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Jess and Mindy -- A Look at the Progression of Female Comedy Characters

by Alyssa Rosenberg
September 19, 2013 2:00 PM
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I'd hoped that The Mindy Project would make a similar course correction in its second season, but judging by the early evidence, Mindy Kaling and her writing staff still haven't figured out a purpose to her character, Mindy Lahiri's, unlikability.

There's no question that the question of whether or not a woman is "likeable" is fraught, complicated by expectations that women be pleasant, pliable, and make men comfortable. When Barack Obama called Hillary Rodham Clinton "likable enough" during their 2008 contest for the presidency, it was a remark he could get away with in part because of the dominant perception that Clinton is a nag, a lady Macbeth, someone who's generally failed to comply with the expectation that she, like other women in public life, be patient, deferential, and hold only a certain number of opinions. Interrogating what it means for men and women to be likable is a way of getting at the different ways people are rewarded or punished for their behavior, attitudes, and self-presentation based on their gender. It's a conversation that goes hand-in-hand with discussions of why anti-hero shows are taken more seriously than soap operas even when they have similar tones or story structures, or why it's substantive to care about sports but fluffy to be interested in fashion.

These could be conversations that The Mindy Project dominates, and intermittently, the show's addressed the fact that Mindy can be both pop-culture obsessed and good at her job, or that men can be just as susceptible to the draw of romantic comedies as women. But much of the time, the specific ways in which she's unlikable don't have anything to say about gender norms or social conventions. More often, Mindy Lahiri's just a jerk.

At The Atlantic, Jake Flanagin asked "Why do we need more funny, nuanced women on TV? There's a simple answer, and a complex one. The simple answer: to rectify a double standard. Jerry Seinfeld was allowed to be an obnoxious hero, but Mindy Lahiri is apparently not."

But the reason we can embrace Jerry Seinfeld is that his obnoxiousness speaks to truths we've all felt about social conventions. When Jerry doesn't want to go and see his neighbors' ugly baby, he speaks for the part of ourselves that's happy for our friends, but recognizes that newborns are red and scrunchy, and you won't be able to do much with them until they learn to hold their own heads up. By contrast, when Mindy drags a date back into a frozen yogurt place to buy new flavors over and over again, you've got to wonder why she doesn't just ask for a taste, already, instead of wasting the poor guy's money when she discards yet another order after a single bite?

In the season two premiere, Mindy's boyfriend, Pastor Casey, proposes to her during a mission trip to Haiti, specifically after waking her up for a sunrise she has no interest in seeing, the show could have made a point either about how Mindy's obsession with romantic comedies is leading her into a disastrously mis-matched marriage, or how a refusal might have come across as the mean thing to do, but is ultimately the right thing for her to do. Instead, Mindy insists "I want to Vine this!" making her sound like nothing so much like the female equivalent of Tom Haverford, the social media-obsessed wannabe business mogul from NBC's Parks and Recreation. On The Office, Kaling's character Kelly Kapoor wasn't burdened with the responsibility of being the hero of her show, and she was free to be a toxic example of where pop culture worship could lead. The Mindy Project's occasionally been willing to suggest that Mindy's romantic comedy obsession's lead to heartache, but it seems to lack the commitment to embrace any one direction for Mindy's character, any animating idea behind her selfishness, and competence, and friendships with her male co-workers.

If The Mindy Project wants to be a revolutionary statement of female unlikability, Mindy needs to be more of a jerk, with more consistent reasons to be unpleasant, resistant to norms and other people's feelings, and most importantly, a jerk to an end. Jess is anxious about the world, but tentatively ready to embrace it. Maybe it's time for Mindy to get furious, and to act out in ways more dramatic than getting arrested at the Empire State building or getting a dramatic haircut.

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  • Jessica Langlois | September 24, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    I enjoyed this article, as I've fostered love/hate relationships with both these shows & their heroines! It's true that Mindy's unmoored meanness/shallowness often undermines the fact that she is a strong minded, extremely sharp woman. I thought Mindy's best moments in past seasons were when she had to interact with kids. She was unabashed about not giving them special attention (like her best friend's daughter) in a way that was refreshing, but also was forced to look at herself and consider what messages she wanted to send them -- like the teen in her building who asks her for birth control.

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  • Carrie | September 19, 2013 7:48 PMReply

    Interesting angle, suggesting Mindy's character be more of a grouch. Why do her co-workers put up with her antics unless she's mega talented or the leader? I'm disappointed in how they write the other characters. Not enough time given to the doctors and support staff.

    New Girl blew my socks off because the other actors get plum lines. The douchebag thread of Schmidt in the beginning is what kept me watching. I love when Winston has strong storylines. Seinfeld was brilliant because Elaine, Kramer and George got screentime. Mad Men would have fizzled with Don Draper having the only character development. So many pilots seem lackluster when they angle to set up one person as the star of the show. The shows that have longevity wisely develop the secondary characters. Call the Midwife, the Big C, Nurse Jackie are great because they have strong secondary characters. Even BBC's Sherlock excels when focus is given to Watson, Molly, Mycroft, Moriarty

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