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How Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project Ushered In a New Era of Anti-Heroines

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Junk food-loving, politically incorrect, and fashion-forward Indian-American doctor Mindy Lahiri has a twin milestone coming up: ten years since the show created by her portrayer, Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project, premiered — and five years since it went off the air.

When the show dropped on Fox (and was later picked up by Hulu) in September 2012, it was a daring move for the network that was at that time known for white and male-skewing content like The Simpsons, American Idol, and Glee. Within a broader TV landscape, what was known as “prestige TV” was leaning hard into its exaltation of anti-heroes, hot off the success of shows like The Sopranos ,Breaking Bad and Dexter. There were problematic women, too, but they were mostly hated for deigning to question the actions of the white men they orbited (paging Skyler White).

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The anti-heroine was starting to get its due at this time too, with shows like Weeds, Damages, and Nurse Jackie, that all explored women with complicated motivations, and even those more closely aligned with The Mindy Project’s high-femme ethos like Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City (many consider Carrie Bradshaw the archetype for the modern TV antiheroine). But these were all different from The Mindy Project in key ways: They were centered on white women, who have always been able to get away with more “bad behavior” than women of color, and they featured women whose brazen selfishness or immorality was a feature to be noticed by audiences at home — not widely discussed within the show itself.

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Kara Crane, Mindy Kaling in ‘The Mindy Project’ ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection.

The Mindy Project really challenged this status quo: when we first meet Mindy Lahiri, she’s not a model minority Indian doctor but rather a “chubby 31-year-old” who gets drunk, crashes her ex’s wedding, and lives her life like she’s playing out a rom-com. Mindy’s apartment and wardrobe are Carrie Bradshaw-levels of enviable, and her personality is also Carrie Bradshaw-levels of selfish and frivolous. She’s a purveyor of gossip, “pretend[s] to enjoy reading and fresh air,” thinks recycling makes America look poor and that global warming is a hoax. As several characters point out throughout the course of the show’s six seasons, Mindy has the confidence, entitlement, and personality of a white man — in fact, it’s fair to say at least 50% of the show’s jokes revolve around either Mindy herself or those around her pointing out her more questionable qualities.

This type of character was a game-changer on a few levels. Meta media about the creator/titular character had previously been the purview of white male auteurs, such as Seinfeld, Louie, and Curb Your Enthusiasm; when Mindy Kaling did it, her on-screen character faced hurdles those predecessors never did. Mindy Lahiri can’t just show up as her imperfect self: She’s surrounded by expectations of what a woman who looks like her should be like, and she’s constantly battling those who would try to relegate her into a quieter, more obedient version of herself. As a result, she’s been forced into a level of self-awareness that Carrie Bradshaw, Nancy Botwin, and even Jerry Seinfeld weren’t. This also created a tension between the overtly unlikable aspects of Mindy’s character and the simple truth that watching someone defy the limitations others impose on them feels liberating and hard not to root for. Mindy Lahiri loves herself — and dammit, for all her flaws, you will too.

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Chris Messina, Mindy Kaling in ‘The Mindy Project’ ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Perhaps due to that same self-awareness displayed throughout, the show becomes more than a vicarious spectacle of a woman acting outside society’s prescribed roles. The Mindy Project allows its protagonist to grow and be worthy of patience while she does so. Because Mindy is consistently called out on her misdeeds or less-than-likeable qualities, she alternately digs in her heels on being exactly who she is and explores what it would take to make her life different. “I wish that you didn’t have a list of my flaws on the tip of your tongue,” she tells fiancé Danny Castellano, played by Chris Messina, at one point — can you imagine Carrie Bradshaw hearing that same list from a love interest without the show characterizing him as an out-and-out villain? As a result, Mindy grows up; Carrie never does.

Since The Mindy Project, we’ve had long-running comedies that have centered on highly feminized, highly flawed characters and worlds: specifically, characters whose awareness of their own flaws acts as the catalyst for these stories to begin. Shows from Jane the Virgin to Crazy Ex-GirlfriendInsecure, Broad City, and more all feature women who don’t just break society’s molds but are in on the joke and aware of the conversation their difference creates. This brings us to Kaling’s latest project, Never Have I Ever, which takes the self-aware, imperfect anti-heroine to the teen years. (Late Night and The Sex Lives of College Girls featured similar aspects, but Never Have I Ever feels the most spiritually similar to The Mindy Project.)

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Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in ‘Never Have I Ever’ ©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection.

Never Have I Ever stars Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as a first-generation Indian-American teenager who rivals Mindy Lahiri in selfishness and poor decision-making. The show picks up after the death of Devi’s father, the grief for which is so all-encompassing that Devi inexplicably loses the ability to walk (a plotline criticized by many of those in the disability community). As Devi tries to rebuild her life and relearn to walk, she defies her mother, struggles to control her anger, ignores her friends, spreads rumors, two-times her boyfriends, and generally wreaks havoc on her high school in an attempt to combat her awkward nerdiness.

Devi might be too much at times, but she’s also one of the most complex female characters on TV and a grieving teenager whose brain is still forming so, like Mindy and her white anti-heroine sistren, we have to allow Devi the room to figure it out on her own, mistakes included. In some ways, crafting a teenage character is the perfect follow-up to Mindy Lahiri, one of the first anti-heroines who showed that women could be kind of bad people on TV without being cast off as villains or asking audiences to forgive every single less-than-flattering tendency. Just like with Tony Soprano, Kaling has perfected the art of writing women whose actions we don’t agree with, and yet in whose growth we’re invested. With The Mindy Project nearly five years off the air, it’s remarkable to see how her influence has spread ever since.

Before you go, click here to see our favorite movies and TV shows about imperfect, complicated women. 

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