Wait, you’re telling me that Kelly Kapoor is actually a writer? One of the main writers for The Office? Say what?
I’m pretty sure these words came out of my mouth at some point, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who shared the sentiment – regrettably so. Regrettable only because it took me so long to realize how important she was to the show, and regrettable because I was surprised to learn it, as if I couldn’t have expected that Mindy Kaling, the actress behind Kelly Kapoor and so many of the actors on the hit show, deserved the credit.
From being merely recognized as a minor character (though an amazing one, an indispensable part of Dunder Mifflin) to having her own sitcom, it seems that Mindy Kaling has risen out of nowhere. She follows in the wake of recent women-in-comedy heroines like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – not because she is a woman in comedy but because she is a comedian-actor who just happens to be a woman, who embraces herself and confidently broadcasts herself and her brand of humor to the world. And that’s why she’s great.
This week, especially, Mindy Kaling is on everybody’s lips (or, perhaps fingers – of the blogosphere, the reviews, the media, the wee folk like me). I’ve seen her on the cover of at least two magazines, the paperback version of her bestselling book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) was recently released, and her eponymous sitcom The Mindy Project premieres tonight on FOX.
Kaling’s celebrity coming-of-age is the result of talent, hard work, personality, and luck – like most celebrity stories, I’m sure. But Kaling’s appeal and her currency rest on the fact that she is a woman, that she is an Indian woman, and that she is an Indian woman who is larger than most Hollywood celebrities. Actually, no. Her currency rests on the fact that she acknowledges her gender, her ethnicity, and her size as matter-of-fact, then moves on. These aspects are real, they are part of her, they might deserve or be granted comment, but they do not define her. At the core, she is Mindy, a unique individual, not “woman” or “Indian” or “non-skinny” (I can’t bring myself to say “overweight” or “large” because I don’t think she is; she’s a beautiful, confident woman; I only mean “larger” in comparative terms – as compared to bone-skinny models or your size zeroes).
But that’s not to say her own body image is without blemish or history. After all, she is human – and an American woman, one (perhaps overly) sensitive to media and popular entertainment because of the industry in which she works.
The very first chapter following the introduction of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is called “Chubby for Life,” and it appears in the section titled “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back.” Though her book is, for the most part, organized chronologically, which would naturally place this section about young childhood at the beginning, the section title gives that first chapter more weight (pardon the unintentional pun). Pop psychology and our own experiences have shown all of us how incredibly formative our childhood years are, how much we absorb from the culture around us, and how much we are affected by any pain or ridicule we receive in those years. The fact that Mindy Kaling, noted celebrity, first gained notoriety by playing a character on The Office who was partly known for ridiculous and constant concern about dieting (the same Kelly Kapoor who was boasting about swallowing a tapeworm to lose weight) reveals that weight and body image are obviously incredibly important to her. After all, one of the basic elements of comedy is exaggeration – especially in satire – of a cultural reality in order to ridicule it; by laughing, we laugh at ourselves and the society in which we live. If Mindy Kaling via Kelly Kapoor satirizes women’s concern for weight loss and perfect body image, then Kaling must be onto something real in our culture, something she’s experienced for herself.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t chubby. Like being Indian, being chubby feels like it’s just part of my permanent deal” (11). This is the opening to her chapter “Chubby for Life.” From there, she outlines a lexicon of “chubby” words, ranging from humorous definitions of “chubster” and “fatso” to “obese” and “whale,” which is “a really, really mean way that teen boys target teen girls” (14). (Interestingly enough, this is very similar to our “Fat” Dictionary 101 post.) She follows this with a high school anecdote about the BMOC douchebag Duante Diallo who called her a whale, thus leading her to quickly drop thirty pounds.
What Kaling accomplishes with this chapter and this anecdote is frankness about an experience many of us have had, laced with humor. She’s not the only one to write about these kind of experiences, but she does so in a way that makes an empathetic reader think, “Wow. She gets it. She really has been there.” As with many of us who are, were, or have ever been any degree of overweight, Kaling is an astute observer – not only of others but of herself. After she had “shrunk overnight,” she was suddenly “freezing all the time, like those skinny girls in movie theaters are always complaining about,” and “light brown lines appeared on my upper inner arms that looked like little rivers headed to my shoulder blades. I actually though they looked pretty, until my mom told me they were stretch marks from losing weight so fast. It was like a Disney sci-fi movie” (16).
The chapter ends with a declaration of acceptance that she will be “chubby for life” because of her lack of discipline, because “Guys I’ve dated have been into me the way I am,” and because “I’m pretty happy with the way I look, so long as I don’t break a beach chair…If someone called me chubby, it would no longer be something that kept me up late at night” (20).
This is a nice sentiment, and one I’m inclined to believe for two reasons: 1) Kaling’s success – and the comedy she produces, especially related to her life – show that she does, in fact, have such confidence in herself, and 2) because she doesn’t say that “It never affects me anymore.” It just doesn’t affect her as much. After all, she felt the need to acknowledge being “chubby” at all in her reflections; not doing so would have indicated that it wasn’t important to either her personality or her career. Kaling’s reflection is realistic; it is a level of confidence-mixed-with-realism to aim for, one that acknowledges how weight issues permeate our culture but one that also refuses to be stifled by them.
Instead, Kaling uses them. In her delightful classification of “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real,” she admits her love of romantic comedies almost begrudgingly but justifies it by astutely “regard[ing] romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world” (99). (Alas, if only we would recognize most of Hollywood – film and tabloids included – in the same way.) She includes categories such as “The Skinny Woman Who Is Beautiful and Toned but Also Gluttonous and Disgusting” and “The Sassy Best Friend” in delightfully funny and piercingly accurate ways, but the category of particular note in her taxonomy is “The Klutz”: “When a beautiful actress is in a movie, executives wrack their brains to find some kind of flaw in her that still allows her to be palatable. She can’t be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would want to see that?…The 100-percent-perfect-looking female is perfect in every way, except that she constantly falls down….Despite being five foot nine and weighing 110 pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society” (100). Again, she gets it. She recognizes how Hollywood works, how audience tastes demand a beautiful lead, not necessarily an intelligent/funny/quirky/delightful lead who has a slight muffin top or some cellulite. She comments on it. She makes fun of it.
Then she tries to subvert it. She created her own show, The Mindy Project (debuting tonight on FOX), starring herself as an OB/GYN who is confident and successful but, when it comes to love, has no idea what she’s doing. Mindy Lahiri (the character) is something of a mess – sometimes lovably so and, refreshingly, sometimes not. The pilot opens with a proclamation of searching for love in all the popular rom-com places but not finding it. In the recent September 17th issue of New York magazine, Kaling said, “I just wanted to do a show that is kind of about dating, about someone who thinks about love all the time…One thing that is different than other shows is that my character is weirdly, extremely confident” (38). She embraces herself. The author of the article, Jada Yuan, calls Kaling a “contemporary Everywoman, both a Mary and a Rhoda” and notes that
“the show doesn’t shy away from Kaling’s ethnicity (when a car nearly runs into her as she’s riding a stolen bike drunkenly the wrong way down a street, sh shouts out, ‘Racist!’), but it isn’t heavy-handed about it, either. Kaling isn’t interested in having ethnic humor, or her skin color, or her gender define her” (38).
I would also add “her size” to that list. It’s acknowledged, but in the (overly) confident way of the character, it’s left behind in the flow of the person, of the character, who isn’t defined by it. In the very beginning of the episode, Mindy says, “OK, my BMI isn’t great, but…” and moves on (this line is an echo of one in Kaling’s book). In another scene, clueless Mindy is getting ready for a date, clad in sparkles and overkill fashion. She asks those around her how she looks, receiving the obligatory “Great!” then pushes coworker (and obvious love interest) Danny (Chris Messina) to say that yes, it does make her look fat. And he doesn’t take it back. That’s real – something any man might think and something a jackass man might say. But, to Kaling’s credit, she acknowledges that dialogue (writes it, most likely) and that sentiment, then does not dwell on it. Mindy (the character) moves on in indignation; she is not crushed – instead, she gets sassy.
Should that kind of talk be confronted? Dismissed? Should Danny be reprimanded or punished in the plot? No, I wouldn’t like to think so. In fact, the residing sexual tension between the characters works to show that yes, the fat comment was the result of a real thought this man had and – surprise! – it will not ultimately affect the relationship. The set-up is nothing if not predictable – we know they’ll eventually end up together in some capacity (in true rom-com/sci-fi style).
In the last scene of the pilot, we see Mindy at home, talking on the phone in lounge clothes, which include a pair of shorts and a sweater. She reclines on the couch, feet on the cushion, knees pointed upwards, and – thank God in heaven – she has thighs. They’re larger than most Hollywood prototypes and certainly shorter; in fact, they more closely resemble mine, except with far less cellulite. She wears these shorts boldly, bravely, thinking nothing of her clothing choice. If I wear shorts, it is an act of bravery, for I so fear revealing my less-than-perfect legs. Kaling has great – if “unconventional” by celebrity standards – gams, and showing them is no act of bravery because she doesn’t fear it; it’s an act of acceptance, consciously or unconsciously on her part, challenging people to take notice – and then making them question why they did.
Whether you like or dislike the show as a whole (to be frank, I wasn’t crazy about the pilot), whether the script and performances make you laugh or feel indifferent, what Kaling is doing and what contemporary society’s recent attention to her is recognizing is the emergence of a woman who doesn’t objectively fit the standards of conventional beauty or of a romantic female lead. Yet Mindy Kaling is a gorgeous woman being recognized as such, as beauty, brains, humor, and talent. She is emerging as a celebrity who acknowledges her unconventionality (including her weight) and shows that it doesn’t matter. She is not the funny, bigger woman who plays the masculine or brassy sidekick; instead, she wears sparkly clothes and high heels with glee, confidence, and veritable birthright – as the television lead.
My choice of Kaling as a subject for a blog about weight issues somewhat undermines my point; it seems to acknowledge her as a representative of such concerns. But the very organization of her book acknowledges the importance of these issues. She beings with the “Chubby for Life” chapter and bookends the memoir with a section titled “My Appearance: The Fun and the Really Not Fun.” The first chapter in that section, “When You’re Not Skinny, This Is What People Want You to Wear,” is, again, a humorous play on Hollywood expectations, but it also includes a moving story about a photo shoot in which she broke down in tears due to a stylist bringing only one ugly, nondescript dress in her size. Though she writes the situation as one she overcame, the bookending of these chapters and the swing from humor to heart is more real because it shows the subtle back and forth between confidence and these obviously life-shaping moments and struggles regarding body image. Kaling acknowledges these thoughts, experiences, and memories in her own life. Then she moves on towards bigger, better, more important things. Like being famous and successful.
In The Mindy Project, it seems that Kaling wants to portray finding oneself and finding love, and how messy that can be, even for someone who has the rest of her life together. I say, bravo; we want a realistic portrayal of a real woman who doesn’t have it figured out, since really none of us do anyway. Of course, not many of us have the dilemma of working with two prime examples of man candy, one of whom (the one with the sexy accent) we’re already sleeping with, and the other whom we all know we will be in the course of the show.
Baby steps. That’s all we need. And thank you, Mindy Kaling, for showing us how to take some of those baby steps. In heels.
Kaling, Mindy. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). New York: Crown Archetype, 2011.
Yuan, Jada. “The Cult of Mindy Kaling.” New York Magazine 17 Sept. 2012: 34-9.