an ode to kapoor, lahiri, and kaling
Kelly Kapoor—vapid, boy-obsessed office assistant, mid-20s;
Mindy Lahiri—vapid, boy-obsessed doctor, mid-30s;
Mindy Kaling—vapid boy and clothing-obsessed feminist award-winning comedian, 35;
Mindy Kaling’s first television role was playing Kelly Kapoor, a shallow, boy-obsessed office assistant on the hit-comedy, The Office. She has extended that fame by playing a similarly superficial, boy-obsessed doctor on her own show, The Mindy Project, currently entering its third season. It’s almost like Barbie’s many iterations except she’s Indian, short, and “fluctuating between chubby and curvy,” to quote her character, Mindy Lahiri. Lahiri indulges a variety of bad habits: drinking too much red wine, spending too much money on clothing, not working out, chasing boys that are terrible for her—all things make women “frivolous” in our society.
So why do we love her so much?
Mindy Kaling’s social media feeds are filled with instagram selfies of her puckering up with a new shade of Chanel lipstick or oohing to a dress designed for her for Glamour’s Woman of the Year Awards ceremony. But she’s also an award-winning comedy writer with a successful book and her own television show.
Kaling got her start playing Ben Affleck but she’s made her career by, well, playing versions of her social media-loving self. Kaling and her characters are a premiere example of Roxane Gay’s “bad feminists” who hookup with guys they knows are jerks and love Starbucks and sometimes really get Taylor Swift and are told by the patriarchy they are “basic.” Along with all of these ‘flaws,’ however, they carry a strong sense of women’s rights and integrity in the workplace. Lahiri, for example, is a relatively progressive OB-GYN (not that it has much to do with the plot of the show aside from providing occasional additional room for vaginal humor and a backdrop for shenanigans).
To quote writer Noreen Malone, identifying these flaws of characters like Lahiri as “basic,” ends up, “implicitly endorsing two things [the character] probably wouldn’t sign up for if they were spelled out for her: a male hierarchy of culture, and the belief that the self is an essentially surface-level formation.” Smart men can indulge in pretty women and nice suits, but the thought of a smart woman indulging in something makes women cluck their tongues and men shudder.
“But I think people still think that I’m like my character, or that because I like girly things and I have a lilt in my voice that I’m dumb. But I don’t think you can be dumb and write a big chunk of a TV show,” Kaling told The Guardian in 2011. Mindy Kaling, it seems, could care less if people think her culture is“basic.” Romance novelists? Not trash but glamorized. Reality television? An important part of water cooler culture. Going to the gym? Torturous for more than a few. Mindy, like many women, believes in these things and instead of worrying about her show being a “chick show” or “female comedy,” treats it as a non-issue. For 30 minutes, including commercials, we can also take a break from making these indulgences an issue too.
Take the show’s ability to simultaneously poke fun at Mindy’s unrealistic romantic ideals while embracing them. Mindy visits the Empire State building—the heart of Nora Ephron’s New York romance—so much that she gets suspected of terrorism. By season two, however, she ends up with her own “Harry,” stubborn co-worker Danny Castellano.Looking at Kaling’s past romantic arcs, Kelly Kapoor’s arc revolves around Ryan. If Kelly is a vapid small-town Scranton girl, Ryan is a too-smart-for-his-own-good hot shot. Together, they are an on-and-off toxic combination of the superficial and fickle. Mindy’s life has yet to revolve around Danny specifically, but ostensibly most of the conflict of the show revolves around her love for life except for a few B-plots here and there. It’s hard to remember the last time a career crisis lasted more than one episode for Lahiri. However, the couple is much more stable. Danny’s curmudgeonly nature and “old man” routine balances out Mindy’s over-the-top antics. Mindy Kaling is, herself single, but is publicly nostalgic over her complicated relationship with ex and best-friend fellow writer B.J. Novak. She recently told Glamor Magazine “In my 20s, I was not only boy crazy, but marriage and relationship crazy. Now it’s almost the opposite. My work is so rewarding and I’m so self-centred about it that I’m kind of excited about not having to go home and ask someone about their day.”
Kaling, like her characters, is more than an Instagram feed or crazy antics. Her superficial nature is just that— superficial. She is complex without being pretentious about it. And that’s why we like her.