When the question came, you could feel the room get just a little tense. The mood thus far had been jovial at “Running the Show: TV’s New Queen of Comedy,” a Marie Claire-sponsored panel discussion of The Mindy Project, spotlighting the show’s creator/runner/star Mindy Kaling, and the topics were fairly innocuous (her writing process, her next book, the recent Mindy/Danny cliffhanger). But when the time came to field questions from the mostly female audience, one woman posed this query: “You guys have a great, diverse set of characters, but was it a conscious decision for Mindy to be the only female doctor, and the only doctor color of show?” There were a couple of minutes of pleasant response, with co-panelists and Mindy co-stars Ike Barinholtz and Adam Pally earnestly praising their female cast members. But by then, Kaling had lost patience: “I look at shows on TV, and this is going to just seem defensive, but I’m just gonna say it: I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?”
The audience applauded, but Kaling was just getting started. “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things. And I’ll answer them, I will. But I know what’s going on here.” Some laughter (some of it nervous) echoed through the ballroom. “It is a little insulting because, I’m like, God, what can I — oh, I’m sitting in it. I have 75 percent of the lines on the show.”
“And I’m like, oh wait, it’s not like I’m running a country, I’m not a political figure,” she continued. “I’m someone who’s writing a show and I want to use funny people. And it feels like it diminishes the incredibly funny women who do come on my show… I don’t know, it’s a little frustrating.” And at this point, Pally piped up: “Well, we took two different tacks in the answer.”
You have to sympathize with Kaling, who has found herself in the position, throughout her show’s run, of doing much but being criticized (as in, say, the frequent criticism that her character only dates white men) for not doing more. It’s easy to grind an artist down with that kind of a barrage, and her argument that she just wants “to use funny people,” along with a later insistence that “my full-time job is not the casting director for The Mindy Project,” can sound like some kind of an (admittedly distant) cousin to Jerry Seinfeld’s recent comments about caring only about funny, to the detriment of diversity.
Does Kaling get off the hook because of the giant strides in television she herself represents? Sure thing. But the pressures of having to be all things to all people can take their toll — most obviously in the extensive retoolings and cast overhauls that have occurred throughout her show’s two-season run. Asked about her personal strategy for creating real change, Kaling certainly doesn’t come up short on ambition: “I feel that I can just be successful, hire people that I think are cool, and try to live my life in a way that doesn’t cause embarrassment or shame to people. And try to be, at this point, a role model, and be on good behavior… And try to do a show that doesn’t offend people too much and isn’t irresponsible.”
The sheer magnitude of that laundry lists prompted some chuckles from the SXSW audience; they were realizing, the more she added to it, that The Mindy Project might be a more accurate title than they’d previously thought.