The Mindy Project Is Progress for Indian-Americans—How Could It Not Be?

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 26 2012 6:45 PM

Like It or Not, The Mindy Project Is Historic

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project.
Publicity still for The Mindy Project.

Mindy Kaling in the pilot for The Mindy Project.

TV reporters and critics and Slate commentators alike may not be able to agree on whether The Mindy Project is a success, but in a new segment for Totally Biased, stand-up Hari Kondabolu makes a persuasive case that the show represents real progress. That’s because, after years of eating monkey brains and manning the cash register at the Kwik-E-Mart, Indian-Americans are now getting more nuanced portraits in pop culture, and The Mindy Project is a landmark. On the show, Kaling’s ethnicity isn’t made to define her—and, as Kondabolu points out, it’s the first sitcom starring and created by an Indian-American.

Of course, Kondabolu isn’t the first to note the growing number of South Asian faces on American television. Nina Rastogi noted the encouraging trend in Slate in 2010. While in the ‘80s and ‘90s portrayals included mostly Apu and Temple of Doom and the bumbling Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit, by 2010 the ranks of Indians on TV had started to swell:

Several of last season's most talked about new series—Glee, The Good Wife, Royal Pains, and Community—feature a South Asian performer. … The Office has Kelly Kapoor. Parks and Recreation has Tom Haverford. CBS's massive nerd-hit The Big Bang Theory has Rajesh Koothrappali. 30 Rock has Jonathan, Jack Donaghy's fawning assistant, who—after 68 episodes with no mention of his ethnicity—was finally outed as an Indian this season.
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As Rastogi explains, this South Asian surge grew largely out of a matter of demographics, but advocacy groups like the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition may also have contributed by encouraging more diversity on TV. Interest may also have arisen out of growing curiosity about Bollywood, and at least one performance historian suggested that it was a side-effect of growing fascination with the Middle East after 9/11. That said, there were still “no shows with true South Asian leads.”

The limits of the positive trend were highlighted earlier this year, when Ashton Kutcher showed that some comedians still think they can get laughs out of wildly stereotypical characterizations. As Ankita Rao wrote on Brow Beat, even positive stereotypes are dehumanizing, no matter how flattering they may be—which is perhaps how, even in 2012, we ended up with Kutcher dancing in brownface and thinking it’s okay.

Kondabolu’s rant, in addition to being a hilarious bit of stand-up, is a welcome reminder of how far TV has come. After all, most Simpsons fans might not think of Hank Azaria, the talented (and white) voice actor behind Apu, as the kind of person that deserves to be punched in the face. (Kondabolu would like to—or at least would like to imagine doing so.) Kondabolu even notes that there are “now enough Indian people where I don’t need to like you just because you’re Indian.” Along the same lines, you don’t have to like The Mindy Project to know it’s at leaset a little bit historic.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.