‘The Mindy Project’ Inspired Brown Girls Everywhere — And Changed TV For The Better
I was about 4 years old when I first saw Aladdin, and was first introduced to Princess Jasmine. We had a lot in common — she had a pet tiger and I wanted a pet cat, she loved her family and so did I, she was stubborn like I was, and she was brave, and 4-year-old me wanted to be that, too. Plus, she looked like me, with brown skin and big dark eyes. My mother scoured the toy stores in the area for a Jasmine Barbie to join the collection of blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls I played with everyday. She couldn't find one.
As I grew older, there were more movies and TV shows that captured my attention. I was obsessed with One Tree Hill, wore colorful headbands like Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl, and rewatched and reread Harry Potter obsessively. Though the protagonists of these stories looked nothing like me, that was very much the norm, and I still loved them. But it was frustrating to not understand why I didn't see people who looked like me in the shows and movies that I loved. It didn't make sense: If I could relate to a British wizard or an Upper East Side socialite, then why couldn’t everyone else relate to someone who looked like me, just once? Brownness didn’t feature with any kind of complexity in Hollywood, despite there being people like me watching.
Then, in college, my freshman year roommate introduced me to The Mindy Project. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to suddenly see yourself represented on screen to someone who has never had that problem, but most people from a minority group know the feeling. As a South-Asian woman who spent her youth desperately searching for a character who looked like me but wasn't a cartoon, it was arresting to finally see someone like me on screen. It's the reason that while Mindy Lahiri has undoubtedly meant different things to everyone who has followed her illustrious journey for six seasons, to me, she’s one of the most important TV figures of the 21st century.
When The Mindy Project first premiered in 2012, the reception was positive. The pilot was called “promising” by The New York Times, and Salon asserted it was “easily the best freshman comedy of the season.” What made the show groundbreaking, however, was summed up by The Hollywood Reporter’s review: “Television doesn’t have many people who look like Kaling, for starters, nor many who are willing to flaunt their (by Hollywood standards) imperfect bodies." Indeed, few TV comedies had female protagonists, and there was a dearth of network shows led by a person of color.
Throughout its run, The Mindy Project countered both those diversity points and countered them well by crafting a nuanced main character in the form of Mindy Lahiri. Mindy was unlike the stereotypical doctor characters we’ve seen on shows like House or Grey's Anatomy (brooding, serious, and a compulsive workaholic), nor did she play into the pervasive stereotypes of South-Asian women (demure, exclusively interested in STEM careers, living a double life to appease her conservative family). Mindy was, instead, a fusion of many identifiable traits — she’s wickedly smart, foolishly impulsive, vivacious, outrageous, and hilarious. She’s at once what many women aspire to be — a successful career woman with loyal friends and a dazzling wardrobe — while embracing every insult that gets lobbed at girls — that she's too loud, too superficial, too big, too sexual, too bossy. Mindy was exactly what TV needed, and she brought a kind of diversity that the landscape had sorely been lacking.
Of course, The Mindy Project was by no means a perfect show. It's been criticized for lacking conversations about the intricacies of race, and that certainly isn’t a totally unfair assessment. While there have been some digressions into cultural differences and values, namely during Mindy and Danny’s relationship and an episode about white privilege, the series has placed a larger emphasis on Mindy’s dating life, rather than explicitly talking about her Indian-American experience.
But just because the show was more interested in exploring Mindy’s relationships than in explicitly instructing viewers on the topic of race doesn’t mean The Mindy Project missed the opportunity to be groundbreaking. While the very fact that a South Asian woman created and starred in a TV rom-com for six years — three of those on network television — is further disruption to the genre’s status quo (never mind the fact that the show helped bring more depictions of interracial relationships to TV), Mindy’s winding romantic trajectory underscored the show’s refusal to portray her only as a model minority. Too frequently, nuanced characters are reserved for white, and often male actors, while other groups are pigeonholed into either stereotypical caricatures, or characters designed to be as innocuous as possible. But with The Mindy Project, we saw our heroine navigate cringe-worthy dates, toxic relationships, single motherhood, and a divorce. She was given the space, for six seasons, to be as complex and flawed as real women are. Her humanity shone above the romantic interludes, and was defined outside of the carousel of men who fell for her. That’s especially important when there are still far too few dimensional portrayals of women of color in popular culture.
Representation is important, and the struggle for more diversity in the entertainment industry is not just some senseless liberal conspiracy theory for “political correctness”. It matters. It matters because it humanizes marginalized groups. It exposes audiences to people who look “different,” but might not actually be alien and scary. It subverts sloppy, harmful stereotypes. And through thoughtfully crafted characters we inch towards a culture that is more accepting and more inclusive. Yes, this is just entertainment; Hollywood is not changing the world overnight. But the average American spends between 2 to 5 hours watching TV daily, and that influences their world views in some capacity. And it’s not just about telling stories that are hyper specific to one cultural group, although that’s important too — it’s imperative that the industry understands that content can have broad appeal without a non-white, cisgendered protagonist.
In the time since The Mindy Project debuted in 2012, television has evolved for the better. From Aziz Ansari’s Emmy Award-winning Netflix series Master of None to HBO's bingeable sensation The Night Of, to ABC's primetime hit Quantico, to the CW's compulsively enjoyable and award-winning Jane the Virgin, the last five years have seen a surge in quality television starring diverse actors. All these shows, while threading in the unique cultural experience of their subjects, present tales that are multidimensional while still remaining accessible to people of other demographics. They prove that featuring a truly diverse spectrum of characters as more than just token minorities with minimal screen time comes at no expense to profits, popularity, and acclaim. And they mean the world to people who rarely get to see people like themselves portrayed on screen.
Ultimately, this is The Mindy Project's true strength and legacy. Sure, the show had its share of problems and pitfalls, and a rocky transition from Fox to Hulu. But as a young woman grappling with the way my race and gender impacted my life, it was invaluable to finally see myself in a lead character on screen. The Mindy Project proved that a story about a woman who was unabashedly imperfect, feminine, and brown was a story worth telling, and that brownness belonged in a narrative about womanhood, love, and growing up.
So, thank you, Mindy Kaling, for creating this show, and for playing a person we understood and needed to see on screen. Thank you for showing the world that our presence matters, not just as token characters adding “color” to a homogenous cast, but as the leads. Whether or not it was your intention to rally us behind witty missteps and weird romances of Mindy Lahiri, you did, and brown girls like myself are grateful.