As sexist cultural representations go, television tends to head charts as the worst. It has become impossible to turn on the magic box and not encounter any number of sexist instances, anywhere from blunt objectification (remind me again why breasts are needed to sell deodorant?) to shallow and unfair female character portrayal whose main effect is to perpetuate stereotypes. Between reality TV and a wave of nostalgia to the early sixties – which were indeed great fun, if you happened to be a young, white, heterosexual man – watching television has become a rather frustrating pastime for anyone with the slightest concern for gender equality.
Fortunately, at the same time we are also witnessing a promising upsurge in fresh women creators and writers, with more realistic and rounded representations as a result. “30 Rock”, “Girls” and “Up All Night” are old news by now so let’s focus on a brand new show: Fox’s “The Mindy Project”, created and written by Mindy Kaling of “The Office” fame. This time around she’s the star and she is as charming as ever in the role of Mindy Lahiri, an Ob/Gyn in her early thirties. Besides the obvious attributes of having a show about a woman and from a woman’s point of view, this 20-minute sitcom has a lot going for it from a feminist perspective. First of all, it is well balanced: besides Kaling, the show features three more leading male roles and three leading female roles (all besides Kaling are white, but that’s for another essay). It seems almost too obvious to state, but take a minute to count the male/female ratio on almost every other show on television… you might be surprised with the result. Not only balanced, “The Mindy Project” has some interesting breaking of gender roles, most notably in the shape of male nurse Morgan Tookers. Remember when “Scrubs” featured a male nurse, or as they called him, murse? Well this time he’s not mocked for having a so-called feminine profession and that is exactly the point.
Most important though is Mindy’s character herself. She’s a strong and confident woman who goes after what she wants. In her way are various and continuous sexist traps, male co-worker hinting she should lose weight, for example, but rather than ignore them she handles the situation like any real-life woman would: by actually responding with irritation. The show does not ignore real life sexist remarks; instead it reminds the viewers how uncalled for they are. What’s more impressive in my eyes is how Lahiri responds to it all in her own unique way. When a television series wants to portray a powerful woman, it often falls to the old “woman-like-a-man” paradigm. For a woman to be in control she needs to be one of the dudes (Robin Scherbatsky, “How I Met Your Mother”), emotionally incapacitated (Sloan Sabbith, “The News Room”) or, quite plainly, a cut-throat bitch (Wilhelmina Slater, “Ugly Betty”). In short, she has to be a man, and a mean one at that (which is not to say men are mean or low on emotional intelligence; just that according to popular culture this are their stereotypes). That is because in the land of the patriarchs, so-called manly attributes are king and have the ability to upgrade a woman, whereas allegedly womanly attributes are at best forgiven. Not so with Mindy Lahiri. Here’s a woman who’s not afraid to be her “girly” self. She likes dressing up, she likes to talk about guys and dating, and she loves, loves, LOVES cheesy romantic comedies. And guess what? It doesn’t make her any weaker, sillier or flakier. She owns it and no one around her seems to doubt her for a minute.
It is refreshing to be able to enjoy a comedy without being annoyed every few minutes by stereotypical female representation. To be clear, this is not a show about feminism or about feminist issues. It’s simply a show with a more realistic portrayal of women, which features gender equality without making a big deal out of it. Not making a big deal is a key factor on the road to making television more realistic. It is precisely the experience of being exposed to “unusual” characters but taking it for granted which paves the way to equality in representation. See for example Liz Lemon in “30 Rock”: she’s a woman who is also the boss, but this is hardly discussed. Sure, she is mocked all the time; but only for being quirky, childish, at times straight-forwardly bizarre. Same goes for Abed Nadir of “Community”: when was the last time you saw a Palestinian (half Polish) character in an ensemble? But Abed is not “the Arab” (unless tactless Pierce is talking, but then of course the joke is his own absurd racism). He is usually described firstly as obsessed with pop culture, as a movie fanatic, as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He just happens to be that too. After a few minutes you get used to seeing the Palestinian, the female boss, the so-called-girly woman doctor, and just enjoy their other interesting attributes. Just like that: normality. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what my TV was missing.