Sex and the Mindy Project

I am rather in love with The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s Fox sitcom set in an OB/GYN’s office, following the antics of Doctor Mindy Lahiri and her colleagues. Some of the episodes are quite sharp and funny, and it’s excellent to see a sitcom with not just a female lead, but an Asian-American woman as the lead, helmed by an Asian-American woman writer. The Mindy Project illustrates that Hollywood can and should be welcoming auteurs who aren’t just white men, and that it benefits dramatically from increasing diversity.

But there are, of course, things about The Mindy Project that trouble me, as with any sitcom, and one of them is the handling of Mindy’s sexuality. Sexual pratfalls are a common part of sitcoms, where we often see characters having relationship and sex misadventures, and their inability to find partners, stick with relationships, or make connections with people is often an important part of the narrative. After all, there’s not much funny about people in established, loving, functional relationships, so sexuality furnishes a great way to quickly get laughs out of viewers, and to create drive and motivation for the character.

Mindy is a highly competent professional, and she’s also a single woman. Viewers are frequently presented with the idea that she’s been forced to choose between a profession and a personal life, underscoring the frequent claim that women must decide whether they want to date, have children, and build families, or create careers for themselves. This, of course, assumes that all women want one or both of these things, and that they should be viewed in tension with each other.

For Mindy, the show is a constant series of sexual mistakes, often humiliating for her. There’s the midwife she briefly dates who, it turns out, isn’t taking the relationship as seriously as she is. There’s the guy she starts dating who’s only using her in a power struggle with Doctor Castellano. There’s the night she picks up a guy at a bar and he turns out to be a sex worker (that particular storyline, by the way, certainly didn’t depict sex workers and sex work in a very positive, or accurate, light).

Mindy is constantly seeking romance, something we’re reminded of in various episodes where she struggles to find the right guy for her. At the same time, there’s a tension between her and Doctor Castellano that serves to remind us that Mindy can’t see what’s right in front of her, and this is clearly something that the series plans to keep playing up, because, again, it makes for great dynamic tension in the series. The two doctors clearly in love with each other who can’t ever seem to admit it, and instead dance around each other and snipe like an old married couple but without the actual marriage, makes for comedy gold.

But Mindy’s sexuality is more complicated in this series because of who she is, and because of what she represents in the larger television landscape. She’s a curvy Asian-American woman, already an outlier in television, and there’s an undertone in some of her depictions that we’re supposed to view her as humorous because of her size, that the reason she’s unlucky in love is because of who she is. Played and written by Mindy Kaling herself, Mindy is also a reflection of Kaling’s own thoughts; it’s not like the actress is being forced into uncomfortable scenes or depictions she feels aren’t realistic.

But the fact that Kaling is writing them says some interesting things about Hollywood, self-perception, and attitudes. The Mindy Project spends a lot of time poking fun at Mindy, which is a big part of Mindy Kaling’s larger schtick and persona; it’s why people like her, and it’s why a lot of people like comics with dark or self-deprecating humour. I, for example, love disabled comics who make jokes about disability and play with their own bodies and the relationships between their bodies and society. In both cases, the comic’s decision to use personal identity as a proving ground for comedy, and the audience response to that, can result in some fascinating things.

Pop culture appears terrified of sexuality at the same time that it’s accused of being hypersexual, but there’s only a particular kind of sexuality that is acceptable by pop culture standards. It involves conventionally attractive people doing conventional things. It’s often wordless, with women becoming passive objects and tools of pleasure for the men around them; think about how many sex scenes start with a man grabbing a woman and kissing her passionately, throwing her on a bed, pushing her against a wall, all without comment by either party, and how these scenes are depicted as hot. We’re supposed to find them sexually appealing, even with a total lack of communication.

Think of how few gay and lesbian sex scenes there are, unless they’re there with a specific message in mind. Let alone sex scenes that are funny and awkward in the touching way that sex can be in reality, or scenes with intimate, complex communication between partners; when was the last time you heard someone say ‘is this okay?’ in a sex scene? In The Mindy Project, sex can be awkward and funny, but it’s supposed to be funny to the viewers, not necessarily to the characters; we’re laughing at their ineptitude, their lack of connection, the fact that here Mindy is, yet again getting into sexual trouble.

How would The Mindy Project change if the lead character had a more empowered sexuality? It would read very differently, and would project a very different message, and I suspect that some people wouldn’t like it as much as they do now, with the Asian-American woman playing a more passive role, buffeted about by the vagaries of sexuality and comedic misfortune. Mindy’s a smart, competent lady who talks about birth control and gynecological health, yet seems totally helpless when it comes to her love life.

Why is that?