Mindy Kaling—like Lena Dunham, Beyoncé, and Michelle Obama—is one of my pretend best friends. I imagine us sitting around my apartment discussing the status of women in the entertainment industry, the end of the payroll tax holiday, and whether the genetic mingling of Kardashian and Kanye will produce a baby far cuter than the soon-to-be third-in-line to the House of Windsor. (The answer is yes.) I was subsequently predisposed to like The Mindy Project well before it aired—even taking into account its remarkably awful title. The pilot did not disappoint—with Kaling inhabiting her intelligent ditz persona while interweaving light comedy with subtly dark material. But then the actual season began and not only did the show’s setting inexplicably shift from Los Angeles to a NYC-soundstage housed in Los Angeles but the show’s edge—and Mindy’s voice—were decidedly blunted. There are so many questions raised by the first few episodes. Did the producers hope to appeal to a broader audience with a hyper-saturated lighting design brought to you by the 1990s? Does having a woman of color create and star in a show preclude the inclusion of any other non-white people? (Have you ever entered a doctor’s office and seen only white people? No, you have not.) Are the sitcom clichés and cardboard side characters really just meta-commentaries on the state of the modern romantic comedy? Perhaps, but I think it’s more likely that The Mindy Project just isn’t very good.
Nevertheless, Kaling remains in possession of a unique, modern female voice, which still manages to seep through the network-approved drivel. (Beyonce Pad Thai—that’s all I need to say.) I will therefore continue to watch this show both because Mindy is my pretend best friend—so I kind of have to—and because the Mindy persona she has created explodes the boundary between your average financially stable, intelligent female and the type of girl who outfits her office with a chocolate fountain. While I, like every normal American, adore 30 Rock and the dynamic between Liz and Jenna, these now iconic female figures tend to typify the classic smart girl/girly girl dichotomy. Glasses and blonde hair become easily identifiable metonyms for their female type. Even if they subvert these roles at times, you can normally predict how they will end every episode by considering the color of their hair. Mindy, though indebted to Liz Lemon, appears more heavily influenced by the blonde, ballsy Leslie Knope, whose obsession with local Pawnee politics coincides with her propensity for discussing feelings (and boys) while at work. By troubling the line between girlishness and intelligence, Kaling similarly opens up a broader representational space for young women, revealing the hidden sexism underlying the belief that women can only be taken seriously if they throw away their chocolate fountains.
Clearly structured like a romantic comedy, The Mindy Project’s pilot subtly undercuts the genre by highlighting the reality of women’s growing financial power—something that, according to major media outlets, emasculates men and will eventually lead to the eradication of our species. If you have read Kaling’s book (as you should), you will already be familiar with both her appreciation for a woman’s ability to support herself along with her hatred of the classic romantic comedy trope of the workaholic singleton whose personal problems can all be traced back to her inability to turn off her iPhone. Instead of shaming Mindy for privileging her career, Kaling praises her economic self sufficiency, often structuring plots that reveal Mindy to be not only competent but a far better doctor and manager than her male coworkers (e.g., her concise take down of the incense-wielding, client-stealing midwives). The men who are attracted to Mindy are consequently men who want an economic equal, not a young girl who can sell a mean bagel but hasn’t yet mastered the English language (i.e., her boyfriend in the pilot). By dispatching with this outdated male figure in the first episode, Kaling indicates that Mindy will not be reformed into the type of woman who will shut off her smartphone and learn the value of crafting artisan dog food with her neutered Irish boyfriend. She’ll be the type of woman who, after having to repeatedly sleep at the office, will not lose her boyfriend but will screw him on the office couch. Yay, multitasking!
But Mindy does worry about having a boyfriend and still yearns to marry and have children (four, to be specific, that already have been assigned genders and names). Clearly, this indicates that the patriarchal studio heads are forcing Kaling to portray Mindy in a more conventionally feminine manner. Or maybe Mindy is just a young woman who has yet to figure out how to completely tune out her uterus. Obviously, not all women want to get married, and certainly not all women want to have children, but most do want to at least date (and talk about it). During a decade of working in NYC, I’ve noticed that successful young women may have advanced degrees and clear opinions about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but they still worry about what their boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s last text meant. This isn’t because they are pathetic, weak-willed, estrogen-buzzed girls who want a man to take care of them. It’s because they aren’t sociopaths. They desire sex and companionship and maybe even a baby. So they discuss these concerns with the people they see every day.
Some may find it unrealistic when Mindy tries on an outfit for a potential date at work, hoping to tally her coworkers’ opinions. Now, I realize I work in the ridiculously unprofessional world of publishing, but I’ve totally done this at work. Even when I was working in the ridiculously professional world of finance, my female superior once encouraged me to buy a new dress during the work day because she didn’t consider my “date pants” appropriately sexy. She may have been the best boss ever, but the larger point is that many women (not all, of course, but many) do have a tendency to discuss their love lives during the work day as well as other female-coded interests such as the “Binders Full of Women” meme or where to get mascara that won’t come off under your eyes. But this doesn’t make them any less competent. It just makes them employees who don’t have mascara under their eyes.
Due to the fact that Mindy refuses to downplay the girlier aspects of her personality, her male colleagues often take her less seriously. In the episode “Hiring and Firing,” her male colleagues repeatedly belittle her for refusing to behave more like a “professional” man, yet she ends up being the only doctor capable of firing the alcoholic nurse and hiring her replacement. She subsequently gets punched in the face. This is pretty much the way many women feel after a day at the office, but at least we still have enough money to pay for a few drinks and issues of The New Yorker and US Weekly to enjoy. The Mindy Project is currently messy, uneven, and, at times, awful, so the show will require massive changes in order to become worthy of its multifaceted star. But as long as Kaling’s voice isn’t entirely stifled, I’ll continue watching. It’s what pretend best friends do.