Mindy Calling: Size, Beauty, Race in The Mindy Project

Amita Nijhawan

Abstract


When characters in the Fox Television sitcom The Mindy Project call Mindy Lahiri fat, Mindy sees it as a case of misidentification. She reminds the character that she is a “petite Asian woman,” that she has large, beautiful breasts, that she has nothing in common with fat people, and the terms “chubbster” and “BBW – Big Beautiful Woman” are offensive and do not apply to her. Mindy spends some of each episode on her love for food and more food, and her hatred of fitness regimes, while repeatedly falling for meticulously fit men. She dates, has a string of failed relationships, adventurous sexual techniques, a Bridget Jones-scale search for perfect love, and yet admits to shame in showing her naked body to lovers. Her contradictory feelings about food and body image mirror our own confusions, and reveal the fear and fascination we feel for fat in our fat-obsessed culture.

I argue that by creating herself as sexy, successful, popular, sporadically confident and insecure, Mindy works against stigmas that attach both to big women – women who are considered big in comparison to the societal size-zero ideal – and women who have historically been seen as belonging to “primitive” or colonized cultures, and therefore she disrupts the conflation of thinness to civilization. In this article, I look at the performance of fat and ethnic identity on American television, and examine the bodily mechanisms through which Mindy disrupts these. I argue that Mindy uses issues of fat and body image to disrupt stereotypical iterations of race. In the first part of the paper, I look at the construction of South Asian femininity in American pop culture, to set up the discussion of fat, gender and race as interrelated performative categories.

Race, Gender, Performativity

As Judith Butler says of gender, “performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Bodies, 2). Bodies produce and perform their gender through repeating and imitating norms of clothing, body movement, choices in gesture, action, mannerism, as well as gender roles. They do so in such a way that the discourses and histories that are embedded in them start to seem natural; they are seen to be the truth, instead of as actions that have a history. These choices do not just reflect or reveal gender, but rather produce and create it.

Nadine Ehlers takes performativity into the realm of race. Ehlers says that “racial performativity always works within and through the modalities of gender and sexuality, and vice versa, and these categories are constituted through one another” (65). In this sense, neither race nor gender are produced or iterated without also producing their interrelationship. They are in fact produced through this interrelationship. So, for example, when studying the performativity of black bodies, you would need to specify whether you are looking at black femininity or masculinity. And on the other hand, when studying gender, it is important to specify gender where? And when? You couldn’t simply pry open the link between race and gender and expect to successfully theorize either on its own.

Mindy’s performance of femininity, including her questions about body image and weight, her attractive though odd clothing choices, her search for love, these are all bound to her iteration of race. She often explains her body through defining herself as Asian. Yet, I suggest in a seeming contradiction that her othering of herself as a big woman (relative to normative body size for women in American film and television) who breaks chairs when she sits on them and is insecure about her body, keeps the audience from othering her because of race. Her weight, clumsiness, failures in love, her heartbreaks all make her a “normal” woman. They make her easy to identify with. They suggest that she is just a woman, an American woman, instead of othering her as a South Asian woman, or a woman from a “primitive”, colonized or minority culture.

Being South Asian on American Television

Mindy Lahiri (played by writer, producer and actor Mindy Kaling) is a successful American obstetrician/gynaecologist, who works in a successful practice in New York. She breaks stereotypes of South Asian women that are repeated in American television and film. Opposite to the stereotype of the traditional, dutiful South Asian who agrees to an arranged marriage, and has little to say for him or herself beyond academic achievement that is generally seen in American and British media, Mindy sleeps with as many men as she can possibly fit into a calendar year, is funny, self-deprecating, and has little interest in religion, tradition or family, and is obsessed with popular culture. The stereotypical characteristics of South Asians in the popular British media, listed by Anne Ciecko (69), include passive, law-abiding, following traditional gender roles and traditions, living in the “pathologized” Asian family, struggling to find self-definitions that incorporate their placement as both belonging to and separate from British culture. Similarly, South Asian actors on American television often play vaguely-comic doctors and lawyers, seemingly with no personal life or sexual desire. They are simply South Asians, with no further defining personality traits or quirks. It is as if being South Asian overrides any other character trait. They are rarely in lead roles, and Mindy is certainly the first South Asian-American woman to have her own sitcom, in which she plays the lead.

What do South Asians on American television look and sound like? In her study on performativity of race and gender, Ehlers looks at various constructions of black femininity, and suggests that black femininity is often constructed in the media in terms of promiscuity and aggression (83), and, I would add, the image of the mama with the big heart and even bigger bosom. Contrary to black femininity, South Asian femininity in American media is often repressed, serious, concerned with work and achievement or alternatively with menial roles, with little in terms of a personal or sexual life. As Shilpa S. Dave says in her book on South Asians in American television, most South Asians that appear in American television are shown as immigrants with accents (8). That is what makes them recognizably different and other, more so even than any visual identification. It is much more common to see immigrants of Chinese or Korean descent in American television as people with American accents, as people who are not first generation immigrants. South Asians, on the other hand, almost always have South Asian accents.

There are exceptions to this rule, however, the exceptions are othered and/or made more mainstream using various mechanisms. Neela in ER (played by Parminder Nagra) and Cece in New Girl (played by Hannah Simone) are examples of this. In both instances the characters are part of either an ensemble cast, or in a supporting role. Neela is a step removed from American and South Asian femininity, in that she is British, with a British accent – she is othered, but this othering makes her more mainstream than the marking that takes place with a South Asian accent. The British accent and a tragic marriage, I would say, allow her to have a personal and sexual life, beyond work. Cece goes through an arranged marriage scenario, full with saris and a South Asian wedding that is the more recognized and acceptable narrative for South Asian women in American media. The characters are made more acceptable and recognizable through these mechanisms.

Bhoomi K. Thakore, in an article on the representation of South Asians in American television, briefly explains that after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality act, highly-educated South Asians could immigrate to the United States, either to get further education, or as highly skilled workers (149) – a phenomenon often called “brain-drain.” In addition, says Thakore, family members of these educated South Asians immigrated to the States as well, and these were people that were less educated and worked often in convenience stores and motels.

Thakore suggests that immigrants to the United States experience a segmented assimilation, meaning that not all immigrants (first and second generation) will assimilate to the same extent or in the same way. I would say from my own experience that the degree to which immigrants can assimilate into American society often depends on not only financial prospects or education, but also attractiveness, skin tone, accent, English-speaking ability, interests and knowledge of American popular culture, interest in an American way of life and American social customs, and so on. Until recently, I would say that South Asian characters in American television shows have tended to represent either first-generation immigrants with South Asian accents and an inability or lack of desire to assimilate fully into American society, or second-generation immigrants whose personal and sexual lives are never part of the narrative. Examples of the former include South Asians who play nameless doctors and cops in American television. Kal Penn’s character Lawrence Kutner in the television series House is an example of the latter. Kutner, one of the doctors on Dr. House’s team, did not have a South Asian accent. However, he also had no personal narrative. All doctors on House came with their relationship troubles and baggage, their emotional turmoil, their sexual and romantic ups and downs – all but Kutner, whose suicide in the show (when he left it to join the Obama administration) is framed around the question – do we ever really know the people we see every day? Yet, we do know the other doctors on House. But we never know anything about Kutner’s private life. His character is all about academic knowledge and career achievement. This is the stereotype of the South Asian character in American television.

Yet, Mindy, with her American accent, sees herself as American, doesn’t obsess about race or skin colour, and has no signs of a poor-me narrative in the way she presents herself. She does not seem to have any diasporic longings or group belongings. Mindy doesn’t ignore race on the show. In fact, she deploys it strategically. She describes herself as Asian on more than one occasion, often to explain her size, her breasts and femininity, and in one episode she goes to a party because she expects to see black sportsmen there, and she explains, “It’s a scientific fact that black men love South Asian girls.” Her production of her femininity is inextricably bound up with race. However, Mindy avoids marking herself as a racial minority by making her quest for love and her confusions about body image something all women can identify with. But she goes further in that she does not place herself in a diaspora community, she does not speak in a South Asian accent, she doesn’t hide her personal life or the contours of her body, and she doesn’t harp on parents who want her to get married. By not using the usual stereotypes of South Asians and Asians on American television, while at the same time acknowledging race, I suggest that she makes herself a citizen of the alleged “melting pot” as the melting pot should be, a hybrid space for hybrid identities. Mindy constructs herself as an American woman, and suggests that being a racial minority is simply part of the experience of being American. I am not suggesting that this reflects the reality of experience for many women in the USA who belong to ethnic minorities. I am suggesting that Mindy is creating a possible or potential reality, in which neither size nor being a racial minority are causes for shame.

In a scene in the second season, a police officer chastises Mindy for prescribing birth control to his young daughter. He charges out of her office, and she follows him in to the street. She is wearing a version of her usual gear – a check-pinafore, belted over a printed shirt – her shoulders curved forward, arms folded, in the characteristic posture of the big-breasted, curvy woman. She screams at the officer for his outdated views on birth-control. He questions if she even has kids, suggesting that she knows nothing about raising them. She says, “How dare you? Do I look like a woman who’s had kids? I have the hips of an eleven-year-old boy.” She then informs him that she wolfed down a steak sandwich at lunch, has misgivings about the outfit she is wearing, and says that she is not a sex-crazed lunatic. He charges her for public female hysteria. She screams after him as he drives off, “Everyone see this!” She holds up the citation. “It’s for walking, while being a person of colour.” She manages in the space of a two-minute clip to deploy race, size and femininity, without shame or apology, and with humour.

It is interesting to note that, contrary to her persona on the show, in interviews in the media, Kaling suggests that she is not that concerned with the question of weight. She says that though she would like to lose fifteen pounds, she is not hung up on this quest. On the other hand, she suggests that she considers herself a role model for minority women. In fact, in real life she makes the question of race as something more important to her than weight – which is opposite to the way she treats the two issues in her television show. I suggest that in real life, Kaling projects herself as a feminist, as someone not so concerned about size and weight, an intelligent woman who is concerned about race. On the show, however, she plays an everywoman, for whom weight is a much bigger deal than race. Neither persona is necessarily real or assumed – rather, they both reveal the complexities by which race, gender and body size constitute each other, and become cruxes for identification and misidentification.

Is It Civilized to Be Fat?

When Mindy and her colleague Danny Castellano get together in the second season of the show, you find yourself wondering how on earth they are going to sustain this sitcom, without an on-again/off-again romance, or one that takes about five years to start. When Danny does not want to go public with the relationship, Mindy asks him if he is ashamed of her. Imagine one of the Friends or Sex in the City women asking this question to see just how astonishing it is for a successful, attractive woman to ask a man if he is ashamed to be seen with her. She doesn’t say is it because of my weight, yet the question hangs in the air. When Danny does break up with her, again Mindy feels all the self-disgust of a woman rejected for no clear reason.

As Amy Erdman Farrell suggests in her book on fat in American culture and television, fat people are not expected to find love or success. They are expected to be self-deprecating. They are supposed to expect rejection and failure. She says that not only do fat people bear a physical but also a character stigma, in that not only are they considered visually unappealing, but this comes with the idea that they have uncontrolled desires and urges (7-10). Kaling suggests through her cleverly-woven writing that it is because of her body image that Mindy feels self-loathing when Danny breaks up with her. She manages again to make her character an everywoman. Not a fat South Asian woman, but simply an American woman who feels all the shame that seems to go with weight and body image in American culture.

However, this assumed connection of fat with immorality and laziness goes a step further. Farrell goes on to say that fat denigration and ethnic discrimination are linked, that popularity and the right to belong and be a citizen are based both on body size and ethnicity. Says Farrell, “our culture assigns many meanings to fatness beyond the actual physical trait – that a person is gluttonous, or filling a deeply disturbed psychological need, or is irresponsible and unable to control primitive urges” (6) – psychological traits that have historically been used to describe people in colonized cultures. Farrell provides an intriguing analysis of Oprah Winfrey and her public ups and downs with weight. She suggests that Winfrey’s public obsession with her own weight, and her struggles with it, are an attempt to be an “everywoman”, to be someone all and not only black women can identify with. Says Farrell, “in order to deracinate herself, to prove that ‘anyone’ can make it, Winfrey must lose weight. Otherwise, the weight of all that fat will always, de facto, mark her as a ‘black woman’, with all the accompanying connotations of inferior, primitive, bodily and out of control” (126). She goes on to say that, “Since the end of the 19th century, fatness has … served as a potent signifier of the line between the primitive and the civilized, feminine and masculine, ethnicity and whiteness, poverty and wealth, homosexuality and heterosexuality, past and future” (126). This suggests that Winfrey’s public confrontations with the question of weight help the women in the audience identify with her as a woman, rather than as a black woman.

In a volume on fat studies, Farrell explains that health professionals have further demarcated lines between “civilization and primitive cultures, whiteness and blackness, sexual restraint and sexual promiscuity, beauty and ugliness, progress and the past” (260). She suggests that fat is not just part of discourses on health and beauty, but also intelligence, enterprise, work ethics, as well as race, ethnicity, sexuality and class. These connections are of course repeated in media representations, across media genres and platforms. In women’s magazines, an imperative towards weightloss comes hand-in-hand with the search for love, a woman’s ability to satisfy a man’s as well as her own desires, and with success in glamorous jobs. Sitcom couples on American television often feature men who are ineffectual but funny slobs, married to determined, fit women who are mainly homemakers, and in fact, responsible for the proper functioning of the family, and consequentially, society. In general, bigger women in American and British media are on a quest both for love and weight loss, and the implication is that deep-seated insecurities are connected to both weight gain, as well as failures in love, and that only a resolution of these insecurities will lead to weight loss, which will further lead to success in love. Films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bridget Jones’s Diary are examples of this prevailing narrative.

Thakore investigates the changing image of South Asians on American television, suggesting that South Asians are represented more and more frequently, and in increasingly more central roles. However, Thakore suggests that, “all women of colour deal with hegemonic skin tone ideologies in their racial/ethnic communities, with lighter skin tone and Caucasian facial features considered more appealing and attractive … . As media producers favour casting women who are attractive, so too do the same media producers favour casting women of colour who are attractive in terms of their proximity to White physical characteristics” (153). Similarly, Lee and Vaught suggest that in American popular culture, “both White women and women of colour are represented as reflecting a White ideal or aesthetic. These women conform to a body ideal that reflects White middle class ideals: exceedingly thin, long, flowing hair, and voluptuous” (458). She goes on to say that Asian American women would need to take on a White middle class standing and a simultaneous White notion of the exotic in order to assimilate. For Mindy, then, fat allows her to be an everywoman, but also allows her to adopt her own otherness as a South Asian, and make it her own.

This trend shows some signs of changing, however, and I expect that women like Lena Dunham in the HBO comedy Girls and Mindy Kaling are leading the march towards productions of diverse femininities that are at the same time iterated as attractive and desirable.

On The Hollywood Reporter, when asked about the more ludicrous questions or comments she faces on social media, Kaling puts on a male voice and says, “You’re ugly and fat, it’s so refreshing to watch!” and “We’re used to skinny people, and you’re so ugly, we love it!” On David Letterman, she mentions having dark skin, and says that lazy beach holidays don’t work for her because she doesn’t understand the trend for tanning, and she can’t really relax. Mindy’s confusions about her weight and body image make her a woman for everyone – not just for South Asian women. Whereas Kaling’s concern over the question of race – and her relative lack of concern over weight – make her a feminist, a professional writer, a woman with a conscience. These personas interweave. They question both normative performances of gender and race, and question the historical conflation of size and minority identity with shame and immorality.

Butler suggests that gender is “the repeated stylisation of the body” (Gender, 33). She argues that gender roles can be challenged through a “subversive reiteration” of gender (Gender, 32). In this way, women like Dunham and Kaling, through their deployment of diverse female bodies and femininities, can disrupt the normative iteration of gender and race. Their production of femininity in bodies that are attractive (just not normatively so) has more than just an impact on how we look at fat. They bring to us women that are flawed, assertive, insecure, confident, contradictory, talented, creative, that make difficult choices in love and work, and that don’t make an obsession with weight or even race their markers of self worth.

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Keywords


media; popular culture; body; race



Copyright (c) 2015 Amita Nijhawan

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