8:00am PT by Kate Stanhope
'The Mindy Project' Writer on Tackling Male Privilege: "It Has a Whole New Meaning Now"
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of The Mindy Project, "Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man."]
A lot has changed since Mindy Project creator and star Mindy Kaling announced potential plans to do an episode about sexism in August 2016.
Speaking with reporters at the Television Critics Association, Kaling said she was pitching an episode, then tentatively called "If I Was Born a White Man," in which Kaling's TV heroine encountered sexism only to wake up the next day as a man.
The episode was finally unveiled Tuesday, with Ryan Hansen stepping into Mindy Lahiri's shoes after she was passed over for a job seemingly because of her gender and race. While the half-hour contained funny gags like imagining Mindy picking up women at a bar, the episode also touched on the idea of white privilege in the workplace. In her new body, Mindy was handed the job she missed out on before. However, instead of accepting it, she turned it down and funneled her energy into helping another qualified female doctor, Ilene (Ellen D. Williams), try to land the job instead. Her efforts failed when Ilene was still passed over for an older white male doctor at the hospital. At the end of the day, Mindy confessed she didn't enjoy having it too easy and missed when she was interesting. The next morning, she woke up as her old self and reached out to commiserate and bond with Ilene.
Although the idea goes as far back as August, the themes of the episode became much more meaningful following the election of President Donald Trump and his shocking defeat over Hillary Clinton, who would have been the first female commander-in-chief.
"It has a whole new meaning now," Lang Fisher, series supervising producer and the episode's writer, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I felt much more passionate about this episode than I think I would have a year before."
Fisher spoke to THR about the timing of the episode, the feedback from the studio and network and comedy's "responsibility" going forward in the current political climate.
How did the idea for the episode come about? How did Mindy bring it up in the room?
In the history of The Mindy Project, we make a bunch of jokes about Mindy being a woman of color and stuff, but we've never really had an episode that directly deals with it. Primarily for the first few seasons, that's because Mindy is an unusual leading lady. You don't see anyone else who looks like her on TV and she just wanted to like, have a normal show that was a normal romantic comedy without pointing out that she's not a blonde toothpick. Once we got to season five and because Hulu has given us such flexibility with what we can put on TV and the subject matter, etc., I think she just started to feel it was like the right time to do an episode about this and to say something about it. So she came up with the idea and I don't really remember when, but she brought it into the room and we were all like, 'That is a great idea.'
We have played with alternate realities and magical realism before in some of our episodes so we thought, "Let's just do this and do it 100 percent and make her wake up as a white man." Whether or not you interpret it as her dreaming or if it's real life, we just thought it would be great to see this character have that experience. Mindy Kaling the person has felt for her whole career that she's had to fight for every single role, for every job extremely hard because she has to prove herself to be someone who should be on TV. A lot of this came from her own experience of having to prove her worth to the world at large.
How was the process of actually writing it? What stories or ideas did Mindy specifically present to you as you were writing this?
She knew the general idea of what she wanted it to be. What made it more special was to have this other female doctor character [Irene]. I feel like a lot of times, for people who are one minority or another — and this is very true in entertainment — you feel like there can only be one of you in any particular situation. Like if you're a woman on a comedy writing staff or if you're a Hispanic person who's in a cast, you feel like there's not allowed to be more than one of you. What we came upon was that this friendship and also slightly adversarial relationship with Irene really brought out the feeling of a world that's really built for white men. So when we started talking about Irene was when we really hit upon something that felt real. For me as a woman, I feel like you see a lot of woman-on-woman cattiness and competition because of that and because you feel like, "Oh no, there's going to be another girl? What if that girl takes my girl spot?" But you don't see that with white men. They don't feel like they’re going to lose their job because another white man has joined the team.
What personal experiences were you able to pull from for this episode?
I've actually had a fairly lucky experience in my writing career because I've primarily only worked for women. Before Mindy, I worked at 30 Rock, which Tina Fey made a very woman-friendly place. Before that I worked at The Onion and also had a female boss. I don't have a personal experience but I have heard of many people who felt that way.
Was there anyone else that you wanted to talk to about their experiences as you were working on the episode?
You know who's very helpful and was given a big role on the show was Xosha [Roquemore]. We kind of placed her in this episode because it seemed like her character would have something to say but she as a person also was really helpful in just being like, "This is the language we hear and this is the language that's misused." She was very hands-on in the process particularly when we were shooting. She was very, very helpful in making sure that this experience felt like it applied to many people and that it would speak to a wider audience.
Do you remember what was going on in the news when you were writing? Had the election happened by the time you were writing this?
We shot this literally right before the election, so it has a whole new meaning now. I think, truly, even when I felt very confident that Hillary was going to win, one thing that really struck me throughout the campaign was the type of derogatory language that was being used by Trump as well as all of his followers towards women. It was one of these very illuminating things where you thought we were past it, but then when you see the female candidate up there and the way that people spoke about her, it was so enraging to me. I felt much more passionate about this episode than I think I would have a year before.
Had the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump come out by the time you were writing the episode?
Yes, it definitely had. Truly, it was like the message you're trying to say is Hillary Clinton, the most qualified candidate ever, can go down in flames because of some emails and he can talk about sexually assaulting women and still pass through with flying colors is like the exact point of this episode. Women are up against so much.
Was there anything in the episode that you had to change because of the election results?
I think the one possible question I had was: Are we making it too easy for a white man? Is it too dreamy for him? Is it just silly and now, it's like no, definitely not, it's right on point. (Laughs.) I know certainly many white men who work very hard and are great members of the society and I don't want to undercut their experiences, but now I feel totally justified.
What kind of feedback did you get from Universal and Hulu about the episode?
Many of our studio representatives and Hulu representatives are women of color so they were just like, "Right on. This is great." So we got zero pushback. They were very on board for it.
What do you hope viewers take away from the episode?
I hope that it makes people think. And also, we have such a strong population of young girls in our demographic and I just want them to feel like someone is acknowledging how hard it is to be them, that we are a voice and a place for people that aren't the majority, especially right now.
Was there anything you took away from writing the episode and filming the episode and the conversations that ensued?
I did feel like a sense of gratitude of doing something that had a message. Dramas do it all the time and now you're in an era where we're seeing a lot more comedies also speak to what's happening now politically and having more message-y episodes. Sometimes people in comedy shy away from doing stuff that's meaningful because they're worried it's not going to be funny, but there's definitely a way to do it and I think you see more and more people doing it now. So what I took away is, going forward on whatever projects I'm a part of, I would like to make sure that it says something.
Do you see the show leaning more into political topics going forward, especially given the talk about women's rights under the Trump administration?
Certainly there will be a ton of fodder for us if there's a season six. I believe we will not shy away from it because I don't think you can. It's so impossible to ignore at this point. It's almost a responsibility to write about it.… We want to make sure we have the characters do whatever the characters are going to do, but definitely there's always room for episodes like this so I'm certain we will tackle lots of those issues.
At this point, how are you feeling about a potential season six?
We are all very optimistic about a season six. Hulu really was enthusiastic about our season five so I think it seems likely that they will offer us a season six.
New episodes of The Mindy Project stream Tuesdays on Hulu.