This past Saturday, Mindy Kaling of “The Office” fame was featured on the cover of Parade Magazine. Wait for it, I haven’t gotten to the exciting part. Yes, she is one of the few female leads on television—as the creator and star of Fox’s “The Mindy Project”—and one of even fewer non-white leads. And yes, the magazine industry is notoriously reluctant to use non-white cover subjects. Even the gorgeous Halle Berry’s turn as a Cosmopolitan cover girl was described as an “improbable feat” by David Carr in the New York Times.
Despite this context, Kaling’s appearance on the cover was less surprising than what she had to say. When asked about the attention paid to her appearance, Kaling replied, “I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”
Kaling’s response to Parade’s line of questioning is understandable, and as she states later in the interview, the attention to what makes her different from the average TV heroine is not just “insulting” but distracting. “There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them,” Kaling says in Parade. “But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.”
I’m not singling out Kaling’s statement because I think it’s rare for someone in television to want to be an artist more than a role model. I also don’t think it’s rare for a talented, attractive woman like Kaling to have a healthy sense of self-esteem. Judging from the name of her Fox series, I would say she is pretty proud of herself. But sentiments like Kaling’s are rare in an industry that is attempting to embrace more diversity but isn’t sure how to do so.
Kaling is aware that she doesn’t fit the television industry’s idea of what is attractive. This awareness even inspires a lot of “The Mindy Project’s” humor, since Mindy Lahiri—Kaling’s onscreen persona—hardly resembles the rom-com stars she envies. In one of the most priceless moments of the series, Mindy’s romantic morning with her boyfriend Josh is ruined after Josh accidentally wears her jeans and finds they are bit large on him. Mindy replies, horrified, “This is adorable. That is like a lap band surgery ad.”
“The Mindy Project” may acknowledge that Mindy doesn’t fall into the Katherine Heigl mold, but it’s fitting since the series doesn’t aspire to cliche, formulaic romance either. Mindy Lahiri may be a sucker for romance, but she has studied the genre so extensively to avoid the typical ingenue’s naivete. When she realizes the man she is dating is secretly in love with his best friend, rather than breaking down or bemoaning her circumstances, she tells it to him straight: “I’m like the Joan Cusack character in the romantic comedy of your life.” Mindy dreams of finding her soul mate, but until she does, we can look forward to how Mindy comments on the ups and downs of her love life with wit and awareness. There is romance to be found on “The Mindy Project,” but it’s not airbrushed or saccharine as the movies it often references. After all, the series focuses on how Mindy keeps searching for her own Prince Charming in spite of setbacks, rather than how her life has failed to meet her romantic expectations. In keeping with this more realistic depiction of romance, “The Mindy Project” doesn’t fixate on how Mindy is different from most chick flick stars. Mindy may not be an expert at dating, but the series never blames her relationship problems on her figure.
Ultimately, the discrepancy between Mindy Kaling and most box office babes doesn’t demean Kaling but instead underscores her confidence. In an episode of “The Mindy Project,” a handsome date tries to impress Lahiri by telling her about how he takes models to parties and she responds with, “Well, lucky for you, I was featured in my college admissions brochure holding a test tube. So I guess you have a thing for models.” Mindy Lahiri is a far cry from Gracie Hart, the homely CIA agent played by the stunning Sandra Bullock in “Miss Congeniality” and even further from the self-deprecating Liz Lemon. (If Tina Fey ate all the things Liz Lemon claims to, she would not be nearly as svelte as she is today.) One of the funniest moments of the series’ pilot is when Mindy Lahiri—who drowned her sorrows at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding—shouts “I’m Sandra Bullock!” while riding a bicycle drunk. Mindy Kaling may not be the typical starlet, but she isn’t pretending she is one either. The real and fictional Mindys both convey a genuine sense of confidence that might surprise magazines, but it is inspiring to see artists who not only display self-acceptance but don’t need to ask others for it.
—Staff writer Hayley C. Cuccinello can be reached at email@example.com.
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