Lahiri is this generation’s Carrie Bradshaw by playing into the trope of the anti-heroine, yet endearing herself to audiences at the same time.
When Mindy Kaling pops up on my television screen every Tuesday night, often clad in jewel tones and 5-inch stiletto heels, a few things come to mind. Kaling is known for her role as the bubbly office chatterbox Kelly Kapoor on the Office—a NBC sitcom for which Kaling herself served as a writer and co-producer. Kaling also published her first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) in 2011 and is currently working on her second. She’s a stand-up comedian, an Ivy League graduate, and a Bostonian, often working references to her hometown into her writing.
Perhaps Kaling’s biggest claim to fame, however, is for writing and producing her own Fox comedy series. When the Mindy Project premiered in 2012, Kaling became the first Asian-American woman to star and run her own show on broadcast television. Kaling has been deemed a “pioneer”—a term that she herself rejects. In her own words, Kaling is, “an Indian-American woman who is not pencil thin and that is very new to broadcast television.” It’s a huge step forward for racial, gender, and body representation in a field that typically prioritizes the beauty standard of thin Caucasian women. Kaling is not just her ethnic background, however, and conflating Kaling’s Indian-American heritage to her work reduces representation to merely starring as a person of color on television.
If you’ve seen an episode of The Mindy Project, you know that Kaling is nothing like her on-screen character, Mindy Lahiri, beyond their shared namesake. Dr. Mindy Lahiri is an OB/GYN, struggling to balance work and her personal life while living in New York City. Lahiri is often chided by fans for being selfish, narcissistic, and politically inept, yet conservative at the same time. She has been known for saying things like, “Who do you think you are, Rick Santorum? Obviously not, ‘cause you’re not hot,” and “I’m going to hell, because I don’t really care about the environment and I love to gossip.” Lahiri is this generation’s Carrie Bradshaw by playing into the trope of the anti-heroine, yet endearing herself to audiences at the same time. Lahiri is naive, yet egotistical—fickle, yet quick to rush into relationships. She’s flawed in every sense of the word, yet fans have hailed her as a figure for female empowerment.
Lahiri was never meant to be a role model. Unlike other flawed, yet still likeable protagonists like Liz Lemon or Leslie Knope who serve as the voice-of-reason, Lahiri is supposed to be outlandish. Kaling crafted the character with Michael Scott from the Office and Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm in mind. We aren’t supposed to view Lahiri under the lens of a female role model but embrace her for her absurdities. In an interview with NPR, Kaling explains, “I don’t think anyone wants to grow up to be Mindy Lahiri, the same way no one wants to grow up to be Michael Scott. But that’s OK. My dream of course, as a writer and a person who’s an entertainer, is: Grow up to be Mindy Kaling, don’t grow up to be Mindy Lahiri.”
There are certain things that male protagonists like Don Draper and Barney Stinson can get away with—such as sleep with a different woman every night and act like a jerk—that female leads have typically been denied. Criticism of The Mindy Project has pointed to the show’s emphasis on sexual themes and Lahiri’s constant string of boyfriends. Lahiri has dated 19 men over the course of the show—ranging from New York University professors to Wall Street bankers. All have been white, upper-middle class men, earning Kaling some flack for neglecting to cast people of color. Mindy’s love interests have included Seth Rogen, Anders Holm, and B.J. Novak. and with the exception of her co-worker, Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), all have proven to be poor romantic partners for Lahiri.
What The Mindy Project has achieved is normalizing, rather than stigmatizing Lahiri’s sexuality. While far from a typical role model, Mindy has been given nuance as a strong, yet flawed female character. Rather than feeling ashamed, Lahiri finds empowerment in her constant flings. And while Kaling is reluctant to accept her role as a pioneer for representation, Lahiri herself is a figure for positive sexual empowerment. Mindy’s sexual agency differentiates the series from other romantic comedy sitcoms of its kind. She may not be a role model in the traditional sense, but Mindy proves that women can be both smart and wield sexual agency. The Mindy Project satirizes a woman consumed by rom-com cliches while combatting traditional depictions of female sexuality. Mindy dates a cop, a middle-aged skateboarder, and a pastor-turned-DJ—all while flaunting a doctorate from Columbia University and landing her dream job in San Francisco. While Kaling was right to discourage fans from emulating her on-screen character, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a thing or two we can learn from Mindy Lahiri.
Featured Image Courtesy of FOX