PLANK SEPTEMBER 27, 2012
“The Mindy Project,” the new Fox sitcom that’s both the brainchild of and star vehicle for “Office” alum Mindy Kaling, is one of the more unabashedly girly shows I have watched on network television in a long time. That’s not a bad thing at all, from where I’m sitting. (Like Laura Bennett, I was charmed by the pilot.) But that's precisely why I was a little shocked to see the photo of her writing staff on premiere night that Kaling posted to Instagram: she was surrounded by a sea of young men in suits, with one lone additional woman perched off to the side of the group, nearly out of the frame. Young white men in suits, I should clarify: Kaling appears not to have hired any minorities to write for her show. “That’s quite a sausage fest,” reads one of the comments on the photo. “Mindz, where’s all them female writers at??” asks another fan.
In the advance press for the show, much of the narrative around Kaling has centered on her status as a rare female showrunner, and an even rarer female showrunner of color. I’m not a fan of the beancounting brand of journalism, which I most often find a bit beside the point, but upon seeing that picture, suddenly certain notes that I (like other critics) found a tad sour in the pilot episode—the coworker/possible romantic interest who tells Kaling to lose 15 pounds, the way Kaling crumples into a drunken, jealous mess post-breakup—curdled even more. The show implicitly promises a loving sendup of rom-com clichés; this felt in parts more like mockery, and somehow a crueler one for having come from a boys’ club.
It could be that Kaling simply thinks men are better suited to write about … the travails and emotional life of being a young woman. It could be that, thanks to the recent spate of television created by women (which “Two and a Half Men’s” Lee Aronsohn not-so-charmingly labeled “peak vagina”), there aren’t many good female writers left to hire. After all, Whitney Cummings, Lena Dunham, Liz Merriweather—other rising stars who ascended to showrunner status in the last year—went out of their way to hire plenty of women for their teams. But I seriously doubt that’s the case, and even if there are fewer established women left to snatch up, why not give a relative unknown with no experience (as Kaling was when she was hired on The Office) a chance? It could, and probably is, simply the case that these are just the people Kaling knows and has worked with, and as a still-unproven showrunner she wanted to work with people she trusts to make good TV. Changing the ratio in writers’ rooms isn’t on her shoulders alone, nor should it be only on the shoulders of the few women in charge of TV shows.
But Kaling has spoken about being the only woman in the writers’ room as something she needed to learn to deal with, and of her mastery as a point of pride. “I remember her saying, ‘If you can get them to yell at you, then you know that they’re treating you like an equal and not like a girl,’” “Office” actress Jenna Fisher told New York. (It’s somewhat unfortunate phrasing, that separation that’s drawn there between equal and girl, for all of Kaling’s peacocked, spangle-loving girliness.) There tend to be two ways that people react to having been a minority and an underdog in a situation like that. One is to give a few breaks to up-and-comers with a mind to changing the status quo and making things a bit easier for people who come afterwards. The other is to think, I earned it, why can’t they if they’re really good? There is, after all, nothing more insulting than not expecting other women to be able to meet the toughest standards.
As Willa Paskin recently pointed out in a smart piece on Salon, Kaling’s richest comedic territory is the sending-up of entitlement. Kaling—who happens to be very hardworking, and to be the child of immigrants, and to be an avowed conservative—clearly has complicated feelings about why and how people get certain advantages in life. Gender is just as much a part of that complicated equation as class or race, and so I just can't help wondering if there might be some other women out there with funny takes on the subject that might make the show even stronger.