Mindy Kaling and WOC in the Media

You may recognize Mindy Kaling as the spunky, histrionic, and ditzy Indian girl who played Kelly on NBC’s The Office. Kaling’s character on The Office in no way reflected her true self, as she went to Dartmouth and has even written a book called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)? While in college, Mindy participated in improv troupes and wrote for her school’s publications. She even helped write some of the material for The Office. Her current show, The Mindy Project, centers on a young female doctor juggling her professional life with her romantic one. It highlights the difficulties that she faces being a woman of color in a male dominated profession and the usual hardships that come along with dating. Her character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, is still spunky and free-spirited but much more intelligent than her character Kelly Kapoor on The Office.

In the second episode of Mindy’s television show there’s a scene where her character is Skyping with her boyfriend Casey who is doing missionary work in Haiti. At one point, she disappears to prepare to seduce him. She returns wearing nothing but a one-piece bathing suit made solely out of whip cream. Upon seeing her, Casey expresses his excitement. He’s not repulsed by her chubbiness…and he shouldn’t be. He even questions why she opted for a one-piece instead of a bikini. In a little over a minute, Mindy was able to send a powerful message of positivity and acceptance to her audience. She spoke into the ears of overweight women, women of color, and/or women with short hair in one scene and told them that they have every reason to love and feel comfortable with themselves. She made a statement that one doesn’t need to be fair-skinned, thin, or have straight hair in order to be considered beautiful, powerful, and positive. As a dark-skinned, medium-sized woman with a short afro, I am greatly appreciative.

Mindy Kaling, like screenwriters Issa Rae and Shonda Rhimes, writes scripts that are directed specifically at the audience of women of color. It’s important to note that their characters aren’t just walking stereotypes. Many television shows believe themselves to be inclusive of people of color because they’ve got, for example, a brutally honest, independent, and loud black woman. They are at fault for creating such one-dimensional characters. Instead, Mindy and the gang have introduced a variety of multidimensional characters into their shows. Their characters may be characterized by some stereotypical characteristics, but their traits don’t stop there. Furthermore, their characters are more realistic and as a result easier to relate to. For example, Issa Rae’s YouTube mini series called Awkward Black Girl has to do with a black woman in a predominantly white environment and the discomforts that arise when, for example, your white friend is rejected by a man and says something along the lines of “I’m a strong, independent, black woman who don’t need no man”. These experiences can only be conveyed effectively by a person of color who has in fact experienced these situations.

There used to be many of these inclusive television shows, especially for children, such as Smart Guy, Sister, Sister, That’s So Raven and The Proud Family and the list for adults goes on and on. As an African-American, I really enjoyed these shows because they explored major topics of black culture such as views on education, family dynamics, and socioeconomic issues. There was even an episode of The Proud Family that explored the celebration of Kwanzaa. But for some reason, the production of these shows completely halted when our generation needed it most. By the time I reached the ripe age of eleven, the shows that had characters that I could actually relate to had stopped putting out new episodes. I was left with shows like Hannah Montana where the only black girl on the show was one of the bullies. What kind of message does that send to young black girls? I knew that I couldn’t relate to Amber and wasn’t encouraged to by the way that the story line was set up. As a result, I found myself trying to relate to Hannah, which was not beneficial for my body image. I distinctly remember wanting so badly to be as thin as Miley and wishing that my hair was longer. I was moving in the opposite direction of internal acceptance—this is a common effect of racially exclusive television shows. It’s unbelievable how much the media can profoundly influence one’s view of self and one’s interactions with others, and it’s necessary for the horizons of the media to become more inclusive of our diverse world to promote happier and more self-loving individuals.