The Mindy Project
Kaling’s new show poses our last, best hope that the lady-comedy revolution will actually be revolutionary.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle
Feminism has always been stuck with disputing silly claims about women: that women can’t vote wisely, or do our jobs well if we’re elected to public office, or paint, or play musical instruments, or write novels. It’s a little surprising that feminists haven’t had to argue about whether women can walk, or speak, or use silverware; the general disbelief in our competence is that high.
One of the most enduring of these arguments is about whether women can tell jokes. Plenty of people, including the dearly departed Christopher Hitchens, are of the opinion that we can’t. And this has resulted not only in people’s questioning whether funny women exist, but in studios refusing to fund the ones that actually do exist and want to make movies. But recently, women have been showing up in another, cheaper format, where no one has to put up with them for more than half an hour at a time: TV sitcoms.
The 2011-2012 season saw the premiere of several comedies by women: Whitney Cummings’ Whitney and 2 Broke Girls (co-created with Michael Patrick King), Liz Meriwether’s New Girl and Lena Dunham’s Girls. All were met by substantial degrees of … well, let’s say “critical disapproval,” since “rabid hatred” is a phrase you don’t want to over-deploy.
Girls received some responsible and thoughtful criticism; it was also met with men who were eager to brand it “the origin story for a new breed of Cathy, ack-ing her way through professional and personal malaise.” New Girl was slammed for its portrayal of Zooey Deschanel as an adorable, developmentally stagnant child-woman. And I myself labeled Whitney — a stale, sour traditional sitcom about two people in a long-term relationship who apparently loathed each other — a piece of misogyny that I wouldn’t accept from a male creator and didn’t care to see from a woman. (In the first episode, there was a “joke” about Whitney’s boyfriend having raped her while she was passed out.)
And the fact is, I don’t regret saying that. Whitney is a bad show. The new emergence of women-run TV comedy has been, in many ways, a big disappointment. 2 Broke Girls turned out to be almost cartoonishly racist; recurring characters include both a pint-sized, sexless Asian man and a wise old black man who apparently has nothing better to do with his time than to counsel the young white women at the center of the show. New Girl had Deschanel’s character, Jess, delivering an inspiring speech about how liking “cute” things “doesn’t mean [she’s] not smart and tough and strong,” but it was a point-misser: The complaint about Deschanel and her character was not that she was girly, but little-girly, childlike in a way that made her primed for the attention of men who were scared of female equals. (On one episode she actually makes cute “meep meep” noises to scare off coyotes). Meanwhile, Girls has matured into critical acclaim, although Dunham’s casual racism continues to draw the side-eye.
This makes this fall’s The Mindy Project, by Mindy Kaling, our last hope that funny women can quietly level the playing field in TV. We know Kaling’s funny; she’s got a cult following online and wrote some of the best episodes of The Office. She’s also the first woman of color to create and star in her own sitcom since 2003, when Wanda Sykes created Wanda At Large, which lasted for only a little over one season.
And much of The Mindy Project is great. Kaling’s chirpy delivery is always solid, and plenty of the one-liners land. Yet there are giant warning signs of a hackneyed love triangle ahead — she’s a successful OB/GYN who just can’t get it right when it comes to boys; she must choose between two co-workers, a roguish and handsome British sex buddy and a meat-headed, insensitive American who once punched someone out at a Springsteen show for wearing a John Cougar Mellencamp T-shirt (I told you the jokes were solid); she bickers constantly with the Springsteen fan, meaning she’ll find love with him by the series finale. The formulaic set-up is only slightly alleviated by the show’s own awareness that it’s formulaic.
Plenty of the jokes hinge on a formula that’s even less appealing: Kaling frequently expresses her interest in dating someone with lots of money, whereas one would think the one big benefit of medical school is the fact that you don’t have to look for a partner who can pay your way. Jokes also hinge on Kaling’s perceived undesirability — Kaling subjects her character, who is 31, to cracks about her advanced age, at one point asking someone whether “you have any idea how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old to go on a legit date.”
It’s not a huge deal; anyone who dates is subject to wondering whether they’re ever going to be able to stop dating and settle down. Feelings of undesirability are part of that package. But this goes back to a complaint frequently leveled at the ür-funny-sitcom-lady, Tina Fey: When you’re a gorgeous, hilarious, highly successful creator of a TV show, as Fey and Kaling both are, talking constantly about what an ugly failure you are doesn’t exactly ring true. It also does a lot to stoke the insecurities of your less successful, less TV-camera-ready audience. And those insecurities are the same ones instilled in us by a sexist and racist culture. (Then again, given that Kaling has been dubbed “the human equivalent of an RT’d [retweeted] compliment” for her more confident off-stage persona, she might have to talk herself down on-camera just to avert our insults.)
This is the same problem the whole lady-TV revolution shares; the shows are invariably greeted with hostility when they arrive. But they often show signs of the strange inward-turning hostility that our culture instills in women — Kaling calls herself an old chubbo, Whitney Cummings gets the title character of Whitney hilariously raped inside her first 20 minutes of existence, Dunham’s Hannah is subject to scoldings and humiliations, and that poor New Girl hates herself so effectively that she won’t allow herself to function above the level of a 5-year-old. More TV comedies by women are getting made, it’s true. But it seems to be a condition of their existence that, in order to be made, they can’t be too obviously in favor of funny women.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.