Bloggy Updates: I have a terrible habit of writing entire posts… and then never posting them. This is one of many that has been sitting around, which is why it specifically discusses Season One of the Mindy Project, even though several Season 2 episodes have already aired.
The internet is full of well intentioned conversation about why seeing Lena Dunham’s naked body on television is important, and arguably the same could be said for Mindy Kaling’s body for a number of reasons on The Mindy Project. However, Mindy’s body has been largely ignored, despite, or perhaps because she presents a browner, ethnicer, curvier version of the typical sitcom heroine. Instead internet criticism has chosen to focus on judging Mindy Lahiri’s (the character’s name) attractiveness not on her body, but by that other yardstick of feminine beauty: being “likeable”, by which I mean amenable, self-sacrificing, nurturing and vulnerably flawed.
Pull up any number of reviews on episodes of The Mindy Project, and whether the critic likes or dislikes the show, the question of whether Mindy is likeable or a good person inevitably comes up. Sometimes enjoying the show seems dependent to what degree they perceive Mindy to be behaving like a dick. Even favourable reviews of later episodes of the first season almost unanimously veer towards suggesting that Mindy became less of a horrible person, and therefore the show improved. Not that getting to know the characters made them seem more sympathetic, not that the writers started to work out what works for the show, but specifically that Mindy became less of an awful person.
I’ve been watching The Mindy Project steadily from the beginning, and I haven’t enjoyed all the episodes- some of them haven’t been particularly funny or have been uneven, but that’s also not surprising for a show in its first season trying to find its voice. I haven’t however, found Mindy’s character to be more or less likeable- the characterisation of Mindy has remained fairly consistent, so I find comments that the writers have toned down Mindy’s unlikableness, somewhat odd. I also find it over-dramatic to call her character a horrible person. Mindy Lahiri isn’t a role model for perfect human behaviour, but sitcom characters rarely are. So why is Mindy more unlikable than the average sitcom character, and why is the question of “goodness” and “likeableness” being conflated here?
One of the few critics who did not mention whether they found Mindy likeable, nonetheless focuses on behaviour that fails to make Mindy relatable; in one instance she refers to a scene where Mindy tells a love interest she cried over him, but the critic considers it problematic that the audience never actually witnesses Mindy’s tears. The suggestion here, even if unintentional is that Mindy would be more sympathetic and have more depth, if only the audience got to see her weak and vulnerable, it’s not good enough for her to simply say so, particularly while looking otherwise strong and pulled together.
In the linked Slate piece, the writer attempts to critique why she doesn’t think They Mindy Project is good, focusing on how the show feels disjointed and lacks affect, referencing the pace at which friends and love interests are discarded. It’s a fair critique, The Mindy Project struggled more than most trying to establish meaningful relationships between its recurring/permanent characters, and cast chemistry suffered as a result. However many of the same criticisms could also be considered a critique of sitcom norms themselves- the speed at which Mindy goes through love interests is not potentially sociopathic (the show also has an interesting sense of time), as the writer suggests, but par for the course for a sitcom character. Even though The Mindy Project and Mindy Lahiri sticks fairly close to romantic comedy/sitcom rules, it’s fascinating how there seems to be a compulsive return to Mindy as a character that fails to gel. Is it then the juxtaposition of Mindy, a character that is in appearance and characterisation for a female lead, subversive, with the conservative form of the sitcom that is causing this fissure?
Perhaps I was presumptuous when I suggested that Mindy Kaling’s body is unimportant, because the very fact that she is an atypical female lead in that she is not white, or a size 2, makes the insult of Mindy’s obvious self-respect all the more apparent. That Mindy’s character is accused of being ‘unlikeable’ does not surprise me, but it should. Whether a character, particularly a sitcom character is a ‘likeable’ or ‘good person’ rarely comes up when we discuss men. Men, even when they’re disgusting, horrible people somehow get a free pass on the likeable question. Female characters however, that are confident, out-spoken, opinionated, and believe they’re worthy of love, attention and affection without constantly second guessing whether they’re truly attractive, intelligent and worthy (ok, this isn’t a post advocating self-love, don’t get excited) are rare, particularly in the realm of contemporary romantic comedies and sitcoms that The Mindy Project is attempting to traverse. These type of female characters exist almost exclusively as best friends to the lead, minor recurring players, women who are crazy, or characters that are married (typically with children) thus allowing them to be ‘harpies’- you can nag and whine when you’re married ladies, because you’re not trying to attract a man, amirite?! If Mindy were a second lead, a ‘zany’ best friend, I doubt we’d be having this conversation.
Mindy naturally is not without her insecurities, the Mindy we’re shown is vulnerable in her own ways, although she is prone to hiding this fact with abrasiveness- contrary to criticism, the audience has in fact witnessed Mindy’s tears, albeit over a different man. The season finale in which she tells her boyfriend Casey, she never imagined he would actually propose is somewhat revealing, but those insecurities haven’t stopped her from respecting her own needs and desires, and it hasn’t stopped her from being open and honest with everyone in her life about who she is as a person. Mindy Lahiri, accidental giggolo capers aside, has nothing to hide.
Mindy is insulted on the show more than once not just for her appearance, but her behaviour, and there are references to Mindy not being a perfect female specimen, but this is never posed as a reason for anyone, including Mindy herself to consider herself as being unattractive and unworthy of anyone’s attention. While she is called out on her crappier behaviour, no one acts surprised to see her dating attractive men, being good at her job or looking pretty. All of it, good, bad, mediocre is simply taken as a part of Mindy. That is more than can be said for some characters who are played by actresses who in real life, top ‘most beautiful’ lists and model lingerie in their spare time. Even those paragons of beauty end up playing characters that are overly self-deprecating, neurotic about their attractiveness and worthiness as people, and worst of all, are passive aggressive and untruthful in their interactions with love interests, but this supposedly makes them approachable, likeable and sympathetic.
The criticisms of Mindy’s less worthy attributes from co-workers and friends is actually one of the things I enjoy about the show. It’s because she’s open about her foibles and weaknesses, because she doesn’t do much to attempt to hide that she can be shallow, self-centred and selfish, that Mindy’s character works for me, particularly as that openness extends to the people and situations around her. She’s always clear when she believes something is inappropriate and unsavoury, even if this makes her unpopular, and she in turn receives the same treatment. I can’t remember where, but I came across a fleeting comment about how The Mindy Project is an example of post-feminism, and I agree to a point, but I also see Mindy’s behaviour and reactions to how women should be treated and spoken about as consistently feminist in that she expects women to be treated equally, doesn’t believe that is always the case, and is vocal about not compromising that ideal to make men feel good. It’s easy to consider Mindy as post-feminist when she semi-jokingly suggests she wants to be sexualised, but that also reads very much as most of The Mindy Project does, as living out a contemporary female dilemma, having to somehow marry the desire to be wanted and considered attractive, with the desire to be respected and treated as an equal.
There’s a relief in watching a sitcom character, particularly a single, female sitcom character be unashamed about who they are. However it’s exactly that lack of shame that perhaps grates some viewers. Mindy Lahiri is out-spoken, opinionated, assertive and direct. I admit, it’s not always comfortable to watch, sometimes I cringe, because we’re taught- especially women, to silence our discontent and judgements for the sake of peace. Watching anyone un-selfconsciously declare their opinion in public goes against what we consider good social graces. I think it’s a combination of this directness and that Mindy is very clear about her own desires and how she wants those expectations met that she is painted as being a selfish, shallow and horrible character. I’m not suggesting Mindy isn’t selfish, she is, but then, so are most other sitcom characters we meet, and they don’t get called out for being unlikable. The difference is most sitcom characters go through the motions of pretending to the rest of the world they’re not putting themselves first. They passive aggressively tackle an issue by not being direct, trying to manipulate and lie to get what they want, creating comic situations that eventual resolve themselves by inadvertently revealing the truth… that they’re actually kind of selfish.
There are of course exceptions to this rule, but I’d point out that these exceptions- the characters that revel in being abrasive and inconsiderate, are generally men. The Barneys (HIMYM), Beckers (Becker) and Larry David’s (Curb Your Enthusiasm) of the sitcom world don’t threaten our conception of what it means to be a man, but Mindy Lahiri very much challenges the idea of what we find attractive about fictional women. Consider this scenario where Mindy finds out her co-worker (and inevitable endgame love) Danny, has not invited her to a dinner party he is hosting with one of her own friends (who he is dating). The results are instantaneous- she finds out, and immediately confronts him about the issue. The reaction is selfish- she is concerned only with the slight to herself, not with Danny’s (possibly reasonable) concerns about Mindy bringing an inappropriate date, but it’s honest. At no point does Mindy even consider being anything but direct, and her revenge is equally as straightforward as her confrontation. This is not the typical behaviour of a single female sitcom character.
I don’t want to suggest Mindy Lahiri is the only capable, smart, direct female character on a sitcom. The current sitcom landscape is filled with great, smart, direct female characters, everyone from Leslie Knope and April Ludgate on Parks and Rec to Robin (although I’d argue Robin’s percentage of directness and awfulness has risen the further she’s moved from being the primary love interest) and Lily on the more conventional How I Met Your Mother, are great female characters in different ways, but Mindy is one of the only female characters who carries a show and is not overtly perfect in some way, but is also not the butt of the joke.
There’s a tendency in American sitcoms where women are expected to not only be perfect, but aspire for perfection, and be modest about it to boot. Anything less than that aspiration, anything less than wanting to ‘have it all’ and self-flagellating for not having it, is somehow equal to being a failure as a woman. Liz Lemon, a character that was smart, attractive, funny, independent and successful, was continually put down by all the people around her for not wanting to be the embodiment of female perfection, even though it was patently ridiculous that Liz would be considered a loser or unattractive, is sold as exactly that to the audience, an unattractive loser. Mindy Lahiri on the hand, similarly attractive, smart, funny, independent and successful, albeit imperfect, actually behaves and dresses as if she likes herself, and perhaps that’s her biggest fault of all.
Now let’s watch some man fights, and a lady fight to top it off.