I was rooting for The Mindy Project since I read Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and thought, “Yes! A not thin, not white woman wrote a comedic memoir that I can relate to!” The thought of Kaling’s incredibly honest, sometimes insecure, sometimes supremely confident voice translating on television was exciting. But I worried that I was getting my hopes up, only to be depressingly disappointed later.
I admit to breathing a sigh of relief after watching the pilot. There may have been a fist pump. It’s good. And I no longer needed to worry about feeling forced to support something that was less than great only because I believed in the essence behind it. (I’m looking at you, Red Tails.) Following the pilot, there was collective black and brown girl cheer at the fact that Kaling had managed to create a comedy reflecting the voice of a woman of color and do it really well. But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) some wondered why it had to be another story about a woman on the hunt for a man.
Look. I get it. We’re feminists. We can soar in male-dominated fields like science and engineering. We can be business owners and spearhead companies. We can pay our own rent, walk into a car dealership by ourselves and purchase a car, and dominate in Congress. We don’t need no man! Aren’t we tired of the otherwise successful female lead focusing so much of her attention on the lack of a man in her life?
The thing is – white ladies have had so many opportunities to play this role. There is no shortage of the show in which a pretty white woman navigates the twists and turns of falling in love, falling out of love, having lots of sex, wondering why she’s not having sex, wondering if what she’s feeling is really love, and what does this text message mean? And then she gets to talk all about it with her girlfriends over brunch. As my lovely Black Girls Talking co-host Aurelia said, “We just want the chance to be as vapid as everyone else.” We had Living Single. And that went off the air in 1998. I know some of you want to yell at me for failing to include Girlfriends here. Girlfriends had an eight-year run and was a fine show, but it was no Living Single and it didn’t have Queen Latifah in it. Also, let’s address the fact that there were two comedies in a 10-year period that fit the life, love and relationships television genre that featured a woman of color in a starring role.
Women of color have been living under drought conditions when it comes to a woman who looks like us telling our own stories. I know that for some of you, this may not seem like a big deal and you wonder why one’s ethnicity matters in this context. It’s significant because television is such an overwhelmingly incredible part of our culture. So many of us love television! For women of color, not seeing us represented in this medium creates a sense of “otherness” among us. We are being told that our stories and our voices are not important and not welcome. Being absent on the screen says that we do not belong alongside our white counterparts. And if we don’t belong in this very prevalent cultural context of television, then where do we belong?
Part of what makes The Mindy Project so special is its ability to straddle the line between making race a factor and making it a non-issue. It’s not a show about a brown woman, but a show about a woman who is also brown. She’s a multi-faceted, well-developed character with depth and not just a stereotype of her race. Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri is not burdened by her “otherness.” It’s not a story about the struggle of this poor brown woman, as the storylines of so many minority characters so often tend to be.
At the same time, Kaling doesn’t avoid racial comedy. In one of the first scenes we see Lahiri drunkenly yell “racist!” at a driver while riding dirty on a bicycle in a boss lady sequined dress. It’s a moment that everyone can laugh at, but one that black and brown girls may give the familiar nod to. Yup. I’ve definitely pulled that one out prematurely in the 1st quarter after throwing more than enough mixed drinks in a red cup too quickly down my throat. And after Lahiri is punched in the nose by the seemingly unstable Nurse Beverly, she says, “Unfortunately, we live in a society that puts a premium on white women with perfect noses. I’m 0 for 2.” It’s there – the acknowledgment that this is not typically the type of woman who has for so long set the standard of beauty and been deemed worthy of being a network’s leading lady. This one is different.
With The Mindy Project has come a sense of hope and validation. It’s the validation that our stories are important too – that we matter, that perhaps we do belong here. And the hope that networks understand how important this is – that we’re not opposed to seeing a woman who is neither thin nor white, and who refuses to be apologetic about either of them. Kaling has created an inclusive space in which everyone is welcome and where black and brown women can take both pride and comfort in knowing that we have a space at all. I don’t know about you, but I certainly needed it.