“It’s so weird being my own role model. I recommend it.”
–Mindy Lahiri, “The Mindy Project,” S1 E1
“Confidence is just entitlement. Entitlement has gotten a bad rap […] But entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it […] I’m usually hyper-prepared for whatever I set my mind to do, which makes me feel deserving of attention and professional success, when that’s what I’m seeking”
–Mindy Kaling, “Why not me?,” Page 218
By Angelina Eimannsberger
Recently, US feminism has been flying high: the Women’s March, the success of pop culture feminists such as Lena Dunham and Emma Watson–who even has her own women’s book club–, and the urgent sense in Trump’s America that women have a long way to go to equality and need to fight for it, all helped the feminist cause–labeled as “feminist” or simply enacting the believe in the need for gender equality. Millions of users, from private people to women’s empowerment organizations such as bSmart guide choosing hashtags such as #thefutureisfemale, #shepersisted, inspired by the silencing of Senator Warren in the Senate, and #bossbabe articulate the need for feminism in the individual everyday and in the collective experience of the time.
At Indulgence, we embrace a brand of feminism that is heavily influenced by cultural production and that I like to think of as sincere feminism, a positive, generative, culture-powered approach to gender equality that is not flippant, dark, or caustic but rather insistent, engaged, and strongly committed to intersectional solidarity of all women. This Monday series on “American Women and their Novels” is an expression of this feminism. While novels are at the heart of this series, other forms of storytelling such as television, movie, and short story (an essay on Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins is coming soon) forms are of interest too.
Mindy Kaling is an important inspiration for Indulgence and our feminism. The narrative she crafts with her television show The Mindy Project, her life writing, her social media feeds, and her public remarks and appearances is a story of confidence, hard work, and a feminist who has fun while speaking out on the struggles of being a woman of color in a white, male, body-policing industry. Kaling is an icon for brown girls, chubby girls, every girl, and she inspires us that we can achieve great things without being unpleasant, loveless, one-dimensional creatures– which other kinds of social narratives often don’t allow for. Think of the many times successful working women in pop culture are portrayed as tough bitches incapable of true love and in need of being awakened (Sandra Bullock in The Proposal would be one example).
Kaling isn’t limited by this kind of opposition between being strong and being nice or beautiful, her imagination is much more interesting than that. Kaling does her feminist work in two main ways: there’s the story of Mindy Lahiri told in her tv show The Mindy Project (and named after author Jhumpa Lahiri whose novel The Namesake we discussed last week), and the public persona created by Mindy Kaling.
Main character Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project indulges in food, clothing, and relationships. She is empowered, ambitious, and voices her opinion. She is obnoxious but not because she is a feminist: she is a feminist in spite of being obnoxiously confident and in denial about her own shortcomings. Lahiri is the over the top, hilarious, outspoken version of Kaling, and her greatest achievement to date.
Mindy Kaling the actress, writer, showrunner, producer, author, and celebrity is more down to earth and much less obnoxious than her character, but she knows what’s what just as much. Her body positive writing on clothing and beauty, her career advice (work hard, work hard, WORK HARD, and know you deserve it), and her thoughts on life are immensely useful for young women because Kaling insists on empowerment as personal fulfillment as well as career success, and with this insistence on wholeness attenuates the fears and sexist socialization of women. Kaling is a woman of color, but white women love her just as much as women of color because so much she says resonates for all of them–she speaks to women, not to one type of women, and makes her specific experience useful for them. Kaling is having fun while being a feminist–and that’s a game changer both for women struggling to speak out on feminist concerns and for people deriding them.
Kaling’s life writing, and her social media feeds for example on instagram, gives an angle on where that confidence and her pleasure comes from: she has achieved her childhood dream. Kaling has worked very hard: she and her friend wrote their own play, which gained them enough visibility to have Greg Daniels visit and hire Kaling for The Office, as writer, producer, and actress. From there, she decided to “write a show starring myself and it was going to be a smash hit” (Why Not Me 72). Today, she is a fashion idol, has a new show just picked up by NBC, The Mindy Project has one more season to come and is highly popular on hulu. Kaling isn’t married or has kids, but she has often expressed her desire for both of these things for example in her chapter “Married People Need to Step It Up” (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me 183). She’s a warm, beautiful woman who is famous for many things: her success, most of all, but also her style, her relationship with BJ Novak, her love for McDonald’s food. She is a woman of color who challenges beauty standards. Her sincerity and hilariousness make her a feminist with a very specific, very generative message: it’s ok to be beautiful no matter who you are, it’s ok to be anxious, it’s ok to be the boss.
Kaling’s show starts out as a Rom Com, girl meets boy, and a workplace comedy, that is feminist but also a narrative we know from Pride and Prejudice and You’ve Got Mail, inspirations that Kaling notes in her writing. Over the third and fourth season, however, it develops into something even more interesting (similar to Amy Poehler’s Parks and Rec in its continuation of storytelling after the boy-meets-girl narrative ends, but different in plot and tone): what happens after the girl and the boy got together? The show and its cast of characters working with Mindy also includes a lesbian narrative, a black girl, that girl’s cousin who is a trans woman (portrayed superbly by Laverne Cox), and a poor white man who is a nurse (spinning around the typical assertive male doctor, helpful female nurse image) complement Mindy’s challenging of norms. Some of this is more insightful than others–Morgan’s poverty is nowhere close to real critique of capitalism and underpayment of nurses– but it does point to the future of women’s and minorities’ story telling: solidarity across different identities and humor and pleasure as weapons to draw in the majority.