I Love "The Mindy Project"—But the Show Has Diversity Problems

A still from the Mindy Project where the main characters are stopped in police headlights

Let me be clear: I adore Mindy Kaling. I don’t adore her in a rational and sensible way, but in an inside-joke-having, clothes-swapping, can-you-look-something-up-for-me-on-WebMD-and-tell-me-I’m-not-going-to-die-because-I-trust-my-uninformed-best-friend-forever way. Sure, it’s not like we’ve ever met.

Much of my adoration has to do with her work on TV as well as her wonderful book. But, honestly, I just dig that she and I have similar backgrounds. We’re both people of color who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods, went to predominantly white schools (me, a private prep high school and Mindy, Darmouth College) and have dated white men. In short, Kaling is one of the few current young celebrities I can identify with, which is why I'm struggling with the mixed emotions I have over her hit show The Mindy Project.

The cast's chemistry is great and the jokes are a-plenty. But The Mindy Project has far too many moments that make me do a double take. For example, in an episode from the current season, Kaling’s character Dr. Mindy Lahiri's gets caught trespassing on Army grounds. As she gives her ID to an officer, she says, “OK, I know that my ID says that I’m 5’10” with blond hair, 110 pounds with crystal blue eyes. My philosophy is that an ID should be aspirational.” 

Normally, when people say something this ludicrous, I react with a combination of glee and slight embarrassment on their behalf—like when I order an eight-piece chicken McNuggets and the cashier accidentally gives me ten. All I can think to myself is, "This chick can't count" and and then I shove the two extra nuggets in my mouth so that I don’t get caught with them. What I'm getting at is: when people say ignorant things on TV, it's usually amusing. However, when someone like the incredibly talented Mindy Kaling—who happens to be the first South Asian American person to headline her own network television series—has her character crack a joke about aspiring towards whiteness as an ideal, I responded the way I did when I found out rapper Gucci Mane had an image of an ice cream cone tattooed on his face:

a gif that says "martin didn't march for this shit"

Bottom line: Kaling should know better. Whether she likes it or not, POCs (people of color) expect more racial awareness and intelligence from her. That’s in part because POCs tend to share a kinship from our struggles with the indoctrination of white standards of beauty. Those white-is-the-ideal standards are practically global at this point thanks to things such as colonialism, Blepharoplasty, and Nigerian-Cameroonian pop musician Dencia shilling for a skin-bleaching cream, just to name a few. Given all this pressure to look white, it's quite disturbing that a woman of color would joke about wanting to be white. Perhaps if it was a one-off quip, I would be perturbed yet I would've ignored it. Unfortunately, the two seasons of The Mindy Project have been littered with these kind of questionable comments and other frustrating things, such as Dr. Lahiri's penchant for only dating white men.

Off camera, Kaling's annoyance with the ongoing debate over her show's lack of diversity finally came to a head during her appearance at this year's SXSW. She told the crowd:

"I look at shows on TV, and this is going to just seem defensive, but I'm just gonna say it: I'm a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?...I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won't name them because they're my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I'm the one that gets lobbied aboutthese things."

Like an AARP magazine in my mailbox, I'm returning Kaling's response to sender for a few reasons.

1) Just because she's a person of color doesn't mean that she's exempt from critique. In addition to the love interest situation, the writing staff is nearly all white and all male (except for the fantastic Tracy Wigfield). To not comment on the lack of diversity simply because she and I probably share the same "maybe it's Maybelline" foundation color would be giving her pass that she later claims other TV shows receive. How I Met Your Mother2 Broke Girls, and Girls have all been called out for their race issues, so it's only in fairness that the same happens to The Mindy Project.

2) The characterization of Tamra, the lone black nurse on Lihari's staff, makes it seem like Kaling and the writers have never actually met a black woman before. Again, Kaling's ethnicity doesn't cancel out the fact that Tamra is nothing more than a caricature. The litany of cringe-inducing things she does includes speaking in what is commonly known as a "blackcent," which in industry-speak loosely translates to, "learning your elocution from the lady in Popeye's Chicken commercial," and dating a guy named Ray Ron (who, big surprise, is a white guy who acts..."stereotypically" black?). Sorry, the M. Night Shyamalan-esque reveal of her boyfriend's race does nothing to alleviate the obvious, glaring problem, which is that the assumption was her boyfriend was black based on all the ways Tamra described him is ignorant. Gee, thanks.

3) Shonda Rhimes has paved the way for color-blind casting. Ever since her television debut in 2005 with Grey's Anatomy, superstar showrunner and writer Shonda Rhimes has spoken publicly about the need for color-blind casting. Unless she has a specific actor in mind when she writes the scripts, any ethnicity can audition for any role in her TV series, which has lead to great casting choices such as Sandra Oh on Grey’s. So the excuse that some have used—this is Kaling's first TV show that she's run and she might not have that much wiggle room to create a diverse cast—is just that: an excuse. Prior to Grey's, Rhimes' showrunning path was not paved with a bevy of Emmy nominations on a critically acclaimed television series like Kaling's was. Rhimes wrote the Britney Spears' film Crossroads and the sequel to The Princess Diaries, which was about as necessary as a giant heaping of butter on a piece of Paula Deen's deep fried cheesecake. In short, Rhimes had way less clout than Kaling, yet she made the effort to have her shows be diverse. If Rhimes can do it, so can Kaling.

And that's what my beef with The Mindy Project is really about. Diversity, whether we admit it or not, requires effort from everyone, including people of color. It doesn't stop once a person of color has a seat at the table. POCs must help make room at the table for others because quite frankly, no one else will. So yes, POCs should make an effort to look outside of the same crop of white guys when looking for a writing staff. POCs should make the effort to not to keep casting the same crop of white guys  (Seth Rogen) as love interests and hold an open casting call for gentlemen who are a shade darker than the ecru color found in a Benjamin Moore paint can. The implication that asking for diversity (which does not mean simply be the "token," by the way) is an outrageous burden is absurd. We're living in a racially diverse world, so making the argument that it’s hard to find racially diverse actors is, quite frankly, a sign of laziness and maybe insensitivity. 

It is quite possible for The Mindy Project to pursue a more diverse cast, not perpetuate racial stereotypes of black people, and not appear to aspire to whiteness. I bet Kaling could do all these things because she has the talent, the wit, and the gumption to do this hard work—which should feel ever so much lighter thanks to people like Shonda Rhimes leading the charge and people like Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, and numerous others coming up behind her.

Related Reading: A Personal Reminder that Women Have What it Takes to Make Film.

Phoebe Robinson is a New York City comedian and creator of the blog Blaria. You can catch her monthly Blaria LIVE! at UCB East on April 22nd at 9pm.


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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

A facepalm gif on its own is

A facepalm gif on its own is fine, but fuck using 'Martin didn't march for this shit' as a reply to a black celeb doing something you find distasteful.

What bugs me about Kahling's

What bugs me about Kahling's response is there /are/ people lobbying/protesting/speaking out about other popular shows that lack diversity. It happens ALL THE TIME. (I know you made a brief mention of this, it's just such an important point that I feel the uppers aren't listening to.) Kahling is not being targeted. I am super happy that she is an Indian woman with her own TV show. I loved Kahlings book (more than Tina Fey's anyhow), and I relate to a lot of her romcom ideations and indoctrination.

That said I think she is looking in the wrong direction. More publicity is being given to those speaking out against The Mindy Project, so the diversity critisms are more prominent; however, it happens to every show. There isn't an episode of The Big Bang Theory that airs in which people don't talk about how sexist/racist/problematic it is. I don't even watch HIMYM or 2 Broke Girls or any of that bc of their lack of diversity. I do watch The Mindy Project, even though some of the episodes have been super hurtful and problematic.

I frankly don't know one show that isn't being called out by the fan base for it's lack of inclusion. So for Kahling to be all like 'why are they picking on me?!' demonstrates her severe privilege and ignorance surrounding these issues. If she wasn't so sheltered at least she could have been like 'y'all are right, we lack some major diversity in most of the prime time shows. thanks for speaking out and please keep doing so. I pledge to be more involved in helping the call outs be heard and making my show, as well as other, more diverse.'

Just SIGH, SIGH.

Bro humor

I love this show too, but I remind myself every time I watch it that I am watching a specific type of humor: frat/bro humor. Kaling's life experiences (Dartmouth in particular, but also an upper-middle class upbringing in MA), plus the success of Apatow type products in Hollywood, have probably reinforced for her that this type of humor equals success. Clearly I'm just speculating, but if this is true, then she will likely see diversifying her show as done for the sake of diversity only, and changing the core culture of the show, since frat humor remains overwhelmingly white. I actually appreciate how well she nails this specific brand of humor, but I'm sort of ashamed of myself for it. There's also a gender thing here too, which is that to me, the way the stories are written, she seems to subscribe to the theory of the exceptional woman among men, that it is cooler for women to hang out with dudes. Her two close friends from season 1 have disappeared.

I don't mind that Mindy

I don't mind that Mindy Lahiri only dates white dudes etc, but I'm kinda sick of all my "girly shows" essentially being "bro shows." Like I was all excited by New Girl and with 3 dudes in the main cast, it's like all about the bros. I tune in for Mindy, but somehow every time I tune in, it's a bunch white dude doctors sitting around talking instead. URGH. C'mon people!

I have a feeling, with the

I have a feeling, with the way she talks and ignores this problem, that she's doing this because she's gotten too proud to be the only Asian who stars in her show or any tv show and only wants to keep that attention and title for herself. She even had to mention it right away in her defense. In a recent episode, I remember she actually said she only dates white men. That made me raise an eyebrow and had to search on the internet whether people are questioning this and I'm glad a a lot of people have been. And to that person who said in another comment that this is only her personal preference, that is very ignorant and just plain racism, which is the reason why minorities especially Asians need to be in tv/film more with normal human and American roles without bringing in race comments/jokes into it

Even Mindy herself had fallen

Even Mindy herself had fallen trap to this ignorance and whitewashed media and has gotten so insecure

Plenty of Asian women I know

Plenty of Asian women I know prefer white men to Asian men and will exclusively date white men over Asians. For one friend this is because her mother won't ask if she's going to marry her boyfriend, which takes pressure off the relationship. For others I suppose it's about genuine personal preference as well as being reactionary towards culture and expectations.

If Kaling's experience of dating white men only carries over into her show, it's probably because she knows that Asian women watching can relate to that.

On the otherhand

If you look at the demographics of doctors and nurses in the US, The Mindy Project is pretty representational of the status quo. Not that these numbers are good, they represent a lot of unequal access to resources. And the racial tension in The Mindy Project is actually talked about in the comedy, which is more than most shows do. Which brings me to Grey's Anatomy. Maybe Grey's Anatomy has a better racial diversity, but the characters don't do much with it. They don't demonstrate contemporary institutional racism within white dominated professions. Because no one wants to see Doctor McDreamy reflect institutional bias. So instead we've got this post-racial fantasy that doesn't really address what it's like. It's the allusion that poc struggle against invisible racism, rather than actual people who have racial bias who happen to be co-workers (not some fleeting guest star villian) and 21st Century Citizens.

For Mindy Lahiri to be politically correct also perpetuates the fantasy that all POC suffer the same issues. Not all ethnic minorities are oppressed in the same ways. Indian Americans have a completely different socioeconomic priviledges/disadvantages than African Americans for example. Instead of talking about the individual issues and tensions between various ethnic communities we just talk about Mindy Kaling as if she's somehow disloyal to all POC. The world is more complex than brown versus white, though perhaps it's easier to think this way.

As far as Tamra, I think we should talk about class and race here. There are plenty of people who have different vernacular patterns, her boyfriend Ray Ron (who is white) as another example. Often when this is critiqued, it's by people of higher education (and often economic class) looking at the accent as a example of a being low class. If Tamra didn't have an accent she would be considered more normal--but normal by an middle to upper class standard. Tamra's a Nurse (highly educated) and shows no more or less intelligence than the rest of the characters (consider the antics of everyone on this show). To have all people of color talk without any trace of ethnic background is also a form of whitewashing. Not to mention that all of the characters (with the exception of kaling) have fairly distinct verbal patterns. Jeremy: British stereotype, Danny: Italian/New Yorker stereotype, Betsy: midwestern stereotype, Beverly: crazy old lady/white trash stereotype, Morgan: could be Canadian, might just be Morgan.

There is a such thing as

There is a such thing as invisible racism---it's called institutional racism, which permeates virtually all facets of society form top to bottom, and always has because white people set it up that way to benefit them and ONLY them,literally from day one. Point being,racism dosen't just come in the form of individual racist acts from racist people. I agree about how Rimes' shows usually don't deal directly with racism at all, especially in her current hit SCANDAL---however, there was this one allusion to it when the main characters father said, "You have got to work twice as hard to be half as good," which is something black people sometimes (including myself) have heard at various point in our lives.

However the other posters are right----if Rimes and every other show can have diverse characters, why can't the Mindy Project. This is the main reason I'm starting to not like the show, because it's basically all white boys all the time--Kaling rarely has any other women comedians on the show---apparently she dosen't want the competition--that's why she got rid of all practically all the actresses in her show before the first year was up. She clearly just wants to be one of the white boys, which she will never be.,no mater how whitewashed she is. And,yeah, there's no excuse for her not having a diverse show set in one of the most multicultural cities in the country She also never deals with the fact that her character could have some issues about being in an interracial relationship (which is what she's having with the character Danny is.)