Why Do We Blame Mindy Kaling For TV's Diversity Problems?
How I Met Your Mother. Dads. 2 Broke Girls. Glee. These are arguably four of the worst shows on television for positive Asian-American representation. Though they are hardly alone in the television landscape, series like these routinely rely on racist jokes, refuse to put non-white characters in the spotlight, and corner the few Asian-American characters they have into flat stereotypes. Series like these rarely hire women of color as "creators" or regular writers, contributing to the minute number of women of color in central writing roles.
Yet somehow, fans of diverse television forget about these shows, while trailblazers like Mindy Kaling are criticized for "not doing enough" for diversity on television. Kaling's choice to date exclusively white men on the show is routinely trotted out as "proof" that she does not truly stand for diversity, and she is constantly reminded that she is "different" from other TV show creators. I will admit that I have occasionally joined this charge, criticizing one of Kaling's more racially focused episodes. And I think Kaling has responded to critiques of diversity on her show in a way only Mindy Kaling can: When asked about it at SXSW Interactive, she responded,
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 about these things. And I’ll answer them, I will. But I know what’s going on here.
Of course, Kaling is right. One woman cannot be the dumping ground for every white TV critic's cries of racism, especially when her show has been groundbreaking in so many ways. Sure, Kaling's other two primary writers are white men, but, as she has pointed out, the jokes they help her write for Mindy the character aren't stereotypical for Indian-American women, or women in general. Also, Kaling is one of less than 25 percent of TV show creators who are female. Her behind-the-scenes presence is already revolutionary.
And Kaling isn't the only woman of color to be held accountable for her show's contributions to television diversity. Hettienne Park chose to defend her Asian-American Jewish female character's early demise after Hannibal fans cried foul. Park points out that there may have been unrealistic expectations put on her character, even though her death was inevitable in a series built around the world's most famous lady killer.
I got to play this amazing woman who didn’t have to sleep with anyone (not that I would have minded) or act dumb and girlie or fawn all over some guy or be a conniving bitch to get people to notice or respect me, and she didn’t speak broken English or karate chop anyone (not that I would have minded). Nobody called her “dragon lady” or “exotic.” She could shoot a gun and drive that FBI SUV like a champ. And all with the extra added bonus of being Jewish.
While Kaling and Park are asked to do more for small-screen women of color, we continue to see racially charged jokes in shows like Dads, which forced its only Asian-American character to dress up as a "sexy Chinese schoolgirl." And then there was that yellowface incident on How I Met Your Mother. Of course, these shows' constant, inexcusable stereotyping means that race-conscious folks will be less likely to watch them, and perhaps that is why we tend to hold series like The Mindy Project to a higher standard. But while we write our think pieces criticizing the few women whose appearance on TV constitutes positive change, we need think about the lowest common denominator. And we need to forcibly raise that bar.
So, predominantly white American TV critics, what if we let women of color continue to improve the small screen, without constantly having to defend themselves? There are plenty of straight white men making homophobic, racist scripted TV shows to go after. We need to redirect our anger their way. Maybe then we can make way for more women of color in the writer's room, and more central Asian-American characters on network television. But only then.