TV screens: a young, post-college, average-looing, single woman with romantic woes, whose flaws and insecurities are on display. Kaling portrays a similarly flawed character, but has not received the same praise. Bloggers and critics hailed Dunham’s characters as relatable, real women. But I haven’t seen one critic yet say “I can see myself in Mindy’s character,” the way many described the appeal of Dunham’s Girls. 

Now, I don’t watch Girls, largely because I really cannot see myself in the characters in the show nor are their lives particularly interesting to me. I reference it as a way to illuminate the racism and misogyny that Mindy Kaling continues to face, despite her talent and obvious work ethic.

mindy-project__oPtSo, there are a lot of reasons why I watched this entire first season of The Mindy Project. First, the almost immediate emotional sigh of relief to see an Indian American woman on TV, being beautiful and funny. Being beautiful, funny and not playing a deranged sex kitten or terrorist (or both, simultaneously). Being beautiful, funny and not tokenized as the sassy best friend, or tragically comic office-mate (I love Aziz Ansari with the fire of a nova, but we still don’t know Tom Haverford’s real name after six seasons of Parks and Rec.). That kind of existential relief can only be felt in contrast to the otherwise ubiquitous feeling of never seeing someone that looks like you or your family on TV, save for the times you can count on one hand.

Then there’s the boss factor. Both Mindy Kaling and Mindy Lahiri (her character on the show) are confident badasses – a characteristic I love and relate to. Women who clearly love their jobs and their friends, and are unapologetic feminists are the stuff of my dreams. Note, here, that I haven’t yet said anything about Mindy’s body, though it is oft discussed as something revolutionary about the show. Which is a commentary on Hollywood and it’s inability to think of “leading ladies” outside a very oppressive and narrow set of body parameters. Mindy Kaling is not unusual looking. She’s strikingly beautiful and rather small, actually.  There’s not much more to it than that. But I will say that she is unusually fly, some of those outfits are the absolute freshest.

So I took a deep breath, thanked goodness for Mindy, plugged in and began to watch the show. It is not long before I laugh. She’s loveable, and a little nutty. It is also not long before I cringe. In the fist episode of the season, Mindy (Lahiri) makes a disgusting “joke” about women in burqas (nevermind that the woman in the burqa is not actually wearing a burqa, but a headscarf). Now what? Well, actually, I stopped watching the show. It wasn’t until several months later that I returned to the series on Hulu and made my way through the next several episodes, at one sitting.

I have watched the season like that, in a couple of sittings, a few episodes at a time and pretty quickly realized that the show has an uncomfortable, and painful-to-experience, relationship with race. Mindy Kaling has said that she finds the racial tensions between different minority groups to be fertile joke-ground. I disagree, both because usually, I don’t find low-brow race-based jokes funny, generally speaking (humorless feminist alert), but also because I don’t find the show’s execution of those jokes to be funny.

I acquiesce to the limitations of this analysis, however, knowing that Mindy Kaling’s job is not to represent me, or any or all other Desi women. It has, regardless, become clear to me that Mindy (Lahiri)’s feminism is not of a piece with mine, really, at all. My feminism is intersectional, radical, angry, loving and queered. Mindy’s seems to be about being traditionally successful and occasionally, sexually bold – not bad, per se, but limiting. I love the fact that she loves her female patients and is a wonderful doctor. I cannot stomach, however, the repeated and diverse forms of self-loathing the character performs in regards to the fact that she can’t seem to get and keep a man. And worse still, how bad she feels about herself in that context.

Further, the show does not take these moments to shift the narrative about what women want/should want and need in heteronormative relationships. There’s nothing revolutionary about ‘you’ll find someone, someday’ and ‘you deserve, better.’ Especially given that this first season is largely about her being left, repeatedly, by a gaggle of white men beaus. Now, there’s nothing wrong with “having a type,” but let’s not willfully delude ourselves into believing that our notions of what is sexy are not influenced by a mortifyingly racist, sexist, classist, ableist society.

In this context, I return to Mindy’s looks and weight. Her weight and looks are something that she herself, and her character on the show talk about quite often (in the first episode, one of Mindy Lahiri’s coworkers suggests, quite heartlessly, that she lose 15 pounds if she wants to look good). I’ve not seen a single interview with Mindy Kaling where she hasn’t self-deprecatingly mentioned the fact that she’s not conventionally gorgeous. This, for me, is exhausting, and mostly so because it is not accompanied by an analysis that critiques those standards of beauty – just by one that wistfully concurs: Mindy (Kaling and Lahiri) might not be beautiful enough.

I realize that I’m being quite hard on she show, expecting a lot from it and from Mindy Kaling herself. Perhaps even too much. I also realize that I cannot expect any given South Asian woman to share my experience, political lens and perspectives completely. As Mindy Kaling herself noted, on NPR, this is not a burden put on Steve Carell, for example, to represent all white men:

As an Indian-American actress playing a lead on a TV show, Kaling says, she’s gotten positive early feedback but still feels the burden of people pinning “their hopes and dreams” on her. She says she just has to brush aside her worries, because Dr. Mindy Lahiri is a “real character.”

That I lean forward when I see women of color on primetime and hope that they will offer me a respite, a space to both see and be seen as a full(er) human being, is the lesson here. It is, notably, a function of the dearth of relatable characters and a tragic commentary on the state of mainstream Hollywood representations of women that I yearn in this way. That perhaps, is the central node of my anguish, and it has very little to do with Mindy (Kaling or Lahiri): it has to do with living in a world that refuses to do just that. To acknowledge my complexity, to acknowledge my skin itself, to encourage me to foster a sense of self free from racist implications. A TV show can’t do that, of course, but it can certainly help. It can certainly do better.

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43 thoughts on “The Unending Heartbreak of Great Expectations: Why I Can’t Watch The Mindy Project Anymore

  1. Whenever I see a show like this I have to breathe and remind myself “Baby Steps”. The Revolution will not be won in a day. I temporarily satisfy myself with the triumph that this woman has a show and gets to write for it. She is paving the way for others, a generation after mine. We may not all reach the promised land in our lifetimes…

    • So true. I had similar expectations for Scandal once I started watching it but I was left unsettled with Olivia Pope and have since stopped watching. There are several aspects of the show that bother me but I am no longer a fan.

  2. Actually, we do know Tom’s name. His name is Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani. It was mentioned in the Stakeout episode where he is believed to be breaking and entering into his own vehicle.

    • Ooh! I clearly missed it. Thanks for the heads up. That show, and Tom’s character in particular, deserves it’s own post!

  3. Every episode makes me laugh and also offends me. I think Mindy is charming and funny, but every episode has at least one really offensive theme. A few episodes ago, they visited a prison, and it was some of the most anti-prisoner depictions seen on TV. Then, the next episode had a completely unrealistic and offensive sex worker. Then there was US soldier that all the characters fawned over as a “hero.” Then, in almost every episode, there are the relentless attacks on natural medicine and midwives.

    • Yes! That prison episode was horrifying! As are the tedious attacks on natural medicine and depiction of the sex worker and women of color in general. The one black woman character on the show is always singing and dancing her lines. Man, I just can’t, even though I, too, sometimes laugh. On we go, ya’ll.

      • Her show reflects life and we all know people who do weird_sh#t. I thk her references to women of color are appropriate and she satirizes stereotypes very well.

    • That prison episode almost had me stop watching her show. It was HORRIBLE. I was so angry over it.

  4. not getting a man isn’t that funny. it’s no tragedy either. both mindys are the proverbial fish with bicycles, and to deprecate their beauty and sexuality on any terms except that men don’t like women smarter and richer than they are is — not real. worse, like i said, not funny.

    i loved this take. i wonder, have you seen or written about The Kumars at No. 42?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kumars_at_No._42

    And, Little Mosque on the Prairie?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Mosque_on_the_Prairie

    neither of them, significantly, of american origin.

    thanks for this.

  5. i also have a really uncomfortable relationship with this show. i feel like it really tries to defang women of color feminism….. the term “women of color” is used as a punchline in the show… she mentions it as a joke on par with her neurotic, self-absorbed habits, and all her white coworkers sigh over how petty she’s being. sorry, women of color is a political construct that white people don’t get to be exasperated about. and what’s with the new black nurse character, whose blackness seems to annoy everyone, and one of her male coworkers actually jokes he wants to kill her. it’s not just that she doesn’t take on issues of race in any challenging sort of way, but actively uses her poc-ness to perpetuate a lot of the same old dehumanizing ideas about poc. and i don’t really see how this is feminist in any way. it just seems to continue this narrative of women being fickle and shallow and unable to get a hold on their own lives w/o the guidance of some authoritative male figure. sigh…. i know mindy kaling shouldn’t have to rep anyone in her work, but she also shouldn’t be using her platform to continue shitting on poc…. that just seems unnecessary.

  6. I completely disagree. Mindy’s character is inherently flawed as all humans are. A lot of this article was about respectability politics. Mindy’s character is not perfect but who is? Also, your comments about her repeated weight references were annoying to say the least. As a woman that is similar in size to Mindy I absolutely understand her. That struggle is real and she is constantly affirming herself. Her style is amazing, her wit is enviable, but above all, I appreciate her candor. She’s no social justice warrior but she definitely brings instances of injustice to light. Her feminism may not be your kind of feminism but it is feminism nonetheless. You have every right to your opinion but as women, and especially women of color, it is our job to love and support one another. Her only crime was being herself and I don’t at all appreciate your persecution of her.

    • I’m have to say “Amen” to this. Yeah, some of the jokes are off-color, but so are many of the jokes that I, as a WoC, make on a daily basis. She is real. She is relatable. She fits some stereotypes and absolutely defies others like a REAL PERSON. I happen to love that she talks about weight because it is a very real struggle for us curvy girls. We can say that we want to break down social norms of beauty all day long, but one of the best ways to do that is to take a relatable character and show some of the asshole behavior (citing: the birthday episode) rude jokes, general insecurity, and constant need to self-affirm that women who are not skinny and white have to endure because of societal prejudice. This show might not meet all of our expectations (which are, I’m gonna say it, too high–she’s one person) but we MUST support her and other primetime WoC if we expect to see more. I see the criticism, but weighing it against its whiter alternative, I’m gonna pass.

      • double amen! mindy could not possibly take on that burden, for then she would certainly fall down with the weight of expectations and “respectability politics”. the author of this article/critique has valid points that are actually courageous to point out. i agree there are cringe-worthy elements. i also think that’s the point. one can’t balance the fine line between being PC and being a comedienne. ultimately, it’s about what message comes across in the aggregate and what the comedienne’s intentions are. i still believe both are honorable with mindy kaling. i think some of her humor reflects the world in which we live and the struggles we face within in. it may not be right to feel ashamed in some way not to look like a stick thin white model, but we all do at times. if mindy lahiri didn’t feel that way, she wouldn’t really be relatable to me and many others. she’d be some fantasy of the character we all want to be, but actually aren’t.

  7. I was also very excited about this show and then a very disappointed. I am annoyed with how all her love interests are white guys and she is most often the token woman of color around all white people. I have nothing against interracial relationships or friendships, but it just seems a bit odd and redundant that she is this Indian-American character on TV with no other POC around her!

    • Yes! How is it possible this woman lives in NYC and has no POC friends/co-workers/acquaintances? That in and of itself makes me upset – plus I (sadly) just don’t find the show funny despite really wanting to see a Desi woman protagonist in her own show.

      • Aren’t her best friends from college Latina? In the episode where she takes the day off because the two white male doctors won’t listen to her ideas, she spends it hanging out with two other women, who validate her feelings about their racism/sexism and who encourage her to take her job and herself seriously even when her colleagues don’t. Plus, she’s got that mentee from Columbia.

        Heh, I’m realizing as I’m to think of some others that the reason I remembered those 3 is that they are so unusual.

  8. It’s a sitcom. I think in order to be “sellable” or easily digested by the masses, it ends up being whitewashed, but on a short wash, gotta leave a teeny tiny bit of color, and run through the dryer of “all women really want to be super skinny and have a man to love them.” I think I got so absorbed with the L word because I could finally watch a show where every single aspect of these women’s lives wasn’t centered on NEEDING romance and skipping meals.

  9. I’ve been cheering for this show since its beginning, but rarely find that I like it when I watch it. Sometimes I wonder if Mindy Kaling really is as shallow as he she pretends to be, but then she does something brilliant again to throw me off-balance. As far as not being as straightforwardly progressive as we’d all like, I seriously doubt that she’s going to take that on in a straightforward way. She will play the fool and expose the absurd things we do to fit in and we’ll get a chuckle when we recognize it in ourselves.

  10. This is a fab blog post! I watched the entire season as I thought that it was absolutely refreshing to have a quirky/awkward strong woman of colour be the lead but just really disliked her traditional and internalized guilt for expressing some sexual positivity and the entire narrative of the show being surrounding by men. Still have much love and respect for her but I just hope people like you write a show that challenges social issues such and race with my more flare.

  11. My criticisms of her show have nothing to do with wanting to her to represent me (a South Asian-American woman) better. I don’t want her to represent anyone but herself and her creative vision. But I would loathe this show regardless of what race the leading character was, because it employs horrific racist, sexist, classist and homophobic tropes in every. single. episode. How about a recent episode where she literally screams “Oh my god!” when she sees an extremely offensively-caricatured African man? How about how her blanket South Asian/Arab/Middle-Eastern cabbies have thick weird accents that don’t exist in real life? When I first watched the show I thought it took place in LA because it was the weirdest whitewashed depiction of New York I had ever seen, even more so than SATC, Friends, or Seinfeld.

    • Um, Los Angeles is no whiter than New York. Different, of course. Not that you’d know it from most TV shows set there.

  12. To be honest her relationship with the men in her show and with others expressing some internalized insecurities with her race (I know this happens to a lot of us) but the constant joking around her ethnicity just appears to be some kind of coping mechanism. It just looks like she always has something to prove, I’ve been there done that, I know how it feels like. Also I really disliked her attitude towards working/lower class people. Overall good show just needs more progress, then again she isn’t superwoman.

  13. Waiting for someone to come along and break barriers the way you want them to, never proves to be a good idea. I have grown to appreciate the humor of Mindy Project more as the season went on. It saddens me greatly that Mindy and now Tamara, a very 2D take on a Black woman are the only people of color on the show, and that her world is so very very white, but otherwise, I like the self-absorbed, upper middle class unapologetic Mindy. But all the characters are 2D caricatures. It’s a broad sitcom. Reality. I don’t disagree that racial tensions are ripe for comic genius, I thought Dave Chappel made that perfectly clear. Not to say that there isn’t room for a lot of improvement when it comes to the occassional “other” person of color that pops up on the show from time to time…Perhaps one of Mindy’s threeeee best friends could have been a poc??? I still think that seeing a non trope dark skinned Asian woman on tv is very gratifying and so very important.

    As you noted, expecting to see yourself in a tv sitcom character because you share the same gender and race as the star is not rfealistic. All Black women do not share the same experience, neither do all Japanese women, or Indigenous women in the diaspora. One of the things I like about Mindy’s character is that she alone on the show has some complexity. She’s brown but not necessarily progressive. She’s an American western Dr. of eastern descent who has no time for holistic or natural medicine. She is not a sterotype. Her feminism is not your feminisim or mine for that matter, but it’s still feminism. I appreciate that Mindy’s comic version of her ego-maniacal character’s life in progress is her own.

    You like the show or you don’t. You think its funny or you don’t. You watch it or you don’t. I tire of the constant negative critiques of Mindy not doing enough, after all she is the first Indian American woman to have her own tv show. Upper middle class American, being the hidden operative words. I think for those truly disappointed by her vision, the only thing to do is write your own show, and portray your own version of life as you know it, thanks gawds for Youtube. It’s liberating to follow shows online mainly, that do feel more representative of a broader spectrum of people. But I’ll still be watching The Mindy Project.

    All shows can do better, and I hope that Mindy Project will be among them. I appreciate that in the end your article talks to the frustration with the entertainment industry’s lack of acknowledgement of our existence as people of color of various shapes, sizes and experiences. I won’t argue with that.

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  16. In addition to the problems you listed the show is also full of fat hatred. I left the show after the episode in which one of Mindy’s partners asks her to tell a patient that she is too fat. They tell the client to loose weight while pregnant! So dangerous. So, no, “… she loves her female patients and is a wonderful doctor.” She is not a wonderful doctor who loves her patients. She is often just as denigrating to them/about them (and talking behind there backs is no kind of love) as she is about herself. The show also portrays midwives as a bunch of hippy-dippy jokes when they are really nurses with specialty training in midwifery like a nurse practitioner practicing in a doctor’s office. In the first episode the midwives appear Mindy bullies and scares her patients into returning to her practice. That kind of thing actually happens and is not a laughing matter, IMO.

    • I also am annoyed by the portrayal of the midwives, but I actually think they are supposed to be CPMs (certified professional midwives), who are not medical professionals (unlike CNMs – certified nurse midwives, which is who you were referring to).

  17. no tv show (or art,theatre, dance, novel etc etc) is ever going to be all things for all people. just like all communities there is a lot of diversity too in the Desi community (just like any immigrant community), why wouldn’t there be, India is a huge place- what we need is more voices, not to strangle the ones we have and over think each project. I haven’t watched but am bummed by the down on midwifery bit and weight obsession, nonetheless, let’s give her a break, remember how hard it was for Margaret Chow? Public support and private criticsms in times like these

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  20. I just watched several episodes for the first time tonight and was shocked at the amount of self-hatred and white supremacy in both the writing and directing. Once again, the parade of white men that she dates is presented as “normal”. And off course they are so understanding, gentle, progressive, kind and never have a single issue with her body type. Where are all the ethnic doctors in her life? Because I certainly can’t remember the last time I walked into a hospital or clinic or general practitioners office to find nothing but all male white doctors. As a women of color working in the film industry, Im not surprised she got her own show. It’s clear the compromises she’s had to make. Or maybe they weren’t compromises at all.

  21. I’d LIKE to like the show but I don’t. I’d LIKE to like Sandal but I don’t. Neither one at all. That is all well and good but the crackhead-like devotion of some of the fan base is annoying.

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  23. I’m not going to take on the whole show or your critique, because it does resonate with me. But I LIKE the show and MY feminism is also “intersectional, radical, angry, loving and queered.” But you know what? A lot of my struggles are about my relationships with men. And they’re funny, and hard, and heartbreaking, and don’t define all my parts. Kind of like the show. If my life was a 24 min a week sitcom.

    Also…I get the feeling that the anti-midwife sentiment is just satire.

  24. Ok I get it. i avoided this show and I binged watched it a few weeks ago and its a cute show. Unfortunately we all want our point of view to be displayed by which ever POC gets the chance to breakthrough. This is unfair and unrealistic. Kaling cannot and should not be expected to represent all of us , its impossible and its unfair. By Kaling breaking through and being ” a boss” the most she can really do is inspire others who feel that they have limitations. Every culture wants to be shown in the best light but we are all human beings with light and dark aspects, so cut her a break. To be honest she has to cater to many demographics to be successful and to have access to the means to practice her art, so we might have to cringe a little but that’s life.

  25. I get where you’re coming from, but flaws and insecurities are what real women are composed of, I think if anything Mindy is proving that despite not always feeling great about ourselves we can be, “the stars of the show”, her in the sitcom and us in real life.

  26. Something about her is extremely annoying. Hard to even explain it. The ay she rolls her eyes trying to be funny, her ‘twang twang’ vocal, and the ay she twists her shoulder in that whatever way, gosh the moment I see her on the screen I immediately turn to another channel.

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