There are three components to my personality. These include: talking about the University of Michigan versus Ohio State, yearning for the Great Lakes, and having a strong opinion about Mindy Kaling.
Every few months, when one of her shows like Velma, Never Have I Ever, or The Sex Lives of College Girls gains traction, people spend the next week critiquing the body of work.
Usually, the criticism focuses on cringe-worthy dialogue. For example, Bela Malhotra said, “Four months ago, I was an Indian loser with cystic acne, sweaty armpits, and glasses. But with one Lasik procedure, an Accutane prescription, and medical-grade botox injected into my armpits, I’m normal.” Another common criticism is how characters like Bela, Devi Vishwakumar, and Mindy Lahiri often focus on white love interests.
I have a complicated relationship with her body of work. On the one hand, she is an important person in the journey towards better South Asian representation. Yet, her experiences with identity feel dated and lead to one question. When will we find representation we are happy about?
Let me talk about my journey with her.
Growing up during the 2010s left little South Asian representation in my personal life. When I was 12, I went to a friend’s house while her older sister watched The Mindy Project. I took an immediate liking to Dr. Mindy Lahiri’s one-liners, dating horror stories, and the fact that she looked like me. For the next five years, I immersed myself in her work and resonated with her discussion of alienation, identity, and grief over the loss of her mother. She became an important role model in my life.
After entering college, I became more comfortable with my Indian identity, and the veil lifted. I believed I was outgrowing Mindy because I became more comfortable with myself. Meanwhile, it felt like Mindy’s work and messaging focused on the same themes of pursuing white love interests while barely acknowledging her heritage outside of negative connotations.
My feelings changed during the pandemic when Kaling’s new show Never Have I Ever premiered. Despite my feelings towards Mindy, I rarely saw shows about the Indian American experience and wanted to support one that did. When I first watched, I felt like I was 12 all over again and saw myself in Devi Vishwakumar. A plot point that stood out to me was Devi’s grief over her father’s death. While I never tried to befriend a coyote, I empathized with the emotions she experienced when my mother passed away.
While Mindy’s representation has flaws, it is important.
Uncomfortable plot points or dialogue do not take away her advocacy work for nuanced South Asian representation. She plays into and then subverts the orientalist idea that women of color must be quiet, demure, and at the whims of white men. Examples include Bela telling editors from The Catullan that their peer, Ryan Hutton, sexually harassed her. Or Devi’s public anger at Des when his mom convinced him to break up with her.
The frustration towards Mindy Kaling emphasizes specific uncomfortable dialogues and plot points rather than the body of work as a whole. It feels like people are critiquing her work through a subjective lens rather than an objective lens. An example is how Devi and Bela are typecast as “self-hating” brown girls. In reality, their relationship with ethnicity is a reminder that they are different yet ensures they are not solely associated with their Indian identity. Only focusing on the idea that Mindy’s characters shy away from their brownness is reductive and fails to acknowledge the progress made in these shows toward other issues of representation.
Further, people often criticize Kaling for creating a self-insert in her work.
While I understand the frustration, what writer has not used their personal experiences to enhance their writing? Why not keep the same energy for male South Asian comedians like Kumail Nanjiani or Aziz Ansari? In media like Master of None and The Big Sick, both actors focus on pursuing white love interests in their media and dismantling the idea of a South Asian love interest.
At the end of the day, my relationship with Mindy Kaling evolves. I recognize and applaud the strides she’s made, like advocating for and creating more South Asian characters. Yet, her relationship between comedy and identity feels dated in certain shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls and Velma. But how much longer can we keep pinning our hopes, dreams, and projections on one woman?