Two years ago, I was sprawled on the floor of my residence floor common room with my best friends, a gaggle of tired university girls crowded around an outdated television, waiting for the sickeningly sweet opening tune of “The Mindy Project.”
Every week, there I would be, a brown woman watching a brown woman at the epicenter of her own primetime TV show. Every week, I could feel the weight of expectation we carried for Kaling. She was a brown body—a dark-skinned brown body for that matter—that had pushed perpetually brown-fearing America off her shoulders and done the impossible: succeeded.
Like most Asian-Americans who loyally tune in for shows that promise their screen-starved communities the representation they deserve, I wanted to love it. At one point, I changed my desktop wallpaper to a promotional photograph of the cast—Kaling, in one of her iconic diamond-print bodycon dresses and a red lip, right in the middle of the photo. Not just the star, but also the producer and the writer. I was so proud. I wanted to stay proud.
But as the episodes passed, the taste in my mouth on those nights watching “The Mindy Project” grew sour.
If you haven’t seen the show, “The Mindy Project” features Kaling as Mindy Lahiri, an eclectic and hopelessly romantic doctor living in, you guessed it, New York City. Messily, she traverses her love life with a lovable carelessness and fragility. Getting what she wants in a man is harder to get than she thought, until she realizes that her happy ending may have been working in her clinic all along (at least until Season 3).
Blinded by brightly dressed Lahiri and what she represented for South Asians on the small screen, it took me a few episodes to notice the problems. I started to be bothered by perhaps the biggest driving factor of TMP’s plot line: Mindy’s entirely white love life.
Before the episode where she makes a “joke” about women in burqas, before the season where the highly caricatured Black character Tamra is introduced as the full-time cast member, her unsettling obsession with white men is what turned me sour first.
We can’t afford to not trace the shows that represent people from our communities with a fine-toothed comb — representing a people sits widely apart from simply showing a people.
In writer Navi Lamba’s words, “viewers are bombarded by white ideals of beauty with every new love interest Mindy lands upon.” In my experience, South Asian women are either expected to only date (and eventually marry) brown men within their own overly sheltered communities or are so pigeon-holed by their strict, oppressive families that they rebelliously date only white men. Neither, in my opinion, is okay.
I get that she has a type. She is allowed to date who she pleases. But it makes me squirm when episode after episode after episode hinges on the next white man whose validity she seeks, and feels worthless when loses. She lives in New York City and this is “The Mindy Project”—her love life looks more like an all-white episode of “Friends.”
On the one hand, it seems plainly unfair to overly criticize shows and films and novels that feature ethnic minorities when the majority of white-centered culture rarely falls under the same level of scrutiny. And with producers and Hollywood suits keeping their money on a leash, it’s important that the very audiences these shows are hoping to cater to are liking the show or they’ll easily put their cash elsewhere.
I wish I could ... not overthink it, but there are too few shows with brown narratives and too many shows focused on white narratives and just too much at stake.
On the other hand, we also can’t afford to not be critical. We can’t afford to not trace the shows that represent people from our communities with a fine-toothed comb — representing a people sits widely apart from simply showing a people. In the case of “Master of None,” for instance, a resistance to critique could be incredibly dangerous when Ansari’s Netflix comedy clearly reproduces anti-Black sentiments, an issue that’s hugely prevalent in South Asian communities. The bottom line: I wish I could afford to like a show for its own merit and not overthink it, but there are too few shows with brown narratives and too many shows focused on white narratives and just too much at stake.
I wanted to like “The Mindy Project.” But I also wanted to make sure it was enough. At the end of the day, at the end of the episode, I don’t think we can afford to blindly love shows that feature people like us without taking into account the undercurrent of toxic messaging and stereotyping and typecasting it may or may not be perpetuating. But if so few of the so few diverse shows do it right, and we hold every one of our community members who are producing media to such high and mighty standards, that ends in no representation at all.
So, the question is, do we lose either way?
Ramna Safeer is a third-year English Major at Queen’s University in Ontario, working towards one day pursuing human rights law. She is the Editorials Editor at The Queen’s Journal and the founder and blogger at CherishChai.com. This story originally appeared on Medium.