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TV Review: The Mindy Project (season 3 finale)

At the end of season 3 of The Mindy Project, Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) and Danny Costellano (Chris Messina) are expecting their first child (who saw THAT coming in season 1?). In the season 3 finale episode, when Danny fails to make it to a going away party for Mindy’s parents, Mindy reveals that she has not, in fact, informed her parents of Danny’s existence.

The finale feels like a gleeful middle finger to Kaling’s critics. The episode includes a hilarious reunion of all the white men Mindy has seriously dated (“the Manhattan meat train”), and while the episode is centered around Lahiri’s family (and even includes scenes of Lahiri in a stunning sari), it never actually depicts her Indian American parents onscreen. I don’t want to give away the ending, as it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a sitcom finale, but it certainly takes The Mindy Project farther than it’s ever been before.

The criticism directed towards the show (largely based on the fact that Lahiri apparently dates only white men) has bothered me for a while, for many reasons. Mostly, however, the selective criticism directed at Kaling strikes me as…sexist.

ABC’s Selfie, AME’s The Walking Dead, and Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are all shows that depict white/Asian interracial relationships. And they all have one thing in common: in each of these celebrated relationships, the man is the person of color, and his love interest is a white woman. In Selfie, it is everywhere implied that John Cho’s character Henry dates only white women, and that he will eventually end up with his co-lead, the red-headed Eliza (Karen Gillan). The pattern is established early on when Henry meets up with a blonde ex-girlfriend. Later, there is a somewhat uncomfortable scene in which Henry coldly rejects an Asian barista’s futile attempts to gain his affections with a free cookie. The rejection is inadvertent, but he later makes it abundantly clear to Eliza that he would never have pursued the cookie-lady’s affection anyway (“I am not interested in that cookie”). The episode ends with Henry meeting Julia (Allison Miller), the white woman he will date for the remainder of the short-lived series. The cookie-lady scene reads as funnier if you happen to realize that the actress playing the barista is Cho’s real-life wife Kerri Higuchi, but the uncomfortable (and critically unnoticed) implication is that this is a man who dates only white women.

Sound familiar?

However, rather than critique the show or its creator Emily Kapnek, many members of community, including MANAA, spearheaded the movement to save the show and lauded Kapnek for her efforts to promote diversity.

I support endeavors to see an increase in representation onscreen, but it is unfair to be willing to celebrate the advancement of Asian American women only if it accompanies the advancement of men. It is unfortunate that the reaction to Kaling’s success has been relentless criticism decrying her insufficient representation of men on her female-centric show, especially when the reaction to her male counterparts’ success is so overwhelmingly positive.

None of this is meant to suggest that The Mindy Project is somehow above reproach or beyond our ability to critique simply because it is produced by a woman of color. There is certainly room for improvement, and the show is already quite different at the end of this season than when it began three years ago. John Cho himself has actually guest starred (as a handsome drug lord), star Xosha Roquemore joined the full-time cast last season, and it’s been hinted that we’ll be seeing much more of Utkarsh Ambudkar next fall. I’m looking forward to it.

The Mindy Project airs on FOX Tuesdays 9:30/8:30c

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7 Comments

  1. Although, I agree with you on the critique of critics who celebrated Asian Male/White Female and criticized the Mindy project for having exclusive White Male/Asian Female, I don’t think it was sexist. Just like I don’t think it’s racist when someone thinks it’s ok with turning a white character to a person of color, but think it’s problematic that a character of color gets played by a white person.
    The fact that one is more wmaf coupling happens more often, makes the opposite when it happens, more celebrated.

    It did bother me a little that Henry’s ex turned out to be a white woman, although we don’t really see enough exes to know if he’s exclusively date white (I don’t think the barrista is a proof of one way or another. He also turned down a muffin from Wren, and I don’t think anyone would argue that as proof that he doesn’t have a thing for tall, white redheads).

    I am however bothered by the critique of shows like Mindy, Selfie (and to a lesser extent New Girl) that the ethnic characters are not ethnic enough. That if you aren’t wearing your ethnicity on your sleeves, then you aren’t true to your core. But that’s probably a discussion for another time.

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  2. Hey John – I think you may be conflating racism and sexism here a bit (they do go hand in hand quite a bit). People of color playing traditionally white roles is okay (and the reverse is not) because of the historical (and ongoing) imbalance of power, which benefits whites. Between the genders, however, there is a imbalance of power that benefits men. Whether an AMWF or WMAF coupling is presented onscreen is essentially a race issue (and a good discussion for another time).

    In this case, what we have is a man of color and a woman of color treated differently for the same thing. Remember that I’m not merely stating that Selfie’s relationships were MORE celebrated – I’m stating that Selfie’s were celebrated while TMP’s were continuously dragged through the mud. Critics literally demanded that Mindy cease and desist.

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  3. I didn’t get the impression that Henry on Selfie only dated white women. Maybe they could’ve cast John Cho’s wife as the ex-girlfriend and have the blonde actress instead be the smitten barista, but my guess is they wanted JC’s wife to be able to have a recurring character on the show, so it made more sense for her to be the barista (since the coffee shop was in the same building as the pharma offices). Had the show continued, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Henry and the barista became a couple, however short the relationship might’ve been. Note that right before Henry said “I am not interested in that cookie,” he told Eliza/Charmonique that “I do alright”, and their argument was followed by his clumsy attempt to woo Julia (even though it was successful), so I think the lack of interest comment was just false bravado on Henry’s part. I don’t think the writers would’ve just had Henry patiently pine with Eliza while she was tied up with Freddy.

    In addition, if Charmonique (the all-knowing receptionist who knew Henry longer than Eliza did) thought Henry only liked white women, she wouldn’t have filled half the club with Charmonique lookalikes. There’s also John Cho’s track record of not taking roles that reflect badly on Asian Americans as a whole – it’s unlikely he would let Emily Kapnek show his character rejecting all AAFs summarily (at least without it being shown as a character flaw or without the topic being examined more thoroughly).

    The only episode of The Mindy Project I’ve seen is the John Cho episode, but I think the main differences between that show and Selfie/UKS are that the Asian actor is also the executive producer (and thus has more creative control), and that TMP has had 3 seasons to prove itself in terms of the Asian character’s romantic choices, while Selfie and UKS have only gotten 13 episodes so far. If I were an Indian guy and heard that Mindy Kaling had this level of control for 3 years and never introduced an Indian male love interest, I would be annoyed. I don’t know what level of criticism she’s been receiving, though … celebs can be the recipients of some pretty vile words.

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    • Yeahhh some of the criticism has been extremely negative. In fact, most of the critiques I’ve read have actually invoked or questioned Kaling’s own sexuality, which I find irresponsible, sexist, and completely inappropriate. (I originally had this as one of my points, but I’m not a big fan of the call out culture in blogging. I encourage you to Google it, tho).

      Another issue at the heart of the Mindy Question is whether or not it’s appropriate to have a “dating preference”. On the one hand, it does seem racist, but on the other, it really skeeves me out to judge someone else for how they choose to express their sexuality (with other consenting adults).

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