Originally written June 2016 for X-Factor Films Blog.
Since Mindy Kaling first came on the scene as The Office’s Kelly Kapoor, she’s been winning hearts left and right, whether as shallow Kelly who says what we’re all thinking, as the author of two books that read like chatting with your BFF, or as the rom-com lead character Mindy Lahiri in her show The Mindy Project. In all her incarnations, Mindy manages to embody something relatable for her female fans, but The Mindy Project in particular pushes the bounds of the traditional sitcom lead.
Since the first episode, Mindy Lahiri has followed in the footsteps of the classic sitcom heroine model of trying to “have it all.” Single, working women from Mary Richards on Mary Tyler Moore to Liz Lemon on 30 Rock have all tried to find their own balance of romantic love, fulfilling careers, and supportive friendships.
For the first three seasons of The Mindy Project, Mindy sought after these things as well. But when the show moved from FOX to Hulu for season four, it seemed like she had actually found it: she was engaged to her will-they-won’t-they love interest Danny Castellano, the couple had a baby named Leo, and with the support of her coworkers Mindy had launched her fertility practice, “Later Baby”. The question became not “Can she have it all?” but “What now?”
As the second half of season four airs, Mindy Kaling answered this question by making her show arguably one of the most feminist programs on TV. (Spoilers ahead!)
#1: Mindy puts her career first
Fans who ’shipped them from the very beginning might be heartbroken that Mindy and Danny’s seemingly perfect relationship fell apart, but the dissolution of their relationship was heartbreakingly realistic. The main reason Mindy broke off the relationship because Danny wanted her to quit her job to have more children and raise a family.
Though Mindy clearly loves being a mom, quitting her job goes against her nature. Mindy is smart, hard working, and ambitious. We’ve watched her work her way up to becoming a leader at Schulman & Associates, take on a fellowship at Stanford, and establish her own fertility clinic. As much as Mindy Lahiri is a romantic at heart, she puts herself first.
This decision is important in a lot of ways. Too many women can relate to being pressured out of their career for their family. It also shows that even though The Mindy Project has always been a rom-com, Mindy’s career dreams are just as important as her romantic ones.
#2: Mindy is now a single, working mom
Few sitcom leads have explored single motherhood, let alone of an infant child. Mindy has a lot to balance with her work, dating, and responsibilities to Leo. We get to watch Mindy as she struggles with childcare, when to tell your date that you’re also a mother, and becoming jealous of Danny’s new girlfriends as they spend time with Leo.
Even though she’s back living her rom-com lifestyle with botched dates, comedic misunderstandings, and a parade of beautiful men, the show remains honest about Mindy’s struggles. Being single in New York was always difficult; being a single mother in New York is even harder.
#3: Mindy isn’t afraid to be alone
One of the hardest things Mindy realizes – and we realize by proxy – is that being in love isn’t always enough. Even though Mindy and Danny cared deeply about each other and share a child, it isn’t enough to bridge the gap of their differences. Though she works with Danny to do what’s best for Leo, Mindy is uncompromising when it comes to whats best for her.
Mindy has many opportunities to settle down and be with someone – restarting relationships with her exes or meeting new men who (obviously) fall for her. However, Mindy has always put herself first. She won’t settle for someone who doesn’t love her for her, which includes her career, her baby, and her fantastic romantic heart.
Even when presented with the opportunity for a casual physical relationship, Mindy realizes that she needs to work on herself and her happiness outside of romantic relationships before she can fall in love again. A staple of The Mindy Project is Mindy’s dreams of meeting Mr. Right. By taking a step back from romance, Mindy puts her own emotional wellbeing first. It’s an important lesson: a romantic relationship doesn’t always make you happy. Sometimes you have to learn to be happy on your own first.
Mindy Lahiri has always been one of the best leading ladies on TV, deconstructing rom-com tropes and trying her best to “have it all.” But as the series progresses, we realize along with Mindy that having it all might not be exactly what we thought it was, and that’s okay. Even though Mindy’s life is messy and complicated, her struggles are real and relatable. We couldn’t ask for a better feminist heroine than that.