Mindy and Me: On Diversity and Other Middlebrow Desires

Criticism / Douglas S. Ishii

:: Mindy and Me: On Diversity and Other Middlebrow Desires ::

In 2012, I made a New Year’s Res­o­lu­tion to bal­ance dat­ing with my doc­tor­al stud­ies: I would go on twelve dates in 2012—a leap ahead of my one date from all of the pre­vi­ous year. I planned on hav­ing a tenure-track job and a hus­band by my hood­ing cer­e­mo­ny. (A life defined by bench­marks begets more bench­marks.) That sum­mer, the man I nick­named “Dream­boat” ghost­ed me after our third date: my first adult roman­tic dis­ap­point­ment. This made me cry invol­un­tar­i­ly when­ev­er I heard Adele’s “Some­one Like You”—which, thanks to radio, was often. One August night, drunk on sad­ness and tequi­la, I watched the pilot episode of The Mindy Project, the sin­gle-cam­era sit­com by and star­ring Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB-GYN Man­hat­tan­ite on the hunt for love, when it was released online ahead of its broad­cast pre­miere on FOX. A sur­prise cut in the pilot’s teas­er reveals that our pro­tag­o­nist is nar­rat­ing her open­ing voiceover from in an inter­ro­ga­tion room. She explains to a police offi­cer that she, drunk, rode a bicy­cle into a pool after rant­i­ng on stage at her ex-boyfriend’s wed­ding recep­tion. She was exact­ly what I need­ed. It wasn’t just that she was minoritized—a term I use to name how “minori­ties” are not born but made through unequal pow­er rela­tions. She was also fast-talk­ing, fran­tic, self­ish, styl­ish, and loved to eat.

I watched the series finale at the end of Sea­son 6 in the fall of 2017. By then, I had been on many more dates, but I had not found that hus­band. Illus­tra­tive of the con­di­tions of the new aca­d­e­m­ic nor­mal, I had received a sur­prise vis­it­ing fac­ul­ty con­tract at my alma mater, then became a post­doc­tor­al fel­low in Col­orado, then vis­it­ing fac­ul­ty again in Chica­go, no tenure-track posi­tion but now a longer-term tem­po­rary lec­tur­er for stu­dents I adore. Like Mindy Kaling, I had been per­pet­u­al­ly on the bub­ble: con­tin­u­ing Kaling’s rise as a post­fem­i­nist icon, The Mindy Project moved from FOX after its Sea­son 3 can­cel­la­tion to Hulu, to inau­gu­rate the stream­ing service’s ven­tures into orig­i­nal con­tent. Like Dr. Mindy Lahiri, I had expe­ri­enced starts and stops of career suc­cess: she had opened own fer­til­i­ty clin­ic, Lat­er Baby, that swung between bank­rupt­cy and pros­per­i­ty. By the time the cen­tral love sto­ry between her then-for­mer co-work­er, even­tu­al co-par­ent, and once-male lead Dr. Dan­ny Castel­lano (played by Chris Messi­na, in his own career rise) had fall­en apart in Sea­son 4, I too had felt some­thing like love. I nick­named him “Logis­tics”: logis­ti­cal­ly, cir­cum­stance cut the fan­ta­sy of us short as I left town to fol­low my lat­est con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty con­tract. Like Mindy, I told myself this is the life I love.

This sto­ry of Mindy and me was some­thing I had to the­o­rize. In the final moments of the finale, after she has run away from the ensemble’s wrap at two of her nurs­es’ wed­ding recep­tion, Mindy and Dan­ny meet in the recur­ring set of the hos­pi­tal break room. She utters, “I don’t think I ever stopped lov­ing you, and I don’t think I ever will.” They rec­on­cile as the cam­era pans out. Some­thing in my heart broke and was mend­ed and was made messy even though she is com­ing back to a polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive low-key racist/high-key sex­ist to whom she has had to prove her­self time and time again. (Acad­e­mia.) Love, that most sacred dis­course of emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and mate­r­i­al belong­ing, facil­i­tates com­plex con­tra­dic­tions of race, gen­der, class, and sex­u­al­i­ty in The Mindy Project, as it does in my own expe­ri­ences of pre­car­i­ty and priv­i­lege. Thus the show, which uses that love to nav­i­gate the pub­lic and pri­vate dimen­sions of every­day life, invites an analy­sis of some of the core log­ics of “diver­si­ty” today.

I.

Malli­ka Rao’s Novem­ber arti­cle in Vul­ture, “The Lega­cy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” draws a par­al­lel between the arc of the nar­ra­tive and the creator’s uneven but grad­u­al­ly improv­ing record of pro­gres­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion; as she puts it: “[o]ur hero­ine stands at a wed­ding, think­ing about a dude, same as six years ago. Only nothing’s the same.” [i] Against the back­drop of South Asian Amer­i­can tok­eniza­tion, Rao tends with gen­eros­i­ty to Kaling’s nego­ti­a­tions of being Oth­er to the white mas­culin­i­ty that defines the com­e­dy world. To fur­ther val­i­date Kaling’s inter­ven­tion, Rao quotes Desi women, who com­ment that they find joy in how The Mindy Project approx­i­mates their lived real­i­ties. This is part of the dic­tum that rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters: to see your face and expe­ri­ences reflect­ed to a larg­er audi­ence nor­mal­izes and affirms. How­ev­er, Rao’s method reit­er­ates what media schol­ar L. S. Kim iden­ti­fies as one of the false con­sen­sus­es between media indus­tries and view­ers: that view­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion depends on racial sim­i­lar­i­ty. [ii] With­in this grid of “like” lik­ing “like,” crit­ics such as Rao can only make a moral appeal to an indus­try against prof­it cre­ation; the argu­ment is already overde­ter­mined. Thus, I am not inter­est­ed in The Mindy Project for its ethno­graph­ic realism—which, as a male-iden­ti­fied East Asian Amer­i­can writer, I rec­og­nize can be a prob­lem.

So why do I like The Mindy Project? It is slap­stick, but it is smart. The pilot episode opens on a retroac­tive shot of Mindy as a child in her sub­ur­ban Boston home watch­ing roman­tic come­dies, which frames both her rela­tion­ship to love and the show’s self-con­scious play with that canon. The show quick­ly posi­tions itself as high­ly self-aware and does not explain or jus­ti­fy that lit­er­a­cy to its audi­ence. Thus, I under­stand The Mindy Project as a rather mid­dle­brow cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. The phreno­log­i­cal lan­guage of the mid­dle­brow refers to cul­tur­al texts, norms, and iden­ti­ties that inhab­it the hier­ar­chi­cal space between so-called high­brow cul­ture, char­ac­ter­ized by its aes­thet­ic “great­ness” and inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty, and low­brow cul­ture, known for its mass appeal and pre­sumed lack of val­ue. The aca­d­e­m­ic study of mid­dle­brow cul­ture stems from two sig­nif­i­cant peri­ods: its 1920s gen­e­sis, when the indus­tri­al growth of U.S. empire made goods asso­ci­at­ed with class priv­i­lege more avail­able, and its post-World War II resur­gence, which coin­cid­ed with the vio­lent back­lash against deseg­re­ga­tion and oth­er Cold War reforms. [iii] Though the mid­dle­brow is no longer named as such, con­tem­po­rary mid­dle­brow cul­tur­al dynam­ics speak to our own era’s class pol­i­tics as new texts aspire to lit­er­a­cy and art­ful­ness on one hand and con­sumer plea­sure and wide­spread acces­si­bil­i­ty on the oth­er. Giv­en our bipar­ti­san polit­i­cal cul­ture obsessed with the right­eous­ness of the mid­dle, I need to say: the mid­dle­brow does not decon­struct class hier­ar­chy, but reso­lid­i­fies it. The mid­dle­brow does not pro­duce a rad­i­cal dis­sensus but a con­sen­sus between pro­duc­er, text, and con­sumer.

Giv­en its mid­dle­brow self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty, The Mindy Project would seem to take aim at the roman­tic comedy’s genre pol­i­tics. How­ev­er, in a Jan­u­ary 2015 Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca cri­tique of The Mindy Project’s racial and class bias­es, cul­tur­al com­men­ta­tor E. Alex Jung bemoaned that “Lahiri’s project of find­ing Mr. Right, in oth­er words, holds the ulti­mate promise of assim­i­la­tion.” [iv] This aligns with oth­er crit­i­cisms, such as Dodai Stewart’s May 14, 2013, arti­cle in Jezebel, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project.” [v] But in a Novem­ber 11, 2017, sto­ry in Vul­ture, Mindy Kaling fore­shad­ows the series finale:

The writ­ers all pride our­selves on being fem­i­nist, and we roll our eyes at the char­ac­ter in a fun way,” Kaling said. “We love her because she feels she needs a man to be com­plete, and I think that reflects a lot of what women think. Cer­tain­ly a lot of my friends—and even when I when I was younger—felt that way. But we don’t believe that, and we don’t want to give her what she wants, so we put her through that expe­ri­ence and showed her it’s not enough so hope­ful­ly she can be a lit­tle more woke in the process.” [vi]

One way of under­stand­ing Kaling’s com­ment is that, from 2013 to 2015 to 2017, Kaling and her team have grown polit­i­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly. Instead, I under­stand The Mindy Project as part of a diver­si­ty dis­course con­veyed through mid­dle­brow cul­tur­al dynamics—a join­ing of a lib­er­al (as opposed to rad­i­cal) diver­si­ty and a pro­fes­sion­al, sophis­ti­cate iden­ti­ty. I take up soci­ol­o­gist Jane Ward’s dis­tinc­tion between diver­si­ty as “a mate­r­i­al fact of dif­fer­ence” and diver­si­ty as an ide­o­log­i­cal project that man­ages that dif­fer­ence through selec­tive incorporation—we keep the diver­si­ty that we like. [vii] I use the term in the lat­ter sense. The­ater schol­ar David Savran cri­tiques Rent (1994) for its mid­dle­brow pre­tens­es of inclu­siv­i­ty through its AIDS and LGBT sto­ry­lines, its back­drop of ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist bohemi­an­ism, its met­ro­pol­i­tan top­i­cal­i­ty. [viii] His read­ing shows how mid­dle­brow texts nom­i­nal­ly rep­re­sent social dif­fer­ences not to trans­form exclu­siv­i­ty but to assure pro­duc­ers and con­sumers of their own cul­tur­al cache: they already know bet­ter. Through such a con­sen­sus, diver­si­ty has come to have val­ue: not as a social jus­tice project of dif­fer­ence but as a set of digestible knowl­edges that trans­late to sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal.

Let me state it dif­fer­ent­ly, from the con­sumer side. In a very Mindy way, I find myself on OKCu­pid again, skim­ming pro­file after pro­file. For the unini­ti­at­ed, OKCu­pid encour­ages you to fill out mul­ti­ple prompts. One is “Favorite books, movies, shows, music, and food.” (Sigh.) The ques­tion is a test. My litany must demon­strate that I enjoy the pop plea­sures, but not too much; that I am cere­bral, but not pre­ten­tious. I love hard­er post-grunge, but it gives the impres­sion of unhealthy mas­culin­i­ty. So, I soft­en Rise Against with Fleet­wood Mac—a group with the his­to­ry to prove my inner sophis­ti­ca­tion. Maybe Lorde, with enough Pitch­fork edgi­ness to show that I am on-trend yet acces­si­ble. My cat­a­logue of “Peak TV” shows is also key. Mindy is a dri­ven but flawed but love­able hero­ine in the vein of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock (2006 – 2013) and Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks & Recre­ation (2009 – 2015). These pop fem­i­nist icons are of the wave of NBC sin­gle-cam­era come­dies for young, edu­cat­ed, urban sophis­ti­cates, like the show for which Kaling pre­vi­ous­ly wrote and act­ed, the U.S. adap­ta­tion of The Office (2005 – 2013). While stak­ing out impor­tant ground in the misog­y­nist worlds of tele­vi­sion and com­e­dy, these shows all rep­re­sent a white lib­er­al fem­i­nism at which I can roll my eyes and prove my sym­bol­ic cap­i­tal by know­ing bet­ter. The Mindy Project is per­fect to list.

II.

As Kaling’s expla­na­tion to Vul­ture sug­gests, part of the show’s mid­dle­brow qual­i­ty is how its writ­ers under­stand them­selves to be fem­i­nists. Yet, this lan­guage of polit­i­cal con­scious­ness seems to con­tra­dict how they reit­er­ate nor­ma­tive fem­i­nini­ties, often through Mindy’s rela­tion­ship to love. This cen­tral role of love draws me to think through the­o­rist Lau­ren Berlant’s The Female Com­plaint: The Unfin­ished Busi­ness of Sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty in Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2008). [ix] Berlant frames the texts she stud­ies through a side argu­ment as mid­dle­brow, in that they seek “the man­age­ment of ambiva­lence, and not the destruc­tion of plea­sures or pow­er” (5). Love for Berlant is “the gift that keeps on tak­ing” since “the search for mir­ror­ing (desire) demands con­stant impro­vi­sa­tion (anx­i­ety) and tak­ing of accounts (dis­ap­point­ment)” (15). Mid­dle­brow love tries to be iron­ic about the norms it por­trays, but also main­tains a sin­cere invest­ment in them, and per­forms intel­lec­tion through its con­de­scend­ing reflex­iv­i­ty. As Berlant puts it, “she can have her sex and hate it too” (224).

I am less inter­est­ed in crit­i­ciz­ing The Mindy Project as a “bad” attempt at diver­si­ty than I am in how its par­tic­i­pa­tion in mid­dle­brow love sus­tains our col­lec­tive fan­ta­sy of diver­si­ty. The calls to diver­si­ty made by crit­ics includ­ing Rao, Jung, and Stew­art can be bro­ken down into an affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty and reac­tive diver­si­ty: affir­ma­tive, in that we cel­e­brate that it is there, and reac­tive, in which we respond to its lack. Reac­tive diver­si­ty is a com­plaint: things could be bet­ter if only we were heard, and thus we express our pol­i­tics through our com­plaints while not upset­ting our attach­ments to what caus­es us grief. [x] (Like tele­vi­sion.) Both kinds of diver­si­ty can be described in Berlant’s lan­guage as jux­ta­po­si­tion­al (x): affir­ma­tive and reac­tive diver­si­ty func­tion in prox­im­i­ty to realm of pol­i­tics but do not engage pow­er as such out­side of calls for con­fir­ma­tion and emo­tion­al response. Affir­ma­tive and reac­tive diver­si­ty cause respons­es like the eye­rolls that Kaling describes. Eye­rolls, sighs, and cringes: Lat­inx fem­i­nist the­o­rist Jua­na Rodríguez writes of such ges­tures as kinet­ic forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a future tem­po­ral­i­ty. [xi] While Rodríguez mines the resis­tive poten­tial of ges­tures for mak­ing a new future for queers of col­or, the mid­dle­brow future is already present. As mid­dle­brow sophis­ti­cates, our ges­tures move between each oth­er to solid­i­fy our con­sen­sus that we just sim­ply know bet­ter: we can have our diver­si­ty and hate it too.

The Mindy Project moved to Hulu as part of a wave of diver­si­ty pro­gram­ming and thus adds to our fan­tasies of online stream­ing ser­vices as being free from the insti­tu­tion­al con­straints of net­works. Like Malli­ka Rao’s arti­cle on The Mindy Project, we can eas­i­ly nar­rate the hand­ful of episodes in which Mindy Lahiri direct­ly address­es her race through the lan­guage of affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty: as social progress via cre­ative free­dom. In the Sea­son 5 episode “Con­cord,” Mindy, frus­trat­ed by her ex-part­ner Danny’s wed­ding, hops in her car and ends up at her par­ents’ house. She is greet­ed with a fry­ing pan to the head by her moth­er, Sonu (por­trayed by Sak­i­na Jaf­frey). Mindy and her slack­er broth­er Rishi (played by recur­ring guest star of Pitch Per­fect fame Utkarsh Ambud­kar) stum­ble upon what they think is their mother’s affair, but she con­fess­es that she has been flirt­ing with a direc­tor to try to get ahead in the local the­ater scene despite the gen­dered, ageist, and racist bias­es of act­ing. In the episode’s final moments, Mindy encour­ages Sonu to write her own sto­ry, a meta­crit­i­cal com­ment on reac­tive diversity’s demand not just for more actors but more cre­ative voic­es. The tag ends as the cam­era drifts out of the front room, where Mindy and Rishi curl up on the couch to lis­ten to Sonu read from an entry in her jour­nal, one detail­ing her first encounter with snow dur­ing her first days in the U.S., in which she asks: “Will this cold, unfor­giv­ing place ever be my home? But as time went on, India became a dis­tant mem­o­ry and all of it changed for me. My adop­tive home became, sim­ply, my home.” (I cringe.) It is a telling of her eth­nic sto­ry as the eth­nic sto­ry: dis­ori­en­ta­tion, alien­ation, adap­ta­tion. Only her eth­nic sto­ry is kind of … bad. While the scene seems to mock the sacred sta­tus of writ­ing from the eth­nic self, the scene offers it with such sin­cer­i­ty, as an invi­ta­tion into the fam­i­ly and her inti­mate life. This encap­su­lates the mid­dle­brow rela­tion of love: an eye­roll that tries to hide a heart­felt sen­ti­ment and a heart­felt moment that evinces an eye­roll.

In this way, we can under­stand the diegetic inclu­sion of brown­ness in the Sea­son 5 episode, “Bernar­do & Ani­ta,” through affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty and the mid­dle­brow impasse of love. Named after the lovers of West Side Sto­ry (1957) to sig­nal its Brown, eth­nic dra­ma, the episode opens with Mindy on a din­ner date with Neel, in which she says, “You’re the first Indi­an guy I’ve ever gone on a date with.” Neel shares that he iden­ti­fies “cul­tur­al­ly as Indi­an,” and Mindy ban­ters with clue­less­ness about the con­tent of her Indi­an Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty. After din­ner, Neel walks her home; she clos­es her eyes and leans in—only to fall for­ward into noth­ing. Neel has not rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed her ges­ture and says, “I just don’t real­ly see this going any­where.” Why? “Being Indi­an is a real­ly impor­tant part of my life,” and he refers to her as a coconut: “because you’re brown on the out­side and white on the inside.” Her mouth drops open as we cut to the intro cred­its. As a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Japan­ese Amer­i­can who has been called the homol­o­gous “banana,” and whose sim­i­lar per­for­mance of Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty has been shaped by his family’s World War II incar­cer­a­tion, I freak out. Sure, Neel is freak­ing hot and has reme­died the white uni­for­mi­ty of Mindy’s lovers. But those are fight­ing words.

The episode pro­ceeds with a for­mu­la­ic the­o­riz­ing of eth­nic iden­ti­ty. She asks her younger broth­er Rishi for his thoughts: “you think you’re white, and I think I’m Black.” There is some­thing about the cor­re­la­tion of Mindy’s class and fem­i­nin­i­ty to white­ness that hits some­where between unfair con­fla­tion and sys­temic truth. He goes on to say: “We rep­re­sent a new kind of Indi­an Amer­i­can: ones with lit­er­al­ly zero roots to our past.” (I roll my eyes even as I feel so seen.) Fur­ther into Act I, Mindy calls Neel again and asks to hang out. He reluc­tant­ly agrees, and they meet at (cor­po­rate spon­sor) Bed Bath & Beyond. After com­ment­ing on how a white employ­ee assumes they are mar­ried, they lay out the terms of Indi­an Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty: Neel says, “It’s not real­ly your fault your par­ents assim­i­lat­ed so com­plete­ly they com­plet­ed aban­doned their her­itage”; Mindy retorts: “Hey, pal, immi­grants are sup­posed to assim­i­late.” The terms of debate are nar­rowed to clean and sim­ple bina­ries: her­itage integri­ty or will­ful assim­i­la­tion. As mid­dle­brow, there is no com­plex­i­ty or con­tra­dic­tion: there is mere­ly label­ing and anx­i­ety man­age­ment. But we affirm that diver­si­ty is now present. Cul­tur­al crit­ic Helen Her­an Jun argues that there is a method­olog­i­cal ten­den­cy to con­flate the media rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a sub­ject posi­tion with an ide­o­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tion. [xii] In oth­er words, we ask for affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty over a decon­struc­tion that tracks what that diver­si­ty actu­al­ly does and for whom.

III.      

Since much of the show’s crit­i­cism focus­es on Mindy’s major­i­ty-white pool of lovers as envi­sioned by a major­i­ty-white writ­ers’ room, what ide­o­log­i­cal dis­po­si­tion do we expect from a change in sub­ject posi­tion? [xiii] As I think through my frus­tra­tions with The Mindy Project and the fan­tasies it rep­re­sents, I refuse to use the expect­ed terms: two-dimen­sion­al, fake, stereo­type. (Am I com­plain­ing?) These terms come from an impor­tant activist his­to­ry: the activist writ­ings of the Asian Amer­i­can Move­ment (1968 – 1977), which became the intel­lec­tu­al basis of the aca­d­e­m­ic field, ana­lyzed how stereo­typed rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Asians and Asian Amer­i­cans expressed anti-Asian bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion as shaped by U.S. pol­i­tics with Asian nations. Clear­ly, this still deserves repeat­ing over and over again. How­ev­er, the main­stream­ing of stereo­type cri­tique has turned the lan­guage of the stereo­type into a stereo­type itself: a fig­ure with­out a his­to­ry, a heuris­tic to (over)simplify the polit­i­cal world, an eas­i­ly repeat­able mean­ing. Thus, any devi­a­tion from the most racist car­i­ca­ture seems like the rem­e­dy: three-dimen­sion­al, real, com­plex. This moral­is­tic frame­work leaves no space for cringes and eye­rolls, as we must affirm it for its polit­i­cal good­ness or react to it for not being good enough. This keeps us locked in essen­tialisms and “bur­dens of rep­re­sen­ta­tion” argu­ments that stymie group cre­ativ­i­ty.

Appre­hend­ing agency beyond mod­els of indi­vid­ual choice can help us under­stand Mindy’s cre­ative respons­es to reac­tive diver­si­ty. After their Bed Bath & Beyond hang­out, Neel invites Mindy to din­ner with his Indi­an friends. She brings her cowork­er, the white doc­tor Jody Kim­ball-Kin­ney, with her, as she wears a kortha. She enters a space filled with Brown peo­ple but is sur­prised: “oh, you’re dressed reg­u­lar.” At din­ner, they ref­er­ence Soul­cy­cle, but­ter cof­fee, hip­ster tastes, and their par­ents’ sur­prise over unmar­ried cou­ples liv­ing togeth­er at age 32. Their nor­mal­cy, per­formed through a class-spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al cit­i­zen­ship that sug­gests white­ness, cre­ates a sense of community—one that is itself mid­dle­brow. Every­one pulls out their phone and reads texts from their par­ents in accents: the in-group humor of affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty. Jody tries to join in with his own Indi­an accent, but Mindy edu­cates him as her foil—she quick­ly tells him, “it’s not the same.” We laugh because we know; The Mindy Project has affirmed us as the “diverse” view­ers we are, for we rec­og­nize the stereo­type Mindy has con­front­ed.

Yet, “Bernar­do & Ani­ta” shows that affir­ma­tive diversity’s focus on stereo­type cri­tique is not enough as these inter­ac­tions lead to the dra­mat­ic cli­max of the episode. Mindy quick­ly puts togeth­er a mun­dan—a Hin­du cer­e­mo­ny for a baby’s first hair­cut. In front of an audi­ence of Mindy’s new com­mu­ni­ty, her par­ents, her cowork­ers, and a “priest she found on Yelp,” her son Leo has a melt­down. Leo’s cries esca­late against the steady chants of the priest, but Mindy tries to push through in a diegetic inclu­sion that lasts over a minute. The cam­era cuts to shots of Jody, who reacts with increas­ing trep­i­da­tion, and her oth­er two white male cowork­ers, who plead for the cer­e­mo­ny to stop. (I cringe.) Mean­while, Mindy’s par­ents look on ador­ing­ly as part of the back­drop of Brown peo­ple, with her moth­er Sonu becom­ing vis­i­bly excit­ed. The source of our affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty has become unwieldy.

The mis­match between the respons­es is not only racial­ized: it becomes one about cit­i­zen­ship. The unper­turbed Brown peo­ple do not respond to the Amer­i­can child’s com­plaint and the pan­ick­ing white men must inter­vene. (I cringe.) Hav­ing many dear friends and cousins with babies prone to melt­downs, I respond to Leo’s cries. The camera’s ped­a­gogy turns against us, encour­ag­ing us not to iden­ti­fy with Mindy and her seem­ing­ly triv­ial pur­suit of her­itage trans­mis­sion; we iden­ti­fy with the out-of-place white men, the sen­si­ble ones who respect the diver­si­ty that eth­nic­i­ty rep­re­sents but do not encour­age what in the moment feels like abuse. (I cringe.) Mindy calls the cer­e­mo­ny off and, in the next scene that kicks off Act III, Mindy, Leo, and her par­ents sit on her bed as Mindy frets, “I tried to do this Indi­an thing that I didn’t under­stand and every­one knew.” Her par­ents reas­sure her that they love the U.S. and thus did not encour­age their U.S.-born chil­dren to main­tain eth­nic ties. Her moth­er insists: “You make us so proud every day. If that isn’t Indi­an I don’t know what is!” Val­i­dat­ing the Act I under­stand­ing of assim­i­la­tion as an indi­vid­ual choice but dis­miss­ing its con­se­quences through the pow­er of love, their per­mis­sion resolves Mindy’s con­flict. (I roll my eyes.)

This iden­ti­ty con­flict is love, the gift that keeps tak­ing. Berlant reminds that mid­dle­brow love is not just about a desire for whole­ness but the anx­i­ety that attends that search, as well as its result­ing dis­ap­point­ments. As I have argued, The Mindy Project and its crit­i­cisms occa­sion a con­sid­er­a­tion of how diver­si­ty con­tributes to the quo­tid­i­an ways in which dif­fer­ence becomes so unbear­able. Sure, I have crit­i­cized how the por­tray­al of race, eth­nic­i­ty, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in “Con­cord” and “Bernar­do & Ani­ta” aren’t good enough. But I have done so to dwell in this iron­ic mode of mid­dle­brow diver­si­ty, in which the ges­tures of eye­rolls and cringes alone seem analy­sis enough. When I ask them about their respon­si­bil­i­ty to bridge the world of texts and the world of pol­i­tics, my stu­dents gen­er­al­ly agree, “It is impor­tant to have the con­ver­sa­tion.” Some days, I snap: “Then what?” The gen­er­al response is a shrug, a gig­gle at my impa­tience, a look down deep into their note­books, some­times a tru­ism about need­ing more peo­ple of col­or behind the cam­era. Our tools for doing oth­er­wise feel so few because para­noid read­ing, once a crit­i­cal prax­is, has tak­en on the role of diver­si­ty val­ue cre­ation: all we need is a good com­plaint and a good eye­roll to no one in par­tic­u­lar to show how smart we are.

As I sit in meet­ings about cam­pus diver­si­ty, which seem insis­tent on eras­ing pow­er, equal­iz­ing dif­fer­ences, and pro­mot­ing “civil­i­ty” as our spaces of inquiry are besieged by hate groups and sur­veil­lance using the lan­guage of “free­dom of speech,” it feels like we are so backed into a cor­ner that diver­si­ty feels like love—one that we have and hate that we do. Despite my the­o­riz­ing and advo­ca­cy, I am not ful­ly sure what is beyond diver­si­ty. But what if we took that not-know­ing not as an obsta­cle but as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­front the oppres­sions we know until we do? Being edu­cat­ed, “diverse” sophis­ti­cates, we have a rela­tion­ship to pow­er, and beyond com­plain­ing to each oth­er, we can use that pow­er. Instead of rolling your eyes, have you called your rep­re­sen­ta­tives? Instead of cring­ing, have you donat­ed to Black Lives Mat­ter and oth­er social jus­tice strug­gles? It’s time for action beyond our dis­ap­point­ments. We must break the polit­i­cal fan­ta­sy that under­pins diver­si­ty: that things would be fine if only we were heard.

This essay has trav­eled through dis­cus­sions of class, the sheer fact of race, and the prob­lems of our lan­guage of diver­si­ty and media account­abil­i­ty. In call­ing us to orga­nized, polit­i­cal action, I have insist­ed on break­ing the love­ly fan­tasies that insu­late us from the pre­car­i­ties all around us. But since I start­ed us out with my rela­tion­ship to Mindy: what about love? Return­ing to her Vul­ture quo­ta­tion, Kaling has said about the final sea­son: “I think she gets what she needs, but not what she wants, which to me is a hap­py end­ing because what she wants is insuf­fer­able.” Kaling pos­es Mindy’s insuf­fer­abil­i­ty against the pos­si­bil­i­ty of her being “a lit­tle more woke.” Mindy Kaling goes on to describe how her character’s Real House­wives aspi­ra­tions and brief mar­riage to Ben, the sub­ur­ban Jer­sey nurse of Sea­son 5’s roman­tic arc, enable her to locate her desires beyond mat­ri­mo­ny. As some­one who has fan­ta­sized hav­ing a big, gay wed­ding recep­tion (I cringe at the thought of “fab­u­lous”), I pause. I mean, Mindy ends up with Danny—which hard­ly feels like a hap­py end­ing, even as I have the tools to cri­tique that very notion. Is the con­struc­tion of love, and all we attach to it, itself insuf­fer­able? As I yet again thumb through the Tin­der haze of indis­tin­guish­able beards and vaca­tion pho­tos and gym self­ies, I won­der: Is unlov­ing love learn­ing our vexed rela­tion­ship to that which we can­not not want—is there is no out­side to ide­ol­o­gy, no way to be “woke” with love? This is not to deny the man­i­fold forms of love that exist beyond the romance nar­ra­tive, as I find con­so­la­tion after every shit­ty date from all those who can laugh and roll their eyes at how men are the worst. I guess that’s Mindy and me: we can have our love and hate it too.

Acknowl­edg­ments

The author would like to thank the audi­ence of the North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty Asian Amer­i­can Stud­ies Program’s Feb­ru­ary 2018 Brown Bag for their gen­er­ous com­ments on this essay, espe­cial­ly Michelle Nan­cy Huang, Jonathan Gen Mag­at, J. Ryan Marks, Nitasha Tamar Shar­ma, and the afore­men­tioned adored stu­dents; my time­zone-cross­ing Mindy simul-watch par­ty, Aman­da Dyke­ma and Susan­na Comp­ton Under­land; Lyn­da Maz­za­lai Nguyen and Bet­sy Yuen, who sur­vived the insuf­fer­able auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive; and the unde­feat­able Sarah J. Sillin, for solic­it­ing this essay and the shared adven­ture that under­wrote it.

 


[i]Malli­ka Rao, “The Lega­cy of Both Mindys on The Mindy Project,” Vul­ture: Devour­ing Cul­ture (19 Novem­ber 2017).

[ii]L. S. Kim, “Asian Amer­i­ca on Demand: Asian Amer­i­cans, Media Net­works, and a Matrix Stage,” in The Rout­ledge Com­pan­ion to Asian Amer­i­can Media, eds. Lori Kido Lopez and Vin­cent Pham (Rout­ledge, 2017), 170–1.

[iii]These two peri­ods were when the mid­dle­brow was named as such and when crit­ics like Dwight Mac­don­ald lam­bast­ed the cul­tur­al field as a “bas­tardized” coop­ta­tion of high cul­ture. See Mac­don­ald, “Mass­cult and Mid­cult” (1960), repub­lished in Against the Amer­i­can Grain (Da Capo Press, 1983).

[iv]E. Alex Jung, “Mindy Kaling is Not Your Pio­neer,” Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca (11 Jan­u­ary 2015).

[v]Dodai Stew­art, “Mindy Kaling Only Makes Out With White Guys on The Mindy Project,” Jezebel (14 May 2013).

[vi]Maria Ele­na Fer­nan­dez, “The Mindy Project Cast on the Series Finale: ‘Mindy Gets What She Needs, But Not What She Wants,” Vul­ture: Devour­ing Cul­ture (13 Novem­ber 2017).

[vii]Jane Ward, Respectably Queer: Diver­si­ty Cul­ture in LGBT Activist Orga­ni­za­tions (Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008), 48.

[viii]David Savran, A Queer Sort of Mate­ri­al­ism: Recon­tex­tu­al­iz­ing Amer­i­can The­ater (Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2003).

[ix]Lau­ren Berlant, The Female Com­plaint: The Unfin­ished Busi­ness of Sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty in Amer­i­can Cul­ture (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008).

[x]I want to be care­ful here: L. S. Kim crit­i­cizes how the fig­u­ra­tion of media advo­ca­cy as com­plaint frames racial mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion as an issue of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and not cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ty, and, if you do not inhab­it a minori­tized iden­ti­ty, you per­haps should not com­ment on this issue fur­ther.

[xi]Jua­na María Rodríguez, Sex­u­al Futures, Queer Ges­tures, and Oth­er Lati­na Long­ings (New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014), 2–7.

[xii]Helen Her­an Jun, Race for Cit­i­zen­ship: Black Ori­en­tal­ism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Eman­ci­pa­tion to Neolib­er­al Amer­i­ca (New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), 246–7.

[xiii]The ques­tion brings to mind Black fem­i­nist Hort­ense Spillers’s the­o­riz­ing of the Amer­i­can gram­mar of racial­iza­tion with­in white suprema­cy in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An Amer­i­can Gram­mar Book” (1987). Spillers high­lights the ongo­ing lega­cies of the Mid­dle Pas­sage to cri­tique the “dubi­ous­ness” of the lan­guage of sexuality—freedom, desire, repro­duc­tion, kinship—and its pre­sump­tions of human free­dom for those who have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly denied their human­i­ty on the basis of their race. The Mindy Project’s affir­ma­tive diver­si­ty par­tic­i­pates in the Amer­i­can Gram­mar of Asian Amer­i­can sex­u­al­i­ty, in which Asian Amer­i­cans are seen as par­tic­u­lar­ly amenable not to dis­turb­ing pre-exist­ing racial arrange­ments. Hort­ense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An Amer­i­can Gram­mar Book,” Dia­crit­ics 17.2 (1987): 64–81.

 

Works Cit­ed

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Kim, L. S. “Asian Amer­i­ca on Demand: Asian Amer­i­cans, Media Net­works, and a Matrix Stage.” The Rout­ledge Com­pan­ion to Asian Amer­i­can Media, edit­ed by Lori Kido Lopez and Vin­cent Pham. Rout­ledge, 2017, pp. 170–180.

Lowe, Lisa. Immi­grant Acts: On Asian Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics. Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1997.

Melamed, Jodi. Rep­re­sent and Destroy: Ratio­nal­iz­ing Vio­lence in the New Racial Cap­i­tal­ism. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2011.

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Dou­glas S. Ishii is a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of the Asian Amer­i­can Human­i­ties at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. He holds fac­ul­ty affil­i­a­tions with the Gen­der & Sex­u­al­i­ty Stud­ies Pro­gram and the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Pro­gram. His aca­d­e­m­ic work has appeared in Cam­era Obscu­ra: Fem­i­nism, Cul­ture, and Media Stud­iesGlob­al Asian Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Cul­tures (NYU Press, 2016), edit­ed by Shilpa Davé, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha Oren; and Tech­no-Ori­en­tal­ism: Imag­in­ing Asia in Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion, His­to­ry, and Media (Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015), edit­ed by Bet­sy Huang, David Roh, and Gre­ta Niu. Dou­glas also has work forth­com­ing in Amer­i­can Quar­ter­ly and The Oxford Online Ency­clo­pe­dia of Asian Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture.