Mindy Kaling has her own network television show, The Mindy Project. She is the only Indian woman with her own network television show and that is radical in and of itself. Right? However, her path is different from Aziz Ansari’s. While Kaling would like to not be racialized and present her show as the funniest it can be without “forced” diversity, her presence in and of itself contains racial markers which she has acknowledged herself. However, outside of a few lines here and there, race is not discussed as a topic on the show. This is a huge departure from the tone of Ansari’s Master of None which tackled such topics as Hollywood casting and blackface head-on. In Justin Lin’s all-Asian main cast for Better Luck Tomorrow, the characters also had to contend with stereotypes that were continuously present about them due to the racial markers that were visible to others. In an ideal society, there would be no discrimination based on race. However, this is not an ideal society. In this society, as Better Luck Tomorrow showcased, everyone is identified by racial markers which influences the way people see them and their actions. By hammering home the point that she wants the show to be as funny as it can be and reminding others that she is not in charge of casting decisions, she devalues her own role in the show as the lead actress, writer and showrunner. This, coupled with her character’s penchant for only dating successful white males seems to leave intense room for debate about The Mindy Project. Is being an Indian woman on television enough? Especially when the show is so devoid of comedians of color, which do exist despite SNL refusing to cast many until recent years, is The Mindy Project actually that radical or just liberal? Is almost ignoring racial markers a way to subtly undermine racial stereotypes or is it a convenient way to pretend that the world is colorblind? By analyzing racial markers present in other forms of media, the importance of racial markers and their significance becomes clearer.
“You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!”
Racial markers are prevalent in many aspects of Hollywood. When Parry Shen, the main actor from Better Luck Tomorrow, was attempting to find work following the success of the movie, it was difficult for him to find roles that did not place him into stereotypical positions. Asian men, and more specifically East Asian men are frequently seen as smart, emasculated and unfit for lead roles in Hollywood. When Asian Americans WERE placed into films they were usually side characters that were there solely for comic relief. Hower, casting is difficult for Asian characters. Aziz Ansari commented that casting Kelvin Yu for the part of Brian was one of the hardest parts of the casting process because one could find a “white guy with red hair and one arm” very easily but casting an Asian character that was exactly right was almost impossible. While the Mindy Project, for the most part conveniently ignores race, Fresh Off the Boat is a network show that combines comedy while incorporating racial aspects into every episode. Eddie, as the main focus of the first season, is a Korean-American who loves hip-hop, and Tupac especially. Through Eddie’s connection with hip hop, we see a bit of the connection that was made throughout parts of the Asian American community including Cambodian rappers like CS and Yung Tee. An Asian American who loves hip hop is not a ridiculous concept, but the fact that a network television show featured this prominently is radical. Eddie’s race is initially seen as a barrier to the world of hip hop, something that is closed off to him solely because he is Asian but it becomes something that connects him to his peers. As opposed to Kaling, Fresh Off the Boat addresses the character’s racial markers but disagrees with the barriers that may be associated with their race more directly. In this way, diversity is not there solely for the sake of diversity, but is there to address the real challenges that people face due to their racial markers, allowing others with the same or similar markers to be able to relate and see themselves represented in some way.
Kaling seemed to take this criticism into account in an episode of the Mindy Project that aired in the show’s fifth and final season, in which she dates an Indian man, who proceeds to proclaim that he doesn’t think he can date her because she is a coconut. The term coconut, similar to the term oreo for Black people and banana for East Asian people, refers to a person that is assimilated in terms of their lack of knowledge or interest in their cultural identity. In this sense, Kaling was confronted about her identity in a way that many Indian Americans can relate to. It is not just representation that matters, it is what one chooses to do with it. Kaling responded to criticism that her show did not address race in a meaningful way, a radical departure from previous episodes and one of the most radical aspects about The Mindy Project as a whole. While there are other problems with the show, by acknowledging the importance of racial markers on the show, and showcasing a relatable situation for many Indian Americans, she has deviated from simply being an Indian American woman on television. For many young Indian Americans, they can see their struggle with assimilation and “American-ness” being played out on a network show, a radical venue for this type of discourse. In television and movies, there is still a long way to go, but Ansari and Kaling, along with shows like Fresh Off the Boat that feature talented actors and actresses like Constance Wu, issues related to race are tackled more in the open, a change that I hope to see continue in the future.