Recall: The Office: or: The Mindy Projectand more recently, Never Have I Ever or: The Sex Lives of College Girls. Their common denominator, multi-hyphenate Mindy Kaling, has created a handful of South Asian characters for these shows, some of whom she played herself. These female characters are often outspoken, “sex-obsessed,”(Opens in a new window) self-deprecating, and occasionally lacking interest in or knowledge of their cultural roots. And if Twitter and TikTok have anything to say recently(Opens in a new window)these onscreen figures are not the representation they asked for.
In the days following the release of HBO Max and Kaling’s: Scooby-doo spin-off Velma:, a flood of criticism pointed to Kaling’s body of work, South Asian characters, and ideals of representation. People posted clips from: Velma: at first, hitting back at the show’s jokes written about Velma Dinkley’s body hair and Indian desserts. One TikToker said:(Opens in a new window), “South Asian girls deserve better.” Another said:(Opens in a new window), “Velma feels like a setback in so many ways.” Many of the series’ one-liners have been touted as tired portrayals of what it means to be South Asian on Western television.
‘Velma’ review: A bizarre take on ‘Scooby Doo’s brainiac’
Attention has since turned to Kaling’s previous work. Characters like Devi Vishwakumar (Never Have I Ever) and Bela Malhotra (The Sex Lives of College Girls) are now being criticized in hindsight. Viewers are honing in on dialogue and scenes in which girls — young, Brown, immigrant daughters — either question their physical appearances(Opens in a new window) or: resent their backgrounds(Opens in a new window).
Bela in ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’.
Credit: HBO Max:
Without question, Kaling’s characters share noticeable traits that vary but don’t stray far from being insecure and unsure of themselves. They waver, trying to balance their parents’ expectations, their view of themselves, and their need for validation. They struggle to place themselves in the predominantly white settings they find themselves in. Kaling’s comedy, in this regard, is distinctive. Throughout, Indian culture and traditions are peppered within these works as punchlines and obstacles. It isn’t hard to see why such narratives are drawing chagrin from South Asian viewers, many of whom are tired of seeing such tropes rehashed for millions to watch.
And yet, this backlash appears to be targeting a single South Asian writer, one who has become prominent in the wider landscape of TV production and achieved tangible success with her work.
Critiques of Kaling’s characters allude to a dearth of characters of color and writers of color behind them, as some other outlets have pointed out.(Opens in a new window). Buzzfeed called her “peerless”(Opens in a new window); IndieWire writes that:(Opens in a new window) “there’s a clear demand for numerous, nuanced South Asian characters”. Kaling is a product of a time when she was one of the few, likely being asked to draw caricatures(Opens in a new window),(Opens in a new window) and oftentimes writing for the white gaze. Kaling has undeniably increased the frequency and prominence of South Asian women on TV. Now, Kaling’s characters, like her, are grappling with being on-screen, where they have not historically existed as heroines in the spotlight. It is this ingrained issue, perhaps even this pressure, that is leading to heightened scrutiny.
The conversation also stops short of taking a holistic view at some of the larger storylines within Kaling’s work. For instance, Never Have I Ever features characters like Devi’s mother Nalini and her cousin Kamala, who each offer a different take on what it looks like to be a Brown woman. One is a single mother handling her teenage daughter, her dermatology practice, and her personal life in the wake of her husband’s death. The other left her family to pursue her dream in America, trying to make a mark in a male-dominated space, while also rejecting an arranged marriage and staying with the man she really loves. Strength and conviction is embedded in the bones of these characters, neither of whom shy away from being who they are.
The women of ‘Never Have I Ever’, in Season 1.
In contrast, Devi, who is palpably insecure of herself and her culture, may not fully represent the modern Indian girl growing up in America today. But she is a fully-formed, multifaceted character, evolving as seasons progress. The Mindy Project’s titular character poses a similar dilemma. Mindy can be overwhelmingly self-obsessed, with little information about anything to do with her ethnicity and faith. This is frustrating to watch unfold. Still, that truth can exist while also noting that Mindy handles motherhood, juggles two careers, maintains close friendships, and is unapologetically herself. Bela, too, from: The Sex Lives of College Girls, holds insecurities and clichés (her parents wanting her to be a doctor being one of them). But she is empowered in her own right, even more so in the sophomore season of Kaling’s series.
This is the Kaling stamp, not an overarching painting of today’s Brown girl.
It’s true. The chaos and messiness of her Brown girl character(Opens in a new window) has been done several times now, but these figures should be observed as just that. portrayals of a specific, chaotic, Kaling-esque girl. This is the Kaling stamp, not an overarching painting of today’s Brown girl.
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Consider: The: New Yorker’s praise of Mo, in Mo Amer’s eponymous Netflix show. “It is genuinely refreshing to see a protagonist who resists sympathy or identification — a big, loud man onscreen who yells about everything.” The piece, which reflects on immigrant representation and Palestinian identity on American television, applauds Amer for creating a truly flawed, oftentimes “irrational” character. Kaling’s counterparts exist in vastly different worlds than that of Mo, but happen to share such traits and the immigrant trope. Their faults, however, are not currently commended; their anger is not being seen as a symptom of a larger problem.
The criticisms of the characters at hand are valid, but so is the possibility that many can also be complex, funny, and candid. This two-fold reality of Kaling’s universe is being eclipsed, likely due to age-old comedic tropes and instances in which viewers feel that the younger, more prominent characters are mocking themselves and their culture. While discrimination and internalized racism are a frequent reality, South Asian women and Kaling’s viewers are now asking for more, for better.
This request is not unreasonable.
Yet, the pointed and visceral hatred of Kaling online is not exactly doing the necessary work, and reflection, either. The Brown girl may be in need of evolution on-screen, beyond what has been offered so far. This isn’t necessarily Kaling’s job, and her characters don’t fit in a vacuum. South Asian women deserve variety and depth, but Kaling’s characters can also stand as they are, comprising an important fragment of the bigger picture.