The Mindy Project: Kaling is the beacon of lipstick feminism
Currently in its fourth season on Hulu, The Mindy Project is an excellent female-led situation comedy show. Of course most of the comedy depends mostly on the absurdity of the setting and protagonist Mindy Lahiri’s own intelligence (sometimes, lack thereof).
In numerous interviews and her autobiographical books, Mindy Kaling has made clear her affinity for the romantic comedy genre. The romantic comedy genre is essentially postfeminist; as explained by many media theorists, especially Diane Negra, the genre “fetishises female power and desire” but consistently places them in firm limits. As the writer and creator of the show, The Mindy Project, she has in fact created a romantic comedy. But Mindy’s genre of romantic comedy is more intelligent, more feminist as it focuses on the titular character and her gradual empowerment. Kaling’s Lahiri-world infact critiques the very aspects of the genre from the inside.
When the show began, Mindy Lahiri exhibited feminist leanings — she has been body and sex positive, confident, excellent at doing her job, no-nonsense. She has also been selfish, selfie-obsessed, almost delusional, egoistic and definitely narcissistic. She reminds us of the women who might believe that feminism is overrated and that they don’t need it — much like the urban, young, highly educated population who have had the privilege of not knowing the sacrifices women and men before them made in the pursuit of gender equality. So in the Neo-liberal, Consumerist culture, it is easy to be Postfeminist, just like Lahiri who doesn’t need feminism, because she can exercise her right to buy bearclaws, without thinking about it. And it has been Kaling’s effort to make this Lahiri realise the reality around her, to become the kind of feminist that she was always meant to be.
Lahiri has dated all kinds of men on the show — flakes, losers, great guys who were just not meant to be — true to the genre, all Lahiri does seem to want is in fact her ‘Prince Charming’, the Leopold to her Kate, the Harry to her Sally, the Mr Darcy to her Elizabeth. She does find him, almost, in Danny Castellano — a little rough around the edges, handsome, intelligent and the definite opposite to whatever Lahiri was — so a ‘perfect match’. But very real things happen to Lahiri and she gently realises that there is, in fact, no ‘Mr Perfect’.
Throughout the season, Lahiri makes all the adjustments (those that usually don’t bother the women who don’t need feminism). Lahiri familiarises herself with Danny’s Catholic roots, giving up her own in the process. She makes many sacrifices for him, but she doesn’t particularly feel bad about those sacrifices until one day, she does. As soon as she gives birth, Danny decides the name for their son; it doesn’t matter what Lahiri might have had in mind. Danny, the ‘perfect guy’, was actually not perfect. He wanted Lahiri, an accomplished OB/Gyn (in fact, better than Danny) to stay at home and take care of the baby. She doesn’t protest much. He sneakily tries to impregnate her again as he wants more kids and yet it is she who apologises for not wanting kids and taking the pill. It takes all of this for her to realise that a lot is being asked of her and that these asks are definitely not reasonable, setting the feminist clock ticking in Lahiri. She leaves Danny and decides to actually take on the hard task of being a single mother.
This is Kaling’s biggest takeaway from Henrik Ibsen: Lahiri was losing her identity and meaning around Danny. Her ‘perfect’ mate was not perfect, he was choking her with his mandate. In breaking them up, Kaling has made Lahiri understand that her feminism means nothing if it doesn’t stand tall in the face of an oppressive love and lover — this has been the education of Mindy Lahiri: as pop-culture obsessed it maybe, it is education of the highest order. Lahiri takes off from the Jerry Maguiresque emotions of wanting the “you complete me” and lands on the helipad of — I am complete. You can be an add on if you want, you’re not necessary for my completeness.
The still romantic but partnerless Lahiri, for the first time in the series arc, truly addresses her identity as a South Asian. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but as a single mother, driven by the feelings of wanting her son to know his roots, she figures that she must understand her own intersectional identity. Lahiri is now getting better at dealing with life — how to take care of her finances; and that no matter how hot, well-read and interesting a man is, if she isn’t happy being herself with him, it doesn’t matter.
Kaling has taken a conscious turn to not define Lahiri’s subjectivity through matrimonial and maternalist models, but through the work and self-realisation of the character. Kaling couldn’t have done this right from the start; Lahiri as a character is still bold, confident, and grossly unapologetic as in the earlier seasons but she is not naive anymore — in the postfeminist world that Lahiri lives in, it takes obvious oppression in order to realise the importance of feminism, lipstick or otherwise.