Mindy Kaling got her name as a writer, actress and producer on the exquisitely awkward NBC comedy, The Office, but her particular success can’t be summed up by credits alone. The subject of fawning profiles in the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine and Elle, Kaling seems more like a laser beam of cute hand-crafted by the zeitgeist, if the zeitgeist had its own Etsy store. Girly and populist but still fresh and unexpected, Kaling is taking her career to the next level this fall with The Mindy Project on Fox TV. Using our own brand of cultural science, we try to break down the appeal of TV’s reigning girl crush.
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The Deconstruction of Mindy Kaling
Why America fell for that Indian girl from The Office.
Written by Margaret Wappler
At one time in comedy, irony was king but it’s been replaced by its more cuddly cousin, quirk. Fortunately, for quirk-purveyors everywhere, it’s a seller’s market -- just ask Zooey Deschanel. As The Atlantic defined it in 2007, quirk is “mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions… and unexplainable but nonetheless charming character traits.” With her character Kelly Kapoor on The Office, one of pop culture’s hot houses for quirky humor, Kaling revels in these trademark definitions every time she’s on screen.
We don’t want to reduce anyone to their (scale) numbers but Kaling’s weight and her attitude about it is key to her appeal. According to Becca Cragin, a professor in the Department of Pop Culture at Bowling Green State University, “American television culture seems to be embracing the outsider more now than ever before.” A woman with a zaftig frame reads as both an outsider to the Hollywood system (which disproportionately celebrates thin and even gaunt), and as a relief to viewers who too often “compare and despair” when watching TV. In her memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Kaling confesses to a love for dieting while not sweating her weight too much. She mixes self-acceptance with a healthful sense of boundaries: “I’m pretty happy with the way I look,” she writes, “so long as I don’t break a beach chair.”
There’s a rich history of how female comedians have used their gender on TV. Cragin points out the occasional female comedian “who used femaleness as a standpoint for their comedy (Rita Rudner, and from a completely different way, Roseanne Barr),” but most, she says, adopted an androgynous style, such as Paula Poundstone or Ellen DeGeneres. “Where Rudner and Barr spoke as women, Poundstone and DeGeneres framed themselves as failed women, or failed adults,” Cragin said. Kaling’s humor adds a new dimension to these approaches while still playing off of them. Obsessed with eye-shadow, hair extensions and celebrity gossip, Kaling’s humor comes from a distinctly mainstream idea of womanhood. She picks out the humor in these girly preoccupations by framing them as both neuroses and amusements.
Kaling is a young woman, a woman of color and the daughter of Indian immigrants, all of which feeds into her comedy in ways that connect with viewers and many of her peers. Aparna Nancherla, a 29-year-old comedian based in Los Angeles, has long been following Kaling’s career. “It’s interesting that she’s Indian but it’s not what defines her,” Nancherla said. “She speaks to me as a South Asian woman because her sense of humor is really relatable and witty but it isn’t highly dependent on her race or being a woman.”
Cragin says “it’s still more difficult for a Mindy Kaling, a Margaret Cho or a Wanda Sykes, but there are more possibilities for smart, funny women now than ever before.” But is there a catch? We can name many white female comedians - Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Kristin Wiig, Amy Poehler – but can American audiences only handle one or two female comedians of color at a time?
Nancherla, who has appeared at the Upright Citizens Brigade and on the WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, sees Kaling as the start of a new trend. “She’s a person creating her own projects in Hollywood and that doesn’t have to be a big deal anymore.” And as far as getting compared to her, Nancherla says that’s ultimately a positive thing. “We can make the discussion bigger than just one issue. Instead of just talking about her race, what do we like about her voice? I think her voice is a really important one… she’s South Asian and a woman but most of all, she’s just really funny."
The Mindy Project airs on FOX September 25.