The Mindy Project is currently in production for its fifth season — its second on Hulu — and at the Television Critics Association press tour this week, Mindy Kaling revealed that her character, Mindy Lahiri, might be undergoing some major changes.
“We’re pitching an episode called, ‘If I Was Born a White Man,’” Kaling said at the event. “I love the idea that something happens to Mindy that is really sexist, and then she wakes up the next morning as a white man.” In other words, fans of The Mindy Project can look forward to seeing Mindy Lahiri as a white man instead of an Indian-American woman, at least for one episode. The character would be recast for the episode and feature a white, Caucasian actor onscreen “to live [Mindy’s] life, still with my [voiceover].”
This isn’t the first time The Mindy Project has taken on a big concept like this — who can forget the episode where Mindy woke up married to Joseph Gordon-Levitt? But if they do actually make this episode, it will be the first time the show has tackled any racial issues so bluntly and on such a huge scale. Race was always a factor on The Mindy Project. As the only network television show with an Indian-American female lead, the show was groundbreaking from the start, something creator-writer-star Kaling knew very well. That said, it hasn’t been a huge recurring theme for the show. The Mindy Project is, first and foremost, a romantic comedy, not a televised course on race relations. Heavy discussions or plot points on race just don’t fit with the format, and so most of the commentary from the show has come in the way of occasional jokes and smart quips. Mindy waking up a white man will certainly make a bigger statement on race than the show has ever made before.
My initial reaction to The Mindy Project tackling white male privilege so openly was that it would be brilliant. Kaling and her writers have consistently delivered interesting, thoughtful and hilarious episodes over the course of their four seasons, regularly commenting on racial identity and gender norms. There’s no reason to think they can’t nail this, too. That said, the concept of white privilege — specifically, white male privilege — is so intricate, it might be too much to tackle in a half-hour comedy. Hell, it’s a lot to ask from a two-hour movie or even entire novels.
There are a few ways The Mindy Project could execute the concept of Mindy as a white man. The episode could feature a variety of broad scenarios, like a policeman giving her/him a nod of approval instead of a look of suspicion, or Mindy as a man being able to manspread on the subway. On the other hand, the episode could be a deeper look into the kind of person Mindy would be if she was not born female or Indian-American. After all, a white male Mindy would have grown up with entirely different experiences, from the playground to medical school and beyond. Mindy might not be the most connected to her Indian heritage. Just last season, a man accused her of being a “coconut” — brown on the outside and white on the inside. But that doesn’t mean that the people who surrounded her while she was growing up didn’t stereotype her or treat her differently because of how she looks. Without those experiences, who is Mindy?
If The Mindy Project decides to go for the deeper look into white male privilege, then the show might accidentally raise more questions than it can answer. How does growing up with white male privilege affect her likes, her dislikes, her career or how she treats her friends? Is she more traditionally handsome as a man, thus gaining extra beauty privilege? Is she more fit or thin? (Remember, Kaling is known for throwing in a few body-positive story lines now and again.) If so, how will that add to the white male privilege? I don’t think The Mindy Project can answer these questions in half an hour of original programming. If they’re smart, they won’t even try. (My head hurts just thinking about it.)
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the showrunners should only go forward with the concept if they can answer all of these questions. What I am saying is that maybe tackling white male privilege would be best done in more low-key concepts and story lines instead of such a drastic and potentially goofy event. What worries me about The Mindy Project tackling white male privilege by turning Mindy into a white man for an episode is that the concept will overpower the actual issue at play. Privilege exists in many forms — white privilege, male privilege, skinny privilege, class privilege, etc. — and they frequently overlap and intersect. It’s a complex concept that can easily be reduced or over-simplified by a plot like the one Kaling proposed.
That said, comedies like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish have thrived in part because of the ability for comedy to provide a way to talk about race in America. Who’s to say The Mindy Project can’t do that, too? I don’t know what the outcome of “Mindy as a white man” will be. What I do know is that it will either be a perfect half hour of television or a disaster.