The Mindy Kaling Dilemma
I grew up in Silicon Valley, where the majority of my peers have Asian immigrant parents, like me, who worked hard to provide an affluent life for their children. That work ethic has been passed down from generation to generation which meant the majority of us defined the obedient, nerdy Asian stereotype which I sometimes still identify with today. So few people at Pratt come from the same background as me, which leads me to the media to feel represented. Instead, I end up disappointed that my only options are these white-washed characters that don’t tell my story.
Mindy Kaling is the most famous Indian American female voice in American entertainment. I can't fully commit to hating her, because she is one of very few successful South Asians and I look up to her in some ways, but she also only got this far by emulating whiteness and making fun of her own culture.
Her coming-of-age Netflix show features Indian American main character Devi Vishwakumar who is openly embarrassed by her Indian culture and obsessed with reinventing herself to be popular. Devi spends most of the show in a love triangle with Ben, a white guy who belittles Devi’s intelligence despite them being equal in their year for best grades. Not to mention the microaggressions he throws at her, referring to her entirely WOC friend group as the “UN” (unf*ckable nerds), calling her “David” instead of by her name, and saying she has a mustache. All of this is played off as cute banter catering to an enemies-to-lovers romance. This was the first time I got to see someone who looks like me as a lead on a Netflix show and now it’s just something that I hate-watch in the background.
Kaling started on “The Office,” where her character Kelly subverts the smart, obedient Indian girl trope by acting as the popular girl who bullies her fellow female coworkers and is in a toxic relationship with a white guy. The only episode that touches on Indian culture titled “Diwali” crudely refers to the holiday as “Indian Halloween.” In one of Kaling’s new shows “The Sex Lives of College Girls” Bela, the sex-positive South Asian character, gets into a relationship with a white guy who initially didn’t believe her claims of being sexually assaulted because the assaulter was his white friend. Eventually, he chooses to stick up for her, which somehow redeems him enough to qualify as a love interest.
To be a Gen-Z second-generation Asian American is to be overwhelmed. I’m in a constant tug of war to be American enough and Indian enough and the middle ground between the two is completely undefined. Cultural gentrification is happening to the descendants of immigrants growing up in America. We are being infected with whiteness which creates a generational cascade that erases our culture more and more at every step.
Mindy Kaling is the epitome of the bare minimum. She gets away with this by supposedly subverting stereotypes when in reality she creates new ones where brown people should strive for whiteness. The media has so much room for improvement, leaving room for new voices. No one can tell your story except for you.
Art by Yoo Young Chun