Entertainment

Mindy Kaling Is Finally Changing Her Disappointing Track Record on Diversity

After years of falling short with POC, Kaling is trying to create a more diverse Hollywood. Can she win back the viewers she's let down?

by Alex Zaragoza and Ankita Rao
Aug 1 2019, 12:17pm

credit: NBCUniversal

On April 11, Mindy Kaling put out a casting call on Twitter.

"ATTENTION DESI LADIES!" wrote the multi-hyphenate Hollywood powerhouse. The writer, actress, and producer was looking for three female actors of Indian descent to audition for roles in her upcoming, yet-unnamed Netflix comedy series, loosely based on her life as an Indian-American girl growing up in Boston. Later, Kaling would cast newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in the lead role and actress Poorna Jagannathan as her mother.

Kaling’s new show was met with excitement by those hungry for more representation of Indian identities on television—which is still far behind that of other groups. Coupled with the premiere of her miniseries adaptation of the classic British rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral, coming to Hulu on July 31, it seems to signal a significant change in Kaling's work.

Four Weddings features a far more diverse cast than we've seen from Kaling before, with Nikesh Patel and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei on Game of Thrones) in leading roles. And though the series is backed by an all-white team of producers, Kaling and longtime collaborator Matt Warburton are joined by some more diverse hires in the writer's room—the first seven episodes include writing credits from writers Abby Ajayi and Lana Cho, and director Tom Marshall, who worked on the Black British sketch comedy series Famalam.

Critics have applauded the diversity of the series, while also pointing out its fluffy plot, lack of connection to the original film, and erasure of the source material's groundbreaking queer love story. But for viewers of color, it's hard not to approach her latest work with cautious optimism. Despite her success, Kaling has a history of underwhelming portrayals of people of color and subpar hiring practices when it comes to diversity. And while the trajectory of her current and future projects set the stage for Kaling to join other successful creators in producing more inclusive content and hiring more people of color, not everyone is convinced that will happen.

Kaling got her start as a self-referred "diversity hire" for the writers room and cast of The Office at 24, an experience that inspired her recent film Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra. However, she didn't seem to use that opportunity to pay it forward for other writers and creators of color by hiring them on staff at her shows, or to portray more nuanced stories for the characters of color she wrote. Even when she launched her own show, The Mindy Project, in 2012, becoming the first South Asian woman in the U.S. to start in her own series, fans and critics voiced their concerns over the lack of inclusivity in her work.

Her character on The Mindy Project, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, overwhelmingly dated white men, and people have raised eyebrows over the incessant race jokes made on her series. Critics have also taken issue with the reductive ways other POC characters were portrayed on the show.

Beyond that, a throwback photo Kaling posted in 2017 of the writers' room during the show's first season shows an all-white staff (except for her) and only one other woman—and people noticed. In her 2015 Reddit AMA, she reacted defensively to a question regarding a lack of diversity on her show, saying she disagreed with the Reddit user's "premise" and named the two series cast members (herself included) and regulars of color. "I do think it's important though, we can always do better," she added. "I always think it's funny that I'm the only asked about this when sitcoms I love with female leads rarely date men of color. I guess white women are expected to date white men. I'm expected to 'stick to my own.'" A since-deleted tweet to Kaling by podcaster and cultural critic Ira Madison III called this into question. "Any brown female writers on your show, Mindy?" he wrote. "Any brown female directors? I didn’t think so. You can miss me tonight sis."


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Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, an Arizona State University professor and researcher focused on South Asian music and film, notes that because Kaling’s career started early, she likely didn't feel empowered to speak up for a long time. "I think she was a little clueless when she started out—she even admits she thought people were chosen on the basis of their talent," she said. "Yes, she’s been silent, but in other ways, she’s been waiting to gain more power."

And Kaling certainly came up at a different time in Hollywood. When Kaling's career took off, she was even more in the extreme minority than she is now. The Writer's Guild of America's 2007 Hollywood Writers Report found that "about 40 percent of television shows during the 2005 to 2006 season had no minority writers on staff," and only 27 percent of writers rooms included women. Numbers for minority women weren't reported. Color of Change reported in their 2017 study of Race in the Writers Room that "less than 10 percent of shows across 18 networks are led by showrunners of color" and only 13.7 percent of all scripted show writers are people of color.

Like many people of color working in environments and industries where they are largely underrepresented, Kaling and her work have been held to a higher standard than that of her white peers—something she has gone on record as saying she appreciates, even when it feels unfair. In 2014, at a panel for The Mindy Project at SXSW, she was asked why she was the only doctor of color on the show. She expressed frustration that she's "the one that gets lobbied about these things." But later, she told the Los Angeles Times: "Ultimately, this is a compliment to the bar that people have set for me. And that expectation is not one that my peers face. And I have to accept that."

Simply existing as a woman of color in the industry brings intense challenges, but critics and fans still struggle with Kaling’s work, especially South Asian writers. In 2017, Lavanya Ramanathan of the Washington Post lamented, "'Woke' is a fairly new term, but let’s apply it retroactively: Although it starred a woman of color, The Mindy Project wasn’t that woke." Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote in Talking Points Memo back in 2015: "Until now, I was hesitant to write about Kaling and race, lest I sound like I’m criticizing the only South Asian woman on TV for not being South Asian enough. It’s frustrating when people presume a pioneer will become an unwilling leader in a struggle with which they may not identify... it's hard for me not to overlay my own expectations onto Kaling."

Aamna Mohdin countered in Quartz that Kaling shouldn't have to tackle racism and sexism, writing, "Neither she, nor any person of color, owe anyone the labor of explaining how her race and gender affects her life." And Kaling has been vocal about working hard to distance herself from the perceived confines of her race and gender, wanting to be seen solely for her work. "I know why people want me to speak about it," Kaling told Rachel Martin on NPR's Morning Edition in 2014, "But I sort of refuse to be an outsider, even though I know that I very much look like one to a lot of people. And I refuse to view myself in such terms."

Communities of color have long discussed the frustrations and ambivalence that comes with being the educators on racism and sexism, and where those intersect. While one could argue that it shouldn't be Kaling’s responsibility to be part of the solution, the old-school version of Hollywood that left people of color erased or reduced to stereotypes is primed for change. And that change can't occur without people of color who gain access to decision-making roles. The call-out culture that has emerged out of necessity to create that change has had an undeniable power Kaling has addressed. “It’s fascinating, because the encouragement is not coming from a sense of ‘How great it would be!’” Kaling said about more diverse casting in entertainment overall in a June New York Times interview. “It’s from fear. Fear of being called out. That’s been the most powerful tool.”

When Shonda Rhimes created Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, she was one of the few producers that accomplished true representation on television, thanks to her colorblind and intentionally diverse casting. She went on to build an empire that's helped usher in an even more colorful landscape in Hollywood. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has an inclusion rider that requires studios to show proof that people of color were considered for the job, and herself hired only women to direct episodes of her series Queen Sugar, most of whom were women of color. Screenwriter, producer, and actress Lena Waithe created a mentorship program that build a pipeline for more new talent of color to find careers in Hollywood. Ali Wong, who also got her start as a comedian and writer, put race and identity at the center of Fresh Off the Boat, a show for which she has written since 2014, as well as in her Netflix comedy specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. Her popular romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, with Randall Park, is also an Asian-American love story, challenging stereotypes along the way.

It seems like Kaling is evolving in her view of diversity in Hollywood and her role in supporting it—maybe because of the critics and call-out culture, or the groundswell led by other creators of colors. She recently told the New York Times, "When you’re a woman and a woman of color who is also an employer, you can’t just be someone who employs people. You also have to be a mentor. It’s sort of your responsibility because there are so few of us." On the press tours for Late Night and Four Weddings, Kaling addressed the criticisms and concerns that have followed her career, and several articles have also started appearing in which her collaborators and cast members, including Emmanuel and Late Night director Ganatra, applaud her dedication to diverse hiring.

It’s clear from Kaling's more recent work that her trajectory has changed, and likely in the right direction. It’s possible that with time, and more voices of color at the writing table, Mindy’s next project will, finally, represent a broad range of women of color.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.