What The Mindy Project Did for Feminism

Attention, Collegiettes!

In case you haven’t heard, everyone’s favourite quirky, Manhattan-based OB/GYN has left the building. Yes, that’s right. Last fall The Mindy Project wrapped up its final season on Hulu, and as of Feb. 2, all six seasons are available to stream on Netflix for us Mindy fans in Canada.

While I am sad to see this chapter in TV sitcoms come to a close, I have no doubt that there are some things Mindy fans will carry on with them throughout their lives. Among them: an endless parade of makeup and fashion inspiration, a not-so-secret desire for Mindy’s Manhattan apartment, and a renewed sense of feminism for the hopeless romantic.

When we first meet Mindy back in season one, we learn right off the bat that she was basically raised on rom-coms. As soon as little Mindy finished her homework, she would hungrily devour any movie featuring a female lead on the hunt for Mr. Right. It’s worth noting that show’s creator, writer, producer and star actress Mindy Kaling also holds a similar love for rom-coms, as she has expressed in her autobiographical books. So naturally, The Mindy Project takes on the trajectory of the rom-com: the plucky heroine with a promising career who can never seem to find the right guy, no matter how hard she tries…until one day, she’s caught off guard and bumps right into him (often literally). In a traditional rom-com, sparks fly between Plucky Heroine and Mr. Right, although they may deny them at first, and they inevitably encounter an obstacle or two. But ultimately, love conquers all and the 90-minute distraction from real life typically ends with wedding bells. Along the way, our heroine’s promising career tends to be forgotten, and so does any other potential dimension to her character. Enter The Mindy Project, a rom-com for the 21st century intersectional feminist who’s so over that narrative.

Because The Mindy Project is a long-running show, it is has the benefit of time to revamp the somewhat inhibiting rom-com genre, and throughout the seasons we get to see the many iterations of Mindy Lahiri. First, there’s the smart, successful doctor who delivers babies and handles risky situations better than her male counterparts. This same, confident doctor is the girl-next-door who shamelessly snacks on calzones in bed and throws dirty dishes out the window to avoid dealing with them. Eventually, Mindy meets Mr. Right, but when that doesn’t pan out in the way it does in the movies, we meet Mindy, the single-mom who refuses to give up her career just because her partner expects her to. We even witness Mindy, the child of Indian immigrants who spends her life scrambling for a place within a white, patriarchal world, only to realize she’s sacrificed maintaining a connection to her cultural roots. Throughout all this, Mindy never gives up her search for that big-screen kind of love, and The Mindy Project reveals the intricacies of what being a romantic means for an independent woman, who dares to want more from life than being swept off her feet.

In an interesting twist of irony, Mindy Lahiri lives her life in a fanciful, wish-fulfilment kind of way. She often goes through her day under the pretension that she fits the mould of her beloved rom-com leading ladies and therefore deserves the same love, attention and acceptance that the movies (and society) bestows upon them. In reality, Mindy is not a slender, white, blue-eyed, demure damsel from the silver screen. In actuality, she is a curvy, Indian woman who indulges in all the things that no proper damsel ever should: she loves junk food and booze, she refuses to exercise, and she wears brightly coloured, form-fitting outfits that emphasize her curves and her brown skin, rather than hiding them. Though Mindy’s delusion is part of the show’s hilarity, how she handles her reality is evident in the fact that there is hardly an episode throughout The Mindy Project that Mindy does not command attention because of her unconventional self. Along with her body, Mindy acknowledges her sexuality in a way that comes off as humorous because, again, it defies what society expects women to do. In her search for Mr. Right, Mindy goes from one romance to another, wearing not only her heart, but also her desire, brazenly on her sleeve. Mindy was not always like this, though, in fact she sometimes speaks of her formative years being extremely conservative, only having her first kiss in her early twenties. Of course it’s easy to take body image, food indulgence and sex in ways that are humorous, but as this is a show about an OB/GYN, The Mindy Project often gets real about women’s health and sexuality when Dr. Mindy Lahiri is faced with the repercussions of her sometimes unhealthy lifestyle, personally, and in counselling her patients. The common factor in all these situations is that they are worked out through open discussion between two or more people, instead of tiptoeing around the discomfort and internalizing them, which can be dangerous for women.

In true rom-com form, Mindy is a likeable character that audiences can root for throughout her string of romantic mishaps, and it doesn’t hurt that she is entertaining and witty to no end. But when Mr. Right comes along and he doesn’t align with Mindy’s determination to continue being a successful and self-defined woman on her own, we get to learn so much more about her. In Dr. Mindy Lahiri we find an iconic woman of colour who worked hard to get to where she is, often sacrificing her personal for her professional goals. The Mindy Project treats audiences to a different kind of rom-com where, instead of our plucky heroine finding completeness in someone else, she learns to find it within herself.