By Guest Contributor Nisha Chittal
Mindy Kaling’s new series, The Mindy Project, premieres on Fox on September 25. Already, the show and its creator and star have received an onslaught of press attention, culminating in a New York Magazine cover story. Kaling’s new show is widely being called one of the best of this fall’s new comedies, and Kaling herself is a story of hard work and success, writing and directing for The Office for eight years, then landing a deal with Fox to write, direct, produce, and star in her own show.
But no young, talented woman experiencing a rush of success can avoid the inevitable backlash. After the release of the New York cover story, Kaling has become the subject of much internet ire, with bloggers and TV critics calling her a variety of adjectives: smug, too self-satisfied, cocky, “the human equivalent of a retweeted compliment.” But women are supposed to be self-deprecating! How dare she feel confident about her career achievements?
Is she proud of her success? Sure, but she has worked incredibly hard and earned the right to be: she has proved her chops, starting as a writer on The Office at the age of 24 and working her way up to executive producer over 8 years. She wrote some of The Office‘s most well-received episodes, like “Niagara” and “The Dundies,” and directed several episodes as well.
Her Office co-star BJ Novak once told the magazine, “Mindy has long been considered the best writer on The Office, and every actor on the show thinks she writes for them best.” Last year she published a bestselling memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which received positive reviews and was excerpted in The New Yorker. No one can truthfully claim that she doesn’t have the experience — she has built a name for herself from nothing, and has solid experiencing writing, directing, producing, and starring in one of the most successful TV comedies in recent years.
Would the same be said of a successful, self-confident man? Would the same be said of Chuck Lorre or Lee Arohnson? No — a confident man gets a pass, but a confident woman deserves to be criticized and put back in her place. In an industry dominated largely by white men, Kaling is a threat to the status quo: she’s young, a woman, and a minority. There’s no one else like her in the business right now, which means she has had to work twice as hard and fight to get to the top, and she is no doubt very aware of how much she stands out and how hard she must work to prove herself.
As the New York story points out, the last woman of color to write and star in her own show was Wanda Sykes – in 2003. Similar criticisms have been leveled at other successful women in TV: Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings, Lena Dunham … all are successful, talented young women in comedy who have worked their way up in a male-dominated industry, yet all have been criticized for their successes. Have you ever heard anyone call Chuck Lorre too smug? I didn’t think so. No white male comedy writer is ever derided for being “too smug,” and most haven’t achieved half of what Kaling already has.
And Kaling, as a woman of color, faces even more unique challenges. 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-looking, 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. Kaling works extremely hard to make her character appealing to the broadest audience possible, and she seems to do this in part by stripping the show and the character of any racial characteristics at all, save for one brief “racist” joke.
One of the subtle, but important things about Kaling’s writing is that her characters are simply people, who happen to be Indian American – never the token ethnic character; never a larger-than-life cartoon stereotype whose racial identity serves as fodder for cheap jokes. While there is more diversity on TV today than in the past, the Asian and Indian- Americans you see on TV are still often cast as distinctly “foreign,” and have thick accents and portray tired racial stereotypes that emphasize their other-ness, in stark contrast to the other white, all-American characters they’re cast alongside.
Her writing quietly makes a statement about race without needing to explicitly on screen. One of the most striking anecdotes in the New York profile details a moment in production when Kaling sees a computer screen on set at her fictional OB/GYN office, filled with photos of white babies, and says to the crew: “Weren’t we going to have some babies of color? We’re going to have all white babies?”
By creating characters that are just people first, whose race is not used as a punchline or central to their character’s storyline, Kaling gives voice and representation on TV to a whole generation of Americans who very rarely see anyone like themselves on screen. In an interview with HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, she said she hopes we get to a place where her race, and the race of her characters, isn’t the first thing people think of. “I don’t really think of myself so much as in terms of being Indian,” she said.
In its own way, Kaling’s work blazes an important trail for Asian-American women in television. Asian women on television and film are typically exoticized, portrayed as either submissive, model minority or “tiger mom” types. Roles for Asian women on television are few and far between – but Kaling, by starting out as a writer and now as a showrunner, has played a big part in shaping more realistic portrayals of Asian American women on television by creating her own roles. I can’t think of another scripted television show – certainly no comedy – that has had an Asian-American female lead. Kaling deserves to be lauded for breaking down that barrier, for improving the way Asian women are portrayed on television – and she has certainly earned the right to be proud of such trailblazing success.
Kaling is victim to the double standard that most successful women face: people lament that women aren’t confident enough, but when they see a truly self-confident woman they tear her down for being “smug.” For what? For being comfortable, even proud, of herself, despite being different? For making her way to the top of an industry where there aren’t many people like her?
For women and people of color, the only way to make it in an industry where you’re a minority is to have an extremely healthy sense of self-confidence and to persevere despite all the undue scrutiny that you’ll face. Kaling has worked for and earned her success and is rightfully proud, yet has to deal with a level of criticism rarely experienced by men which focuses almost entirely on her “smugness” and very little on the actual quality of her work. Until we get to Kaling’s ideal place, where race and gender of TV characters doesn’t matter, the backlash she’s touched off only shows why it is so important to have more more voices like hers on television.