Mindy Kaling has clearly gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, both for the success of her show The Mindy Project, but also for its weaknesses. She's also clearly a bit tired of it, a sentiment she expressed in an interview that aired Thursday on NPR about being a pioneer in her field and the high standards that come along with that label.
Last week, Huffington Post television critic Maureen Ryan tweeted an older post from BuzzFeed, in which three women of color discussed their complex feelings about The Mindy Project. A reader of Ryan's Twitter feed wrote back, "Can't imagine how difficult this must be for Kaling trying to just be herself + succeed in TV & also deal w. these larger issues."
"My 2 cents: Kaling could be engaging with these critiques more fruitfully. It's possible. She just doesn't. Her call, I guess," Ryan said, after a bit of back-and-forth during which she expressed sympathy for Kaling's busy schedule. Then, Kaling actually jumped in: "how could I be engaging? I'm legitimately curious," she wrote.
Ryan responded that she'd love to hear anything Kaling had to say about that roundtable, to which Kaling wrote, "me too! if I wasn't writing/acting in/showrunning my show, I would write long, thoughtful responses to a lot of things," clarifying that she had gotten "a chance to read part of it and liked it as well. Very cool to see smart women of my demographic speaking about the show."
But during an interview with Rachel Martin on NPR's Morning Edition (Martin is doing a series called "The Changing Lives of Women" where she discusses what it's like to be a pioneer with different women), Kaling expressed frustration with the assumption that she should or can engage with these kinds of conversations:
I was on Twitter recently and a critic, who's been very critical of me and of the show, was talking about a round table that three South Asian women had done where they kind of criticized and dissected the show, and said, "Why doesn't Mindy respond to this?" And my feeling about that is, I'm an actor and a writer and a showrunner and I edit my show. I have a job that three people usually have, and I have it in one person. And the idea that the critic thought that I had this excess of time for which I could go to, like, panels or write essays was just so laughable to me.
And I think as women, if you are considered a pioneer in these things, you can get really distracted by these other things — you know, people's demands of you reflecting on your otherness. And for this white critic to say, "I don't understand why she doesn't do that" — and you're like, "It's because I'm running a show on a major network and I want the show to continue" — and to sort of guilt me. Because I want, I'm an A student. I'm addicted to feedback, and I want to please people. That's sort of how I've gotten to where I am. And I think that it's insidious to be spending more of your time reflecting and talking about panels, and talking more and more in smart ways about your otherness, rather than doing the hard work of your job.
It's true that Ryan was–like many critics–pretty critical of the show when it first premiered, though most agree that The Mindy Project has vastly improved and landed somewhere in the realm of must-watch. And as was discussed with the Alessandra Stanley/Shonda Rhimes debacle, perhaps part of this slight assumption that Kaling be an active part of the conversation about her show has come from the fact that television has a medium has changed. As demonstrated during this very conversation between Ryan and Kaling, many showrunners and creators are easily accessible on Twitter, readily having discussions with fans and critics. The expected standard of behavior for them has been raised. Kaling could even be subconsciously being compared to her friend Lena Dunham, who has been subject to the same criticism as Kaling about diversity and engaged quite actively with it.
Part of the frustration Kaling expresses in this interview is that she has certainly discussed her status as a woman of color running and writing her own television show endless amounts of times, and must be a bit sick of it. "I live in my skin," she told Martin, explaining that she forgets that her "difference" is notable to other people. At the same time, Kaling said she's "always wanted to be a role model" – unfortunately for her, role models are expected to go over stuff they might be sick of time and time again. She certainly doesn't seem hesitant to discuss the small moments of sexism she's experienced even while in the position she has now; in this interview, she speculates that employees don't consider her decisions as the final say as much as they would if she was a man.
Kaling certainly is engaging with her critics, though she's not bowing to them. And while she's made it clear in the past that she's not much like her endlessly politically incorrect protagonist, perhaps that's the one thing she does have in common with Mindy Lahiri: she sticks to her guns.
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