When I rave to friends about The Mindy Project, at first it’s about how funny it is, how delightful the characters are, the sly inversion of rom-com tropes, the fetching Peter Pan collars. Creator and star Mindy Kaling is the glimmering, shiny-haired jewel at the center of it all, but The Mindy Project is a true ensemble comedy. So I start there.
If I’m talking to a comedy nerd, I’ll go on about how it’s more densely packed with jokes than anything I can think of other than 30 Rock, and how it’s inherited that show’s mastery of the skewering media-crit one-liners. If I’m talking to a fellow feminist, I’ll note that a woman of color playing a successful, high-status professional is leading a network sitcom. (She plays Ob-Gyn Dr. Mindy Lahiri.) I may also mention the lunky, cerebral hotness of Mark Duplass.
But despite my watch-twice-to-laugh-again-at-the-jokes-that-were-overshadowed-by-other-jokes viewing habits, I only realized recently just how deliciously subversive it is.
It probably shouldn’t have taken a shower scene contrasting the lily-white expanse of Anders Holm against Kaling’s glistening brown skin to make me see that. But my God, what a visual. It’s so rare on TV to see so much skin with so much contrast so close. (Also, the shot of their cute feet repositioning in the tub was another great juxtaposition.)
The setup is one thing, but on The Mindy Project, it’s the writing that drives it home. The lily-white gent in question is onscreen Mindy’s pastor boyfriend. They have a PASTOR in an interracial relationship, with no fuss and no drama. It’s actually the opposite — what this shower scene establishes is just how easy and lovely the rapport is between the couple. It’s sexy and affectionate and good-humored, and they’re naked, and are clearly sexually active, and no one anywhere seems ashamed.
In fact, the utter absence of sex-shame is another subversive hallmark of The Mindy Project. Kaling’s character unapologetically hooks up with a parade of adorable guys (Holm, Duplass, Seth Rogen, Ed Weeks, Ed Helms, B.J. Novak to name a few), letting any awkwardness come from outside the bedroom. (The one exception, “Hooking Up Is Hard,” was a mastery of pacing, plus a urology joke.) There’s no ‘cut to waking up hung over and horrified’ — when there’s a man in Mindy’s bed, it’s because she wants him there.
This is unusual. In sitcom land — actually, most of TV land — there is usually shame associated with a woman sexually sampling a bunch of guys. While Sex and the City was groundbreaking in presenting women as independent sexual beings, the moral judgment surrounding those actions was explicit in the reaction, and implicit in the script. On Girls, sex is used as a vehicle for advancing character, with Important Subtext About What It All Means to boot.While sitcom sidekick characters are often slap-sticky romantic guinea pigs, TV’s leading female characters are more wont to pine than bone — usually they’re either angling for a relationship or in one. Sex is therefore set up as byproduct of romance, and thus partners are few and far between.
By my count Mindy’s had sex with at least five guys since the series’ debut in September, not including one foiled one-night stand with a male prostitute. And there are guys she’s dated where at least two hookups are implied. That is an active (and awesome) sex life for a single woman in her 30s and it is treated as such, without being apologized for on the one hand or fetishized on the other. I’m not sure the word “slut” has appeared on The Mindy Project. It would feel stunningly out of place.
That absence of shame is present in how terrific Mindy looks on this show. Kaling’s Dr. Lahiri loves clothes, loves going out, and thinks she looks great. This is not portrayed comically through dowdy or ill-fitting clothing. This is portrayed by Kaling looking great. No unflattering Liz Lemon outfits or Lena Dunham angles for her — Kaling’s character is invited into VIP rooms at clubs, picks up hotties on the subway (“I thought you were a rapper’s publicist”; “Thank you!”), and meets-cute with two adorable brothers (Seth Meyers in a bookstore, Josh Meyers in a bar, though Josh was the gigolo — but still). She has great, distinctive style, but also winningly rocks specs and surgical scrubs. Look no further than the opening credits: Mindy looks great and knows it.
It is amazing that it’s big deal for a leading female character on a network sitcom to look great and know it. But when that female character is brown, curvaceous, and far from cookie-cutter, it becomes subversive to see her portrayed as the center of a glittering, mainstream rom-com — just because we never, ever see that.
There’s more — Mindy casing the Empire State building on Valentine’s Day a la Sleepless in Seattle, and being hauled in by Homeland Security for what was essentially Suspicious Behavior By A Brown Person — but you get the point: In a TV universe still dominated by white leading characters, The Mindy Project has found sly, edgy takes on the skin color of its namesake.
As for said namesake, she couldn’t care less — she’s just busy being a hot, busy doctor with a bangin’ sex life. Whatever might have stopped others like her from being leading ladies thus far doesn’t affect her in the least. Perhaps that’s the most subversive thing of all.
Disclosure: I know Mindy through a great friend we share, and I also know one of her writers. But I double-watch this show because it’s fantastic. So, bias declared.