Race, Weight and Beauty: How 'The Mindy Project' Is Both Funny and Important

A critically acclaimed sitcom that premieres tonight could be a litmus test for "nontraditional" appearances.
Mindy Kaling at the 2012 Emmys

As The Mindy Project is set to premiere at 9:30 tonight on Fox tonight, we’re on the verge of two small steps that could make important advances. Then again, history says they won’t. But we can hope.

Mindy Kaling, the creator, star and writer of the series, is familiar to anyone who ever watched The Office. She was a bit player and a writer on that series. She’s written a successful book, too. She is clearly making it but is now poised on the verge of a bigger breakout. Mindy Project and fellow Fox rookie Ben and Kate are the lone bright spots in the fall sitcom world. Both have been favorably reviewed.

Now comes the interesting part: what the rest of America thinks.

That’s important for Mindy Project in two ways – those aforementioned two small steps. First, Kaling is a minority. Secondly, she’s not -- as they say in Hollywood -- a "traditional" size. That’s because in this town you’re a size 2 or you’d better get back to that spinning class.

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A generalization? Sure, but not by much. There are so few women of color (or anyone of color) in lead roles on television. And there are not many, ahem, untraditional-sized women on television, unless they are on the farther end of the spectrum. And that’s what seems to be so unusual about how we judge body image in actors on television today (particularly network television). You’re either thin and hot or you’re overweight and funny. Melissa McCarthy is obviously hilarious, but she’s on a show where the original premise was about two obese people falling in love. The pilot was, and many subsequent episodes have been, filled with fat jokes and food jokes. But that’s fine for most Americans. If you fit that role, that size – Roseanne, etc. – the country embraces you. Hell, for decades there’s been a thriving subcommunity of African-American women of a certain size being as sassy as they please in supporting roles (see: Retta, Parks and Recreation, Yvette Nicole Brown on Community, etc., etc., historical etc.). It's rarely talked about, but that seems like a free pass based on the accepted pop culture standards of size and beauty -- no less cruel at its core (for women and men) just because they've been shoe-horned and dismissed into safe, nonthreatening roles.

Where things get more dicey and judgmental is when women who aren’t shaped like Sofia Vergara or Zooey Deschanel, nor as “hot” or cute, get their own shows. This is the area that seems to bring out a real cruelty and dismissive judgment from a certain segment of the audience.

The immensely talented Lena Dunham experienced this when her brilliant series Girls debuted on HBO (and that’s a smaller pool of viewers than network television, which is why her Emmys spoof with Jimmy Kimmel where she’s naked on the toilet eating cake was so daring -- and sparked a rush of ignorant trolls to go wild on message boards and social media).

One of the fundamental issues that seemed to crop up when people didn’t like Girls was that Dunham wasn’t attractive or slim enough for them (two topics she routinely mines on the show as her character’s self-worth fluctuates).

Now the question is how Kaling will be judged. Gasp – she’s dark-skinned and curvy. She wrote a joke into the pilot where another character (a man) tells her she could stand to lose 15 pounds. Although less overt (so far, at least), Kaling’s character seems to be trolling similar territory to Dunham’s.

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That, by the way, is not only refreshing but apparently pertinent, if you’re not keeping tabs on the issues that seem to obsess a lot of women. While watching the recent flood of daytime talk shows, body image was a major theme (anyone who’s watched Oprah will not be surprised by that). Katie Couric had Jessica Simpson on talking about the difficulty in losing her baby weight and how cruel the tabloids have been to her on this issue. Simpson is also the new spokesperson for Weight Watchers. On Ricki Lake’s new show, she touted a survey that said something like a staggering 97 percent of women have at least one “I hate my body” moment per day.

We should absolutely be having that as a topic on a sitcom because it's relevant, and comedy often is a better spotlight for tough issues than drama.

What’s so appealing about Kaling -- and her character, which in many ways seem to be one and the same -- is that she’s body confident in the pilot. She talks about how hot she looks in a date dress, has few confidence issues in the dating world and no qualms about unflattering camera angles or scenes. This is also very true of Dunham in Girls, of course.

In a perfect world The Mindy Project would be a triumph: a female person of color who is not a “traditional” Hollywood size (but very reflective of the real world) gets her own show. And it’s really good. And it has a bright future. And maybe it will change the paradigm.

But this isn’t a perfect world. There is little doubt that Kaling will be judged on her skin color, looks and weight – issues very rarely in consideration for male actors. And yet there’s hope that maybe we’re growing as a nation and viewers will be less judgmental about appearances (pot, kettle, black) and more interested in being entertained for a half-hour.

Here's hoping those two small steps for Kaling won’t elicit a wary step backward from viewers.

Email: Tim.Goodman

Twitter: @BastardMachine