Friday, February 14, 2014

Why the Writers at “The Mindy Project” Can’t Write for Female Characters

There are many laudable aspects of “The Mindy Project”, with the sophomore season of the show currently enjoying positive response from many critics, and the show finally finding balance to the lead characters by making them at once relatable, flawed and consistently hilarious. The character of Mindy Lahiri, played with deadpan sarcasm and self-obsession by showrunner and lead writer Mindy Kaling, is an icon of what we need more of in television today: a strong, complex, self-sufficient everywoman, who acknowledges and is comfortable with the fact that she is a plus-size woman of colour. The show leverages the magnetism of this lead character to represent with great dramatic and comedic effect her role as a successful obstetrician/ gynaecologist at the firm Shulman and Associates, as well as her tumultuous and disastrous love life. There is also the added element of her will they/ won’t they flirtation with her colleague Dr Danny Castellano, leading to the kiss aboard a plane at the culmination of the second season’s first half.

While this all makes for great television, there is something that has become increasingly troubling as the show has progressed, namely how male-driven this “female” show has become. This is not to say that men have no place in narratives primarily focused on female audiences or with female leads, and in the genre of romance especially their role becomes more prominent. But it is conspicuous how Mindy has gone on to become the only rounded female character in the show, surrounded by a sea of masculine tomfoolery. In the recent episode, with the telling title “Bro Club for Dudes,” Mindy walks in on the men of her office engaging in a “wings and stings” tournament, eating chicken wings and engaging in playful “sting” operations with toy guns. She wonders why she is never included in these office games, and a throwaway excuse is offered by the men. This leads Mindy to try to bond with the new doctor at their practice, Peter, by accompanying him to a wrestling match in which he competes against a physically superior wrestler. All of these narrative devices are meant to construct Mindy as a team player who is willing to play by the men’s rules in order to have them trust and accept her. But what they really do is expose Mindy as an outsider in her own world. Mindy does not connect with any of the women in the show in any tangible way, and the men seem to operate without her. While the title of the episode is a knowing wink to the audience that the show has problems with women, it is increasingly obvious that Mindy is becoming the star of a bromance comedy, the likes of which Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd perpetually regurgitate, but this is a bromance where she is not allowed full access. Mindy, as a woman, exposes how inaccessible comedy is for female characters today.

Similar trends are noticeable in other comedy shows with female leads, like Fox’s “New Girl”, NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”, or even the late great “30 Rock”, where the lead female character is constantly trying to fit into her male-dominated world, and where she is unable to meaningfully connect with other females. This is evident in the way in which secondary females in all of these shows either take on the roles of caricatures, one-dimensional side-kicks, or they simply disappear altogether: Rashida Jones’s Ann Perkins was always the weakest character on “Parks and Recreation” and was mercifully written out of the show with little displeasure expressed from viewers; Hanna Simone’s Cece Parekh, supposedly the protagonist Jess’s best friend, all but vanishes for most of any given season of “New Girl”; Jenna and Liz hardly seem like they even enjoy each other’s company on “30 Rock”.

This trend of disregarding female secondary characters has become increasingly evident in “The Mindy Project”, where two female characters were dismissed after the first season (Anna Camp’s best friend to Mindy, Gwen, and Amanda Setton’s Shauna). In their place, originally one-dimensional wisecracking Nurse Tamara, played by Xosha Roquemore, was introduced. The only new recurring character introduced in season 2 was the new male doctor, Peter Prentice, played by Adam Pally. This creates the unrealistic representation of an OB/GYN practice with 75% male doctors when the profession is increasingly female-driven. In addition, supporting characters like Nurse Beverly (Beth Grant) and receptionist Betsy (Zoe Jarman) now only have one or two lines every few episodes, and have been effectively silenced narratively. Mindy no longer seems to interact regularly with her female friends who were casually introduced in the first season, and when she is not swooning over Dr Castellano, she is engaged in a version of male-bonding with her other colleagues or dating a new beau who the audience is already rooting against since he is a hurdle to her inevitable happy ending with Danny.

So why are female characters so woefully underrepresented or distanced from other females in comedy, and specifically in “The Mindy Project”? The trend seems to be linked to the patriarchal reliance on traditional female tropes, and not even a show as progressive as “The Mindy Project” seems to be able to overcome them. Women in entertainment are required to desire romance, and to need men for definition, completion or validation. Women are required to not be too vulgar unless they are dehumanised caricatures. None of these possibilities offer them much room to be funny, or to interact with one another.

There are a few comedy shows which seem to buck this trend of distancing female characters. The impeccable “Cougar Town”, the gritty and awkward-funny “Girls”, and the cringe-comedy of “Veep” are all reliant on large amounts of interaction between dynamic female characters. But importantly, none of these shows are currently on network channels, even though predictions a few years ago saw the trend of female-driven network comedies on the rise. On network television, there are tentative positive signs with CBS shows like "Mom" and "2 Broke Girls"; the latter show, for all of its problems with representation, at least allows the female characters to be somewhat three dimensional and to interact with one another regularly and meaningfully. ABC's "Modern Family" has moments of strong female interaction; family comedies have an advantage in the ever-reliable bickering/ mirroring mothers-daughter relationships, although notably the two adult female lead characters seem to dislike one another. As an example of strong recent female-driven comedy which network shows can learn from, the hilarious film Bridesmaids, even though it played into many tropes of women in film, still allowed for women to not only interact with one another in dynamic ways, but also to be rounded, human, messy and relatable characters.

Hopefully, Mindy will catch on to these possibilities in her show soon. There are positive signs, such as Nurse Tamara becoming more rounded and interacting with Mindy in complex ways. For the show to be truly revolutionary, it needs to offer more of these dynamic examples of femininity and feminine interaction. In the meanwhile, we’ll keep wondering if Mindy and Danny will ever get together.