Strong female characters are rarely allowed to be nuanced on TV. They don't get to be brilliant, vain or funny. They get to be strong (and maybe sexy, if they're lucky). They kick a--, overcome obstacles and rarely display any signs of feminine vulnerability. Often times, their strength is framed as the result of some "issue," (SVU's Olivia Benson troubled childhood, Sonya Cross' Asperger's on The Bridge), as though the women are only strong because a catalyst forced them to be this way.
But Mindy Lahiri doesn't have issues (well, she has issues, but not in that sense). She's a strong, well-developed comedic antihero on par with Michael Scott. But many Mindy Project viewers didn't warm to Mindy as quickly as they took to the equally offensive Office boss. "I think that [Mindy] is very resilient and very confident and until you see her display kindness or show rapport with other people, it's hard for an audience just to decide they love her," Mindy Kaling tells TVGuide.com, recalling the initial reaction to the character.
One main difference between Mindy and Michael is that key Y chromosome. While audiences are used to seeing male protagonists push the boundaries of sympathy (Curb's Larry David, All in the Family's Archie Bunker, Eastbound & Down's Kenny Powers), it's far more rare to see a similarly flawed female anchor a series. But Mindy's insecurities, her superficial tendencies, the way she tries too hard to impress others — these weaknesses are Mindy's biggest strengths. They elevate her beyond an archetype and create a believability so many female characters lack.
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That doesn't mean we necessarily have to support everything Mindy does. Sometimes she can be a totally narcissistic, rude and abrasive pain in the a--. But Mindy is also smart, considerate, and an incredibly capable doctor. Like any real person, she has her good moments and her bad. Yet even when Mindy's acting her worst, she's always entertaining to watch and isn't that what's really important in a comedy?
In recent years, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have come to epitomize the idea of funny, flawed females thanks to their roles as 30 Rock's Liz Lemon and Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope, respectively. Both characters are successful, neurotic and outspoken feminists who constantly put their political issues at the forefront. And while many people relate to Liz and Leslie for various reasons (who doesn't enjoy a good night cheese?), politics are the last thing on Mindy's mind. The same is somewhat true for Kaling, who admits these aspects "aren't always so important to me" as they are for others. "I have such a complicated relationship with it, with dividing the politics of me and the show. And I don't get to spend as much thinking about it because I'm too busy creating and writing the show and running this production ... but I do think it's important," Kaling explains, though she "[wonders] how useful it is to always be thinking about it."
Instead of trying to craft a politically progressive female character, Kaling did what far too few writers do — treat women like human beings. "I just think the character should be funny," Kaling explains. "And I think that a lot of times female characters are scrutinized for all their political ramifications and not so much for how entertaining or relatable they are. We're not a political think tank. We're a group of comedy writers who are kind and sensible and funny, so that's what we're trying to do, is show a character that's funny and relatable."
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While both 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation feature progressive, strong female characters, Liz and Leslie remain generally sexless. Mindy's active sex life, on the other hand, provides the inspiration for a large portion of the show's story lines, yet her sexuality is never an issue or even commented on. Though Mindy dates and sleeps around far more than other characters, it's generally accepted as normal behavior for a single person, irrelevant of gender. "I really have liked that the show has a sexually active character without putting a lot of judgment or importance on the number of sexual partners or how much she's having sex and things like that, because I think that's just such a conservative and non-modern way of thinking about sex and love," Kaling says. "I don't even necessarily want that to be an issue that comes up on the show. And that's been really nice, and I've liked that people have really embraced that."
Sadly, this isn't always the case with female characters who challenge social expectations of women. Many are met with fierce unease and often hatred by viewers. Though Anna Gunn won an Emmy in September for her role as Skyler White on Breaking Bad, she received such vitriolic backlash from viewers who reduced her character's strength to nothing more than symptoms of a "shrieking, hypocritical" nagging wife. "If you watch the show regularly, you loved Walter White ... So when anyone gave him a hard time like Skyler did or didn't toe the line of just standing by Walter White, it's a struggle to love the character a little bit. And I thought that was great," Kaling says, "I loved her." In fact, Kaling will show off her Skyler love when Gunn appears as Mindy's OBG-YN idol in this season's 13th episode.
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Thankfully, Kaling has never yet had to face criticism on the level Gunn experienced, but she has suffered from mislabeling simply because she's different from the typical TV heroine. "It's funny. I wouldn't say there's anything all that quirky about me, but the term quirky is used for me because I'm Indian ... so I have to kind of not listen to a lot of that stuff because it doesn't really have a lot of meaning," Kaling says.
Unfortunately, other than Mindy, The Mindy Project has yet to present another well-developed, strong female perspective. Though the show does feature various engaging and progressive male leads. Since Jeremy (Ed Weeks) packed on the pounds, we've seen the insecuritiesthat helped construct his caddish veneer. Danny (Chris Messina) has become a mirror into what defines modern masculinity. And even Morgan (Ike Barinholtz), who originally seemed like a creepy one-trick caricature, has grown into a lovable doofus a la Parks and Rec's Andy Dwyer.
Kaling promises we'll get to know The Mindy Project's female regulars more this season, though she continues to insist the series doesn't have a male-heavy cast. "I feel like that's something I've read before, but I'm not sure how accurate that is," she says. "I think it's because my character dates a lot that people think that, but I'm not sure it's accurate."
The Mindy Project airs Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c on Fox.
What do you think of the portrayal of Mindy Lahiri as a strong female character?