The Mindy Project and the compelling story of female neuroses
Few sitcoms have seen transformations the way The Mindy Project has. At first a comedy about a sassy, 30-something, independent woman taking charge of her career and sex life, it slowly became a workplace comedy, with characters dropping off and coming in fairly regularly. After the will-they-won’t-they core of Mindy and Danny finally became they will (and then, they won’t… and then, okay they will) it became a truly fascinating and hilarious show about one adult relationship, full of heart in a way that wasn’t cloyingly sappy or predictable.
The steadfast aspect of the show, however, was always Mindy Lahiri. Her brand of brash over-confidence mixed with a little bit of denial (her constant reminders that she was petite — “I don’t weigh anything, I’m like a cloud” and still in her 20s — “I’m way too young to understand your Graduate reference”) made her polarizing but incredibly relatable. And not in a “millennial women are just figuring it all out!” Hannah Horvath in Girls type of way (Hannah is has breached the level of self-absorption to be relatable anymore), or the quirky, bright-pink-dress “I’m goofy and humble but I still work hard” Jessica Day in New Girl type of way. Mindy Lahiri is compelling for these reasons for sure, but even more so because of the frequent, yet subtle revelations that she might actually feel insecure, feel low, even neurotic about herself.
From the pilot, where she has a full on meltdown about her ex getting married, to the most recent episode where (spoilers) she allows herself to be vulnerable and hurt by Danny yet again, she has always contained multitudes. And in between, she has had to deal with not only boyfriends, family, and coworkers doubting her, but her own self doubts. In a world that still seems shocked that an Indian woman can act like, look like, and do what Mindy Kaling does, who can blame a fictional Mindy Lahiri for expecting the world to be ready for her?
It’s the year 2016, when female empowerment is a brand, and every day there are 100 listicles and think-pieces coming out every hour about Hillary Clinton’s ambition and confidence and what it means for women everywhere, WE GET IT. Women can be confident. Women can be ambitious. Lean in. Strong female characters are the norm. “Confidence is sexy” is what women are fed their whole lives, and everyone has their own story about how they came to love themselves or their bodies. How they came to project that veneer of confidence to get the man and the money.
But the opposite happens for men. As these “strong female characters” rise on TV, the sensitive and insecure male character rises. I blame Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Seth Cohen. Why is it so fascinating, compelling, and weirdly sexy when a man is crippled with self-doubt, but women, who have the whole goddamn patriarchy working against her, have to keep their insecurities a secret, have to be confident and ambitious and strong in order to inspire others?
The characters in the Mindy Project sometimes believe in Mindy Lahiri more than she believes in herself, which is important. She doesn’t think she can get a fellowship, or start her own business, or be in a successful relationship, or meet the parents, or have a baby on her own until she feels rallied behind or someone says the obvious “You are a role model.” Yes she says she has “the entitlement of a white man” but she also has the deep insecurities of a human. And that’s beautiful. The other characters on the show don’t hate her because sometimes she freaks out and doubts herself or her relationship. The world can handle multifaceted women- women who are strong and confident, but insecure and scared. You can be neurotic and in charge of your life. Hell, you can build an empire off of being self-deprecating, just as much as you can build one off of “empowered female.”
We’ve been lucky enough to watch this show gain depth and wisdom, watch characters we love become surprisingly scummy, and scumbags we hate become surprisingly lovable. But what we’ve really been watching was Mindy Lahiri go from confident in theory to confident in practice. It’s the only journey on television (aka on computer streaming TV) that I can truly relate to.