In October comedian and actress Mindy Kaling sat for an interview for NPR’s “Morning Edition” with Rachel Martin, who asked her how it felt to be “a woman who’s been the first at something,” a “pioneer.” When “The Mindy Project” premiered on Fox in the fall of 2012, Kaling became the first Asian-American woman on broadcast television to star in and run her own show. “Is it still a lonely club?” Martin asked. “I know why people want me to speak about it,” Kaling responded, “But I sort of refuse to be an outsider, even though I know that I very much look like one to a lot of people. And I refuse to view myself in such terms.”
In that sense, she’s right: She’s not a pioneer. For one, what excited many people was that Kaling was, in her own words, “an Indian-American woman who is not pencil thin.” But to call her a trailblazer of representation simply because she is an Indian-American woman conflates her identity with her work. It buys into the very tokenism that plagues conversations about diversity by suggesting that representation is simply a matter of starring on TV.
But what of the work itself? Kaling has chosen to express herself through the lens of romantic comedies from the 1990s. You know, Meg Ryan movies. It’s a genre we’ve come to associate with upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man. At first, “The Mindy Project” appeared as though it would be a clever reworking of the genre, but after three and a half seasons, it’s clear that Kaling isn’t interested in subversion. She has reproduced the same story of romance that has already been told countless times — and just made herself the star.
It is no accident that Dr. Mindy Lahiri, the character Kaling plays on the show, dates white, upper-middle-class men — Wall Street bankers, NYU Latin professors, lawyers and Web designers. This recurrence is not a question of fate running into you but the perpetuation of the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions. Lahiri’s project of finding Mr. Right, in other words, holds the ultimate promise of assimilation.
Not one of the others
The bulk of criticism of “The Mindy Project” has rightly focused on the optics of diversity. In the show’s run so far, Lahiri has dated 19 white men — an exclusive cohort she herself has joked is a string of “tall white men to short white men.” On Jezebel, Dodai Stewart gently chastised Kaling for her excessive attention to white men, hoping that after the first season, Lahiri could “mix it up and try dating Mexican, Korean, black, Navajo or Moroccan men.” (She didn’t.)
But the problem here is not that Lahiri exclusively dates white men. It’s that there is never any confrontation of race within these relationships. It’s aggressively naive to suggest that none of her tall white boyfriends has ever said that he has a proclivity for Indian women, clumsily attempted to prove his familiarity with Indian culture or dismissed her for her race. Neither does Lahiri show any anxiety, glee or resentment about being the sole Indian woman in a mostly white male environment. There is not even the barest acknowledgment that her desire might be shaped by the expectations of a white male establishment. “The Mindy Project” perpetuates a white power structure by masking how racial fantasies operate on an interpersonal level. Race is ornamental, like a Kate Spade purse.
Additionally, Lahiri’s choices are sadly unremarkable. She has dated men played by Seth Rogen, Seth Meyers and Anders Holm, among others. During a Buzzfeed roundtable, Ayesha Siddiqi called this Kaling’s “nebbish white guy fetish” and said, “What bothers me is these guys don’t have to be/never are anything special. They’re just white and available.” In fact, if Kaling chose to have her character date a hot pinup such as “Captain America” actor Chris Evans — for whom Lahiri says she pines — the show could exaggerate the cartoonish elements of romantic comedy as a way of acknowledging its conceit — as Lena Dunham (arguably) does in a surrealist episode of “Girls” in which her character dates an impossibly suave Patrick Wilson. Instead, Kaling’s vision of romance normalizes her choice of relationships, as though only by doing so can she believe her participation in them.
Kaling, it seems, thinks any serious considerations of race would detract from rather than enrich the rom-com framework.
When race does enter the frame, it is always an imposition. In the latest episode, “Stanford,” Lahiri meets another Indian doctor at a fellowship program, where the only point of commonality she is able to muster is that she knows “how to do a kind of offensive Indian accent.” In the same episode, she ignores another doctor's assumptions that she's Latina. It isn’t dissimilar to Kaling’s experience at a New Yorker after-party where a drunk man mistook her for Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. She predictably laughed it off, saying, “That’s the best thing that’s happened all night.” In “The Mindy Project” too, almost any exchange Lahiri has about race appears meant to prove that she is not one of the others but a full-blooded American. As she says to the Indian doctor, she’s “from Boston, baby.”
This is what makes her declarations on the show that she aspires to be blonde even more unsettling. Lahiri’s desire to exclusively date white men is a choice that Kaling makes. But in cloaking that choice as incidental rather than intentional, she perpetuates a greater untruth: that race, especially in the context of interracial dating, would vanish if only people of color stopped talking about it.
A character is born
The most fully realized character on “The Mindy Project” is Danny Castellano, Lahiri’s colleague-turned-boyfriend, played by Chris Messina. A grouchy Italian-American doctor who grew up in a rough part of Staten Island (you know, "Port Dogkill"), he wears reading glasses on a lanyard, makes a good pasta sauce, hates the new pope and loves his ma. He has daddy issues because his father left his family when he was young, and the show has devoted a considerable amount of time to dealing with the father’s specter. We eventually meet Castellano’s dad, his half-sister, his louse of a brother and his overbearing mom (the wonderful Rhea Perlman). Castellano is a great character in part because we know where he comes from. It’s telling that we know more about his family and roots than we do about Lahiri’s.
Her parents, meanwhile, have no presence on the show; they are indistinct shapes that appear in the background of her memory. Her brother Rishi, played by Utkarsh Ambudkar, has appeared on a couple of episodes. But just as quickly as the show establishes that she has a family, Rishi disappears. This is why even though the show is about her, it feels curiously ahistorical. Lahiri appears to be a woman without any family or community; she is a character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy.
The implicit question behind “What does it feel like to be the first?” is “What does it feel like to be the only one?” Lahiri is the only doctor of color in the office and the only woman with any significant storyline. And yet we have very little sense of what that feels like; Kaling, it seems, thinks any serious considerations of race would detract from rather than enrich the rom-com framework she has set up for Lahiri. In the interview with Martin, Kaling said, “I think that it’s insidious to be spending more of your time reflecting … in smart ways about your otherness rather than doing the hard work of your job.”
Racism is not just some paranoid fever dream. Kaling, however, would rather have us believe that the best thing to do as a woman of color is to lean into the bounty of American romance with trips to the Empire State Building, VIP-room canoodling and horse-drawn carriages. But that forecloses the breadth of possibilities, both funny and painful, of what it means to be American — and maybe more saliently, what it means to fall in love.