Backlashing Against Mindy Kaling

I have a lot of thoughts on this. Most of these feelings have nothing to do with race, but they do have to do with crticism. Anyone who has read this site knows that I am a feminist and (try to) understand my privilege as a white male.

However, I’m also a TV watcher and this Racialicious (reposted on Jezebel) piece  mostly misses the fact of criticism. Ironically, I don’t have any particularly strong negative feelings for Ms. Kaling — loved her book, find her interviews to charming, etc. — but the notion that she’s getting unfairly shit upon is spurious, but moreover the piece uses some bad examples to prove it.

Let’s start with the correct assertions. It is harder for women to make it as a showrunner/star than men. The number of female showrunners in Hollywood — while higher than it used to be — is painfully low. So, yes, it is hard. Lena Dunham — I’ll get to her role in this in a minute — was so summarily criticized for Girls, it was upsetting. An analog “male” show  (Entourage) was celebrated for years before the backlash hit; Girls was shit upon after, like, half an episode. The scrutiny on Tina Fey’s years at SNL were vast as compared to Seth Meyers’ headwriting years and Tina Fey is the fucking BEST.

I’ll admit that the racial dynamics of Indian Americans in the US pop culture is not a topic with which I am familiar. I tend to gravitate toward the economic notions of race in this country and Kaling’s experience is similar to those in the middle- and upper classes (daughter of doctors, went to Dartmouth, etc.). Like I said, I loved her book.

The bullshit comes in because of this: “Would the same be said of a successful, self-confident man? Would the same be said of Chuck Lorre or Lee Arohnson? No – a confident man gets a pass, but a confident woman deserves to be criticized and put back in her place. ”

And this: “Similar criticisms have been leveled at other successful women in TV: Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings, Lena Dunham …Have you ever heard anyone call Chuck Lorre too smug?”

No one knew who Chuck Lorre was until Charlie Sheen went cuckoo banana pants. Showrunners who don’t star in their shows are not that big a deal in the blogosphere because they’re not as interesting an people don’t know their faces. The only example I can think of for a nonstarring showrunner is Dan Harmon and people shit on the Community creator all the goddamned time for being smug — he is. The personalities of other male showrunners aren’t as, well, annoying as Kaling’s can be. Louis CK does his own show and no one has ever called him annoying, because he doesn’t have the presence Kaling does. The Gawker piece in question about Kaling being “the equivalent of a retweeted compliment” was called that BECAUSE SHE RTs COMPLIMENTS ALL THE TIME.

Kaling’s vulnerability is what makes her charming; she’s got the wonderful combination of confidence and self-deprecation that is both attractive and disarming. Her Twitter persona — shit, EVERYONE’S Twitter persona — bounces between very funny and annoying. This makes people annoyed and jealous, I suspect (especially coming from a woman).

Which brings me back to the second thing I quoted from the piece and back to Dunham. Sure, people shit on Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings because they are high-profile showrunners; Handler has her own talk show/book/standup career and Cummings is the star of her show. But, mostly, people shit on them because their shows suck ass. Nearly every critic considers Whitney to be garbage (plus, its presence bumped better shows — Community and Parks & Rec — off the schedule). Chelsea Handler’s show got canceled because no one liked it. In her case, would a male showrunner gotten more of a chance? Maybe. But I doubt it. It got no ratings and didn’t have a fervent fanbase.

Dunham would be a better comparison to Kaling, were we at all aware of any depth to The Mindy Project, instead of pratfalls (I feel shitty dumping on a show that’s not been aired yet, but clips don’t make it seem like the show’s all that smart. Plus, it’s on network TV and network TV can’t get out of its own way.) and jokes about romcoms. Girls is brilliant. It’s a really fucking good show and Dunham has been pilloried for the show. And while I do think a lot of it is because she is a woman — again, I don’t think this piece is completely wrong, just wrong in most of its examples — I also think a great deal of the backlash is because Dunham has some entertainment silver spoon-y issues (her parents are big in the art community) and people think she hasn’t earned her success. She didn’t have to work as hard for it and used connections to get where she is or some other bullshit. Not important. She’s great. The show’s great.

My own take on Kaling (and, again, keep in mind that I haven’t seen the show, because it has not premiered yet): Part of the piece tallies some of Kaling’s experience in her defense. She wrote some of the best Office episodes, she directed a slew of webisodes, her book is great, she was the main creative force behind the play Matt and Ben, etc. My own feeling is that Kaling gets annoying because I love her persona so much and so much of her work is so interesting and full. Yet, her obsession with romcoms and other “girly” stuff is so very outside of what I enjoy, which disappoints me.

This, I suspect, is sexist, on some level.

But, if we’re going to compare her to other famous female showrunners/stars, the obvious comparison is Tina Fey, another similarly accomplished person. Fey’s projects — 30 Rock and Mean Girls being the main ones — occupy a different space for me; while female-centric, they are not overly girly (which kind of makes Mean Girls superlative, as it’s about high school cliques). This goes back to the feminine/girly dichotomy with which I struggle, but I do think Kaling drops all too often into girlie.

(Explanation of the trend here, written by a Girls writer on Jezebel. I’ve written about my issues with it here, with far less aplomb. )

So, that’s certainly a part of it for me. I expect something like Girls or 30 Rock from Mindy Kaling, something with depth and heart. Something I’d like to examine, not look at, enjoy and be done with it. People want Mindy Kaling to be more than Chuck Lorre, Whitney Cummings or the like. People like me want her to be, at least, like Bill Lawrence. And this show doesn’t seem to be that.

There is a backlash against Mindy Kaling because she’s doing heavy promotion, she has a very distinct personality and that personality isn’t for everyone. She’s very visible and people are tired of her.

Backlashing against the backlash completely distorts the idea of what criticism is. People are allowed to get tired of someone. Just because Mindy Kaling exists does not mean she is beyond reproach or people examining her or people getting tired of her. These discussions need to be had.

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