The Mindy Kaling Backlash Has Lost All Nuance

Recent criticism of the comedian’s artistic laziness has fans reexamining her whole career.

When Velma, HBO’s animated series about Scooby-Doo’s Velma Dinkley, premiered last week, few could have predicted the backlash it would generate against its star, Mindy Kaling, who voices the titular character and serves as an executive producer. The series, long marketed as a race-swapped, adult version of the Scooby-Doo cartoons, was expected to offend right-wing vloggers irritated that Hollywood wokeness had made all these classic white characters into characters of color, but it also went the extra mile by pissing off progressive fans. 

The complaints were varied. Some were about how HBO ruined a perfectly good children’s show by trying to make it edgy. Others were about how unsubtle and unfunny the show’s point of view is. In particular, Kaling’s Velma makes a joke about how she “spit[s] truth without a filter, like every comedian before #MeToo,” which has made the rounds of the internet as further evidence of Kaling’s careless conservatism. (She also recently received criticism for saying The Office couldn’t succeed today due to “cancel culture.”) As with this example, most of the criticism that started with the show expanded rapidly outward, until the crux of the anger landed squarely on Kaling’s career. 

Velma has opened up a discourse about Kaling’s long career of writing and performing a specific kind of Indian woman: dorky, self-absorbed, insecure, obsessed with attaining the romantic validation of caustic white guys, and eager to fling herself, her family, her culture, and other cultures under the bus to get it. From Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project to Devi Vishwakumar of Never Have I Ever to Bela Malhotra of The Sex Lives of College Girls to Velma, Kaling’s Indian protagonists tend to follow a similar pattern. Mindy, Devi, and Bela all fall for nerdy white dudes who started out as their rivals: Danny, a fellow doctor in Mindy’s residency; Ben, Devi’s high-achieving high school classmate; and Eric, the leader of the comedy group Bela wants to join. Velma, who makes fawning eyes at Fred Jones, the entitled heir to his father’s fortune, is set up to do the same.

An initial tongue-in-cheek defense of Kaling’s “obsession with a specific type of White Man” offered this explanation: “You have to remember [she] spent formative sexual years at Dartmouth over 20 years ago. That's all there was. New England changes people.” The tweet, now viewed close to 9 million times, gets at one element of the controversy over Kaling’s work. Kaling’s characters have always been caricatures of herself. This was clearly true of Mindy on The Mindy Project, where Kaling played someone with her own name. But Bela, an aspiring comedian and Seth Meyers fan who attends a liberal arts college in New England, is no less obvious a parody of Kaling. The collapse between Kaling’s onscreen personas and actual personhood has fueled the fire of online anger. As the critiques of Kaling’s characters escalate, so too does the demand for Kaling’s accountability. 

The collapse between Kaling’s onscreen personas and actual personhood has fueled the fire of online anger. 

More damning than her characters’ obsession with white guys is their casually racist self-hatred. In one of Bela’s first lines of The Sex Lives of College Girls, she calls herself “an Indian loser.” In the opening scene of Never Have I Ever, Devi prays for “[her] arm hair to thin out,” saying, “I know it’s an Indian thing, but my forearms look like the frigging floor of a barbershop.” Velma gets the same treatment; five minutes into the pilot, two cops make fun of her weight and her “hairy gorilla arm.” It’s sad to see these young protagonists introduced to the audience with such self-loathing jokes; it’s like the writers are anticipating viewers’ inherent disgust with young Indian women and trying to beat them to the punchline. It’s also boring to see the same racist stereotypes and beauty standards trotted out again and again. Plus, it’s baffling to see Kaling, one of the most successful Indian women in Hollywood, undermine her own creation. Having gotten far enough in her career to create her own TV shows centering young Indian girls, why mock them?

Some viewers have argued that Kaling’s work has always been white-facing and power-chasing. They see her characters’ love of white men and hatred of themselves as unified in Kaling’s artistic perspective on the world: one that craves privilege and seeks to distance itself from otherness. In a measured Catapult essay about the legacy of The Mindy Project, Zeahaa Rehman evaluates the show’s sparse depiction of Mindy’s racial and cultural background. On the one hand, Rehman sees the value in decentering Mindy’s Indian identity. Kaling received pressure from “white executives at TV networks” to make her show about “an Indian woman … educating white people,” and she explicitly wanted to avoid being pigeonholed. Kaling refused to let Mindy be the gateway Indian character for white audiences to empathize with Indian people, instead leaning into Mindy’s messiness. But Rehman still expresses discomfort with “Mindy’s unwillingness to engage with her culture unless it was for a punchline.” She rarely ate Indian food, although “food played a large role in [her] life,” or interacted with other Indian people. She existed in something of an identity vacuum.

Having gotten far enough in her career to create her own TV shows centering young Indian girls, why mock them?

In Kaling’s later work, she spent more time exploring the cultural backgrounds of her Indian characters. But recent criticism of this work highlights her unquestioned regurgitation of the anti-Islam sentiment that exists in Hindu Indian communities, as in a 2020 episode of Never Have I Ever. In an essay for Autostraddle about the disappointments of the show, Himani addresses that episode, in which Devi’s family attends Ganesh puja, a Hindu festival and social event. While there, they meet a recently divorced woman whose family rejected her after she married a Muslim man, and who now regrets not choosing to marry a Hindu man in the first place. Though Himani appreciates Kaling’s attempt to “[lay] bare the Islamophobic underbelly of Hindu-Indian community,” she also calls it “a missed opportunity” to challenge the internal prejudices of the Indian community and depict them as something other than inevitable cultural idiosyncrasies. By the end of the episode, the divorced woman seems wrong for defying her parents’ anti-Islam prejudice, not the other way around. 

These criticisms of Kaling’s work have unspooled online amid a flurry of other tangentially related revelations presented as evidence that she deserves this downfall. There’s the fact that her brother wrote a book called Almost Black: The True Story of How I Got Into Medical School By Pretending to Be Black, which is self-evidently exploitative and racist. There’s the fact that she liked one of JK Rowling’s tweets, in which the famously anti-trans author boasted about her “recent royalty cheques” in response to someone asking how it felt to lose a huge chunk of her audience. Liking a tweet is fairly trivial evidence of being a TERF, but there’s also a line from Kaling’s 2011 memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, in which she derides her trans neighbors in West Hollywood, a predominantly queer neighborhood in LA. It’s all unflattering, but the storm eclipses the nuanced critiques of Kaling’s work in favor of a punitive, burn-it-down attitude. 

This is not especially surprising. By now it’s well established that social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok reward highly emotional engagement. Outrage and sarcasm are the most virulent sentiments; bluntness and brevity make them easier to spread. The people in charge of and invested in social media companies make money using algorithms that encourage us to click on increasingly frenetic or radical content. They profit off tools that make us want to keep shouting into the void, waiting to hear back.

If we had a better forum for this kind of critical discourse, it might be easier to articulate the reasonable — even boring — consensus at the heart of all this controversy: Kaling has written the same caricature of herself too many times. 

There aren’t enough other stories about young Indian girls to offset or complicate the narratives Kaling has chosen to retread again and again. 

When a young brown girl appears onscreen in one of Kaling’s shows, it’s easy enough to guess where her story is going. She will probably be a loud-mouthed nerd with strict parents and insecurities about her body hair, fixated on a white dude who is little more than rude to her. She will probably not question the rigid social hierarchy she’s inherited; in fact, she’s probably going to enact it, cruelly, on herself and others. Viewers are bored with the artistic laziness of these plotlines — both in their repetitiveness and their reliance on outdated stereotypes. It’s certainly a sign that Kaling’s comedy has gotten stale, and that her politics have fallen behind the times. But it’s also clearly a symptom of the fact that there are few Indian women of Kaling’s stature and renown making TV today. There aren’t enough other stories about young Indian girls to offset or complicate the narratives Kaling has chosen to retread again and again. 

This highly justified frustration has manifested as personal vitriol directed at Kaling because it’s easier that way. “Mindy Kaling” is a perfectly packaged trending topic that people can engage with. She's a woman in comedy who has historically been criticized for her weight, her voice, and her darker skin; we've found new ways to target her, but she's still a public figure we love to hate. She’s so much like her characters that we believe their faults are her faults. The now-popular refrain, “Mindy Kaling, just because you are an Indian loser, does not mean Indians are losers!” takes the frustration with her overdone caricature and makes it seem like Kaling is portraying all Indian women as self-hating freaks. But she’s not. She’s just portraying herself, stylized as a self-hating freak, over and over again. And it’s boring. But her work is only a lightning rod for online anger because it looms so large above other Indian American media. It’s a small sliver of possible stories that’s been amplified by Kaling’s peerless fame. She ought to have more peers disrupting her monopoly, but the robust and necessary criticism of her work ought to hold more water than the gleeful revelry in her personal demise. ●


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