The Mindy Project is problematic.
The show, which premiered its sixth and final season Sept. 12 on Hulu and streams a new episode every Tuesday, follows the antics of a 30-something gynecologist trying to find Mr. Right. Set in New York City, it sticks to the tried-and-true formula of a smart, goofy woman trying to “find herself” in a big city (see Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock). While the show was similar to many other workplace ensemble shows and romantic comedies, it’s set apart by one simple fact: It is the first series created by and starring an Indian-American woman, Mindy Kaling.
Being first brings with it a lot of pressure—and for many people, Kaling (who made her name writing for and acting in The Office) failed to live up to the hype. The show, which premiered on Fox in 2012 and moved to the streaming platform Hulu in 2015, was called disappointing and anti-feminist, and was widely slammed for only featuring white love interests (Mindy dated at least 20 white men), failing to tackle the complicated issue of abortion, and portraying the only regular black women on the show as a caricature—sassy and full of attitude.
But as the Mindy Project comes to an end, I have come to accept that Kaling, the writer, director, and actress, was never going to make the show we wanted her to make. In the end, she couldn’t be true to herself and live up to those standards. No, The Mindy Project wasn’t woke—but it didn’t have to be for it to be great.
While the intersection of race, gender, and class are what makes shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure and Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None brilliant, that was the never the show Kaling set out to write, direct, and star in.
Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kaling loved romantic comedies—hardly a genre known for its progressive political stances. Her favorites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, You’ve Got Mail, and The Princess Bride, which all feature slender, blond heroines (yes, Bridget Jones is slender too). She wanted to create show where the star was someone who looked like her—a dark-skinned Asian women who wasn’t thin, but was still confident in her body. Measured against that goal alone, Kaling did an extraordinary job with her show. It was a diverse, hilarious addition to the genre of romantic comedies, without falling for the same racist and sexist pitfalls that so many other shows and films still do.
Ultimately, Kaling is living her truth. She was criticized for exclusively dating white men in the show, but the real-life Kaling has always been honest about her type. In 2012, she admitted: “I embarrassingly love blond men—hot pinups like Chris Evans and Chris Pine.” And while she could have unpacked why that is in the show, she was more interested in exploring other facets of her identity—her career, her fashion sense, and her need to lie on the floor in times of crisis.
Some wanted Kaling to tackle race more head on, but that’s not what she thought about when she sat down to write. In fact, when the show bowed to pressure and tackled “white male privilege,” it felt awkward and forced. In another interview, Kaling said she didn’t want to minimize the importance of being one of the first leading Asian American women on television, but adds “I was just born in this skin, so it’s not something I think about while I’m writing.”
And why should Kaling have to delve into the messy politics of race? Neither she, nor any person of color, owe anyone the labor of explaining how her race and gender affects her life. Most people who speak about racism get burnt—it’s not a pleasant conversation to initiate, and even more cumbersome when someone approaches you to explain structural discrimination (pro-tip: don’t do this). People of color can often walk away from such experiences feeling tired, frustrated, and, well, annoyed.
As a woman of color myself, I have to admit that I’ve also been disappointed with Kaling; I had expected more from TV’s first sitcom created by an Indian-American. And it’s not just Kaling I set such high standards for, but the women of color in my life too, who I’ve sometimes taken to task for failing to engage with how sexism and racism affects our daily lives.
But why should they? We don’t live in a society where we’re rewarded for speaking up. Black and brown women who aren’t interested in being overtly political shouldn’t feel pressured to be. There’s a quiet power to just existing. I wish it hadn’t taken me six seasons to realize that.