I have loved Mindy Kaling from the moment she smacked Steve Carrell in the face on the first season of The Office. I thoroughly enjoyed Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me. We need more clever, quirky women in comedy. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can’t have all the fun.
And yet, I have been rather ambivalent about Kaling’s sit-com The Mindy Project, which features Kaling as OB-GYN Dr. Mindy Lahiri. Sure, much of my frustration with the series is directed at the show’s incredibly negative view of midwives. As someone who experienced an incredibly empowering birth under the care of (admittedly Canadian) midwives, I rather resent the depiction of Dr. Lahiri’s professional rivals as a bunch of new-age hippies who eschew proper medical care. Sure, my own family doctor thought I was bonkers for attempting a home birth. Nevertheless, he totally asserted that midwives offered the best pregnancy and postpartum care for a low-risk women. It’s fair to say I don’t see why we need another source in pop-culture perpetuating negative stereotypes around a model of care that is being embraced throughout most of the developed world.
Personal soapboxes aside, I’ve had a number of other feminist frustrations with The Mindy Project. At least in its early days, the premise of the show seemed to suggest that Mindy was broken in some way. But why? She has a great career. Is she a wreck simply because she can’t get a guy? Why do we so rarely see Mindy interacting with other women — must her world be dominated by men? With rare exceptions Mindy’s professional life succumbs to the Smurfette principle–she’s the one woman holding her own in a group of men. It bothers me a bit because I feel like we are so scared as a society of showing stories about women engaging with other women. A woman functioning in a man’s world–that’s cool. But we can’t get too caught up in women interacting with other women–that gets a little dubious. (Check out my thoughts on our condescending attitude to the Gilmore Girls.)
But then, at some point, it struck me that maybe the best contribution The Mindy Project makes to popular feminism is its very imperfection. Dr Lahiri is a deeply flawed character. Despite being a person of colour herself, she’s kind of racist. She doesn’t recycle because she thinks it’s lazy. She is seriously self-absorbed. And, honestly, she is perfectly competent at her job, but it is not integral to her character that she must be absolutely the best doctor in the history of New York City. There is no “leaning in” going on. Which is awesome! So often women (especially women of colour) have to be PERFECT in popular culture. Perhaps that is why for so long it was assumed that women “couldn’t be funny”. Women were expected to be competent. To have their lives together. To be sensible. Women weren’t screw-ups, or self-destructive, or simply adequately competent at their careers. In short, women have not been allowed to be fully human.
I got percolating on this line of thought at a conference I attended this weekend on women in ministry. At the opening plenary lecture, we outlined conventional attitudes towards the role of women in scripture (in the background, subservient, property). Then we contrasted those cultural assumptions with the wide dichotomy of women depicted in the Bible. Sure, one can easily point to uncomplicated examples like the polar opposites of the Virgin Mary and Jezebel to suggest women in scripture must be either saints or monsters. But there are any number of more nuanced characters. The Egyptian midwives who open the book of Exodus by defying Pharaoh’s command that they must kill all the male infants born to Hebrew women. There was Jael who drove a tent peg through the head of an opposing warlord to save the people of Israel in the book of Judges. There are the complicated dynamics between the sisters Rachel and Leah as they compete for the love of their shared husband Jacob.
One of the things that struck me in the chart we assembled of women in scripture was how complicated it became to properly categorize women as “positively” or “negatively” treated by the biblical authors. Poor Hagar–the handmaid of Sarah given to Abraham when Sarah got tired of waiting for a baby–got listed on the bottom “negative” category. But Hagar had little agency and received great mercy from God in her misery. Sarah herself got a good check by her name, yet she was often full of doubt that God could provide her with a child in her old age and, as I just mentioned, at one point got tired of waiting and took matters into her own hands. It gets to be a tangled web. But suffice it to say that the women in the Bible are indeed allowed to be flawed, complicated, imperfect. That is to say … they are allowed to be fully human. And, indeed, they are allowed to be fully human in a way that is not often reflected by the women appearing in media in our own supposedly enlightened, progressive cultural context.
Which is all to say that … bring on more women like Dr. Lahiri. Women who are competent. Interesting. Dynamic. But not always perfect. Because in that complexity lies humanity. And women are, in fact, quite human.