Serena Basra thanks Mindy Kaling for breaking down stereotypes of Indian women with her hilarious and unashamedly girly comedy.
I was a young, bright-eyed 16 year old when I first encountered you. My mum called me into the living room to watch a trailer for a new comedy show and, to my amazement, the lead was an Indian woman. An individual that I finally felt was accessible to me, the lead character you created loved romantic comedies but this didn’t deter her from working hard and following her dreams. You opened up the door to a new world, one which broke free of the stereotypes that have been lauded in mainstream shows for what feels like an eternity. You created a show where an Indian female isn’t expected to fall into the role of a nerd or a silent sidekick or someone with unabashed affinity for sex. You didn’t even present us with a shining example of how a minority should act or be expected to behave. Instead, you constructed ‘Mindy Lahiri’, a flawed, funny, and at times, delusional character. It was something real. It broke the boundaries of not just how a person of colour is expected to act in the eyes of the media, but also threw away expectations of feminine delicacy that are often aligned with a leading female.
The first woman of colour to write, executively produce and star in a sitcom is a momentous achievement, and one that has been a long time coming. You have a lot on your plate: The Mindy Project, your literary career, and burgeoning film work to name but a few. However, in a show where you are granted the privilege of exercising a great deal of creative influence, I do feel like you need to be more active when dealing with your show’s cultural implications. In a culture where people of colour are consistently whitewashed by the media, you have the opportunity to, somewhat, change the dialogue.
You have acknowledged that the path to success for a woman of colour is tangled and difficult. When asked at the 2016 Women in the World Summit if you could have secured a leading role in television without creating it yourself, you said ‘I think the slightly sad answer is no’. It seems apparent in Hollywood that women of colour are expected to craft their own opportunities; in Forbes 2014-2015 rankings of the 15 highest paid television actresses, only 3 were women of colour. Sophia Vergara (Modern Family) was placed joint first whilst yourself and Kerry Washington were placed eighth and ninth respectively. Each of you appear to be reaping the benefits of starring in your own shows. It is undeniable that you work hard but one must wonder the roles that class and wealth play into this dynamic. In addition, at times I do fear you pander to white-washed audiences as the main cast list of your show features only two non-white individuals… and you are one of them. You have already broken the mould for diversity by taking the lead in this sitcom, could you now give other women the chance to do this?
In essence I would term this letter as one of heartfelt thanks. Thank you for breaking the mould and for creating a space in which I, as a British-Asian woman, can watch someone who looks more like me than ever before and who feels truly human. Thank you for being so articulate and funny whether that is in your writings for The Office or when you are fearlessly discussing women’s issues at a conference. Finally, thank you for giving me a life mantra (written initially for your character Mindy Lahiri): ‘It’s so weird being my own role model’.
Sending good wishes,
Illustration by Jess Baxter
This article was originally published in print in Issue 12 (Dec 2016).