Mindy Lahiri And The Dumb Loves of Real, Smart Women

Mindy Lahiri And The Dumb Loves of Real, Smart Women

In a commentary culture constantly on a quest for multifaceted female characters in mainstream entertainment, here’s Mindy Lahiri of ‘The Mindy Project.’
Mary Katharine Ham

“Maybe I won’t get married you know? Maybe I’ll do one of those ‘Eat Pray Love’ things. Ugh, forget it, I don’t want to pray. I’ll just die alone.”

That’s Mindy Lahiri, titular character of “The Mindy Project” in the show’s pilot episode. Her character is introduced in a montage of the growing Mindy watching the major romantic comedies of the last 25 years.

“When I was a kid, all I did was watch romantic comedies in our living room while I did my homework,” she narrates.

Smash cut to Mindy giving a drunken toast at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and landing in jail for a pool-related public disturbance. Lahiri gets bailed out, goes back to work as an OB-GYN, delivers a breech baby, and the quote above catches her reassessing her life on the depressingly mauve sofas of the hospital break room.

“The Mindy Project,” created by Mindy Kaling, formerly best known as the ditzy Kelly Kapoor on “The Office,” is a show of modest ratings and immense charm. Canceled before its fourth season by Fox, a network with a reputation for fumbling quality, quirky shows with devoted fan bases (Please see: “Arrested Development,” “Family Guy,” “Futurama,” and “Firefly”), the show was quickly picked up by Hulu. I’m glad Lahiri’s character will be sticking around.

Mindy Lahiri Embodies Female Complexities

One, because she’s funny, but also because she represents a kind of woman I know in real life but don’t often see on television. Mindy graduated medical school and obsesses over the intricacies of Drake’s feud with Tyga. She is a partner at a Manhattan obstetrics practice and watches “Maid in Manhattan” when it pops up on basic cable. She wants to start her own fertility clinic, and she’d definitely live-tweet “The Bachelorette” with you over cheese fries. She is, without a doubt, a strong, independent career woman. She also unabashedly longs for a husband and a family and is not shy about pursuing them.

She is a partner at a Manhattan obstetrics practice and watches ‘Maid in Manhattan’ when it pops up on basic cable.

“This is a story that’s based on a woman in her totality,” said Ellen Carmichael, president and founder of the Lafayatte Company communications shop and a fellow Mindy enthusiast. “You believe that that’s who she is as a person.”

Carmichael said she responds to the character precisely because of her ability to embody so many aspects of womanhood. She’s not one thing. Betty or Veronica. Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Devil Wearing Prada. Stay-at-Home Stepford or Board Room Bitch.

“It shows women truthfully, in the sense that her character is impulsive and irrational and can be kind of vapid at times, and it doesn’t really make apologies for it,” Carmichael said. “You also get the impression that she’s saying that’s okay… She’s just really comfortable in her own skin and I think that resonates with people.”

The Woman Behind ‘The Mindy Project’

In a commentary culture constantly on a quest for multi-faceted female characters in mainstream entertainment, here is one. Lahiri herself would probably prefer the term “three-dimensional”—to accentuate her bangin’ curves.

‘People really respond to her voice. It’s extremely intelligent without being the least bit pretentious.’

Some of her full realization is no doubt because she is semi-autobiographical. Kaling herself is a Dartmouth College grad who was a writer on “The Office” by 24 and created her own network show just a few years later in addition to hitting The New York Times bestseller list. The OB-GYN part of her character is borrowed from her mother, who tragically died of pancreatic cancer the day Kaling’s sitcom was picked up.

Kaling once told a University of Southern California audience of students the secret to her success: “I never partied or had boyfriends. That was my lifestyle, so that I could achieve this. I was just really, really hard-working,” she said. “Now, racist-ly, I’m an Asian person. It comes easier to me than it might to you.”

On the other hand, Kaling’s Instagram is dominated by an appreciation of good friends, good jokes, pretty dresses, and all things sparkly. Her longtime friend and fellow “Office” writer B.J. Novak captured the dichotomy of both Mindys in a 2014 interview with Elle magazine.

“People really respond to her voice. It’s extremely intelligent without being the least bit pretentious,” Novak said.

Kaling and her character are smart women who indulge in life’s dumb, guilty pleasures in both food and entertainment, and are not ashamed of it. Lahiri’s a strong woman who wants to believe in the fairy tale, wants a traditional happy ending, and doesn’t beat herself up over it. The show and the character are a balancing act, not a choice between two poles (Mindy would no doubt add that her rack’s fabulous enough for any pole).

The World Is Full of Mindys

Kaling also had the audacious idea that a three-dimensional woman might have an interesting, unpredictable ideology as well. She’s described Lahiri, who has referenced her handgun permit on the show several times, as having a “libertarian streak.” Just as her personality is multi-faceted, so are her politics, much to the chagrin of some activists who would prefer she be a liberal feminist in only the predictable way they prescribe.

Kaling also had the audacious idea that a three-dimensional woman might have an interesting, unpredictable ideology as well.

The most recent season culminated with Lahiri embracing the idea of raising her child Catholic with her devout, alpha-male Italian boyfriend, and ended with her declaration: “It’s not weird to want your boyfriend to get down on one knee, to meet your parents, and to get you a ring… It means something to me.”

Her character’s potent mixture of competence, occasional insanity, embrace of the silly and frilly, and an animating hope for romance and family reminds me of so many professional, accomplished women in my own life, and is echoed by their similarly cheesy tastes in TV.

I was chatting with one such woman this week in Philadelphia. A stylish make-up artist and small business owner, she explained that she needed to leave shortly after finishing my make-up for a TV appearance. “I’m ashamed to say why I’m running home.”

“You’re going to watch ‘The Bachelorette,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes!” she said, visibly relieved by my lack of judgment. This Monday-night appointment viewing is so common among my professional woman friends, I was unsurprised by my correct guess even if she was.

I know high-level cable news producers who create entire news TV shows of their own and also participate in “Bachelor” fantasy leagues. You win money for identifying pivotal moments such as “first kiss,” “first hot tub make-out,” and first utterance of “I could really see myself with so-and-so.”

It is a rare professional friend of mine who doesn’t have a Bravo obsession or can’t give you the rundown of at least one season of one city’s iteration of “Real Housewives.” Too often, myself included, we apologize for these indulgences.

Some People Like Sports; Some Like Rom Coms

Karol Markowicz, a mom of two, writer, and owner of Fix Beauty salon in Manhattan, does not. She’ll regale anyone with the ins and outs of “Love and Hip Hop,” a VH1 reality show along the lines of “Real Housewives” of the R&B world, and a defense of its quality.

“[It] draw[s] me in and I’m not ashamed of that. It’s a way of turning off my brain. My husband watches anybody anywhere in the world playing with a ball and then the follow-up of hours of discussion on how the ball was thrown/kicked/shot and no one wonders why he’s so into something that has no intellectual value.”

Sounds like something Mindy would say. If there were one thing I’d wish for myself and my fellow professional friends, it’d be a little bit more of Mindy’s certainty that her embrace of the campy, the romantic, even the traditional, are not a betrayal of her liberation but a complement to it.

Kaling calls herself an “unlikely leading lady.” Indeed, her career has been marked by Hollywood types who thought she only had what it took to play a quirky best-friend type. No wonder she her character feels like so many of my best friends. Here’s to more quirky best friends taking center stage, in all their silliness.

Mary Katharine Ham is a senior writer at The Federalist.

Mindy Kaling is an Emmy Award-nominated writer and an actress on NBC's The Office.

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