Mindy Kaling has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her starring role in The Mindy Project. She shares the honor of being nominated with illustrious companions, including Lupita Nyong’o, the brilliant new actress who starred in Twelve Years a Slave, and Kerry Washington, of Scandal fame. Two other actors of South Asian descent were nominated as well; Archie Panjabi for her role in The Good Wife and Karan Brar (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for his role in Disney Channel’s Jessie. It’s a high honor, for sure, and Mindy certainly is one of the hardest working women in the industry. I adore The Mindy Project; I even do recaps of it for The Aerogram every week.
But does she deserve an award from the NAACP?
The Image Award is given to people of color who have done outstanding work in film, television, music, and literature, or people who have worked to further the social justice cause. The NAACP Image Awards are a needed counterweight to the overwhelming whiteness of most award shows and a valuable tool in fighting prejudice and under-representation in the media. The problems that the industry has with race are well known. Good parts for actors of color are hard to find, and parts that could have gone to people of color are whitewashed and made into roles for white people. With films like Twelve Years a Slave and television shows like Sleepy Hollow, things are beginning to change but concerns about adequate representation remain.
The nominations are considered from an African-American perspective, which doesn’t mean that the nominees have to be Black, or even other people of color. The Image Awards have a diverse nominating policy, as seen with the past nominations of Emma Stone and Justin Timberlake. (There is controversy around this nomination process, especially with the nomination of Robin Thicke this year.) But whoever they are, they should have done something to contribute to the representation and general well-being of people of color, especially African-Americans, in the media. And that’s where Mindy hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The Mindy Project might be notable for starring a dark-skinned, chubby Indian woman as its lead — but that’s about all the show has done, to further the representation of people of color in the media. Mindy hasn’t enabled anyone else to blaze a similar trail — the show is downright mediocre when viewed from a racial perspective. The only Black person on the show is Tamra, a spunky and entirely stereotypical character, who speaks in a “ghetto” accent and is an example of the “sassy black woman” caricature. There have been strange jokes about Black people that stick out like a sore thumb, and there have been no guest stars of color, other than the hilarious Utkarsh Ambudkar, who played Mindy’s brother, a role that by definition had to go to an actor of South Asian descent. The guest stars that have appeared have almost exclusively been white and male, and have mostly played guys that Mindy is interested in dating. The role of Mindy’s boyfriend is a colorblind role — there’s no reason why the guys Mindy dates have to be white. Yet all of them have been. This demonstrates a lack of courage in the casting department, and Mindy missed an important opportunity to give an actor of color a role that otherwise, he wouldn’t have gotten.
The show has addressed race before, and it has poked fun at its overwhelming whiteness. But showing that they are aware of the criticism isn’t the same as addressing the criticism. As far as I’ve seen, casting decisions haven’t been made any more progressive, and no effort has been made to improve Tamra’s character. And the way Mindy Kaling has, in real life, brushed off criticism of racial insensitivity demonstrates that the show is not likely to change any time soon.
Mindy shouldn’t be held to a higher standard simply because she happens to be a person of color. She’s simply doing what everyone does in Hollywood, there’s no reason to single her out as if she created the problem of inadequate representation. There’s a corollary to this argument; if we shouldn’t expect more from her in the race department, we shouldn’t award her for things she hasn’t done. There’s no need to give her an Image Award just for daring to have brown skin and being on television, when she herself has said she doesn’t want to be seen as an Indian woman. There’s no reason to keep on emphasizing the transformative racial politics of her show, if there are none.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Chandigarh, India. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation and read her thoughts on her personal blog.