Why The Mindy Project’s ‘Coconut’ Episode Was a Smart Response to Criticism of the Show

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L-R: Kristian Kordula and Mindy Kaling in "Bernardo and Anita." Photo: Hulu

The Mindy Project was the first series created by and starring an Indian-American woman, Mindy Kaling, but some of the most pointed criticism of the show has been that it’s too white. Two years ago at SXSW, an audience member asked Kaling why her character was the only doctor of color on the show. “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?” Kaling responded. “It is a little insulting because, I’m like, God, what can I — oh, I’m sitting in it. I have 75 percent of the lines on the show.”

More frequently, this critique has been aimed at the fact that Mindy Lahiri only dates white men. My own line on the show’s racial politics has been that the problem isn’t that Mindy exclusively dates white men, but rather that the show didn’t engage with the contours of those interracial relationships. There are plenty of Asian-Americans who only date white people, but to suggest that race isn’t a factor is willfully naïve: You encounter people who won’t date you because of your race, people who want to date you only because of your race, and the ones who claim not to see race at all. The Mindy Project brushed over Mindy's dating choices when there was plenty of comedy to be mined there. And so it was a both surprise and a delight when The Mindy Project dropped the “C” word during the recent episode “Bernardo & Anita”: coconut.

Coconut, of course, is one of those lightly pejorative, food-based words to describe people of color who are “white on the inside.” (Other gastronomic equivalents include Oreos and bananas.) It’s a label that’s usually leveled by a member of the same race, a way to tut-tut the other person's failure to properly rep for the tribe. Having Indian-American suitor Neel (Kristian Kordula) call Mindy Lahiri a coconut was a smart and playful way to address a longstanding criticism of the show itself, while remaining true to the show’s protagonist.  

The accusation sends Mindy into a slight identity crisis. “Rishi, we're both super Indian, right?” she asks her brother. “Naw,” he replies. “You think you're white and I think I’m black. We skipped over that whole steez.” When she asks her co-worker, Jody, if he thinks of her as Indian, he responds, “Honestly, I think of you as a white man — largely because of your entitlement.” The episode follows Mindy trying to “prove” that she's down with her heritage in obvious and ham-handed ways. When she meets a group of Neel’s friends, she overperforms what she thinks is “authentic” by wearing a kurta and chastising Jody for bringing a bottle of whiskey to dinner. In the end, Mindy Lahiri is still herself. She doesn’t become a social justice warrior, but simply realizes with the help of her parents that she has always been Indian enough. It may be a bit pat, but the episode showed that rather than outright dismiss the criticism, Kaling listened, and responded thoughtfully.

Internet commentary is simply a new iteration of audience engagement with a show, and it presents a new challenge for showrunners, to either address critiques of representation or dismiss them. We've seen this recently in fan frustration over Nicole Beharie's perpetually sidelined character Abbie on Sleepy Hollow. In an almost primal move, rather than address the disparity and give their black female lead more story lines, the show killed her off. Before that, when The 100 killed off Alicia Debnam-Carey's lesbian character, Lexa, many fans pointed out that this was falling into a "Bury your gays" trope where gay and lesbian characters are often seen as disposable. The outcry prompted executive producer Jason Rothenberg to offer a lengthy apology for killing off the character with a promise to be aware of these dangers. Meanwhile, both The Mindy Project and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dealt with fan reactions similarly — by bringing in guest characters to stand-in for those critical voices — but with very different ends.

When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt drew flak in its first season for its Native-American plotline and Asian character, Dong, Tina Fey responded: “Steer clear of the Internet and you’ll live forever. We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the Internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes,” she told Net-a-Porter. “There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.” In its second season, the show responded to “outrage” culture when Tituss Burgess’s character performs a one-man play based off of his past life as a Japanese geisha, Murasaki. A group of Asian-American activists (called RAPE — Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment) protest the play, leaving Kimmy and Titus aghast: How can they judge something they haven’t even seen? Titus eventually wins them over with his rendition of the folk song “Lullaby of Takeda.” In the end, the story line doesn't do anything to improve the show's issues with representation: The Asian-American guest characters aren't given any dimension outside of their outrage, and the story line plays like someone reminiscing on the good old days when you didn’t have to listen to criticism.

In Mindy's “Bernardo & Anita,” perhaps the most crucial scene is when we get a glimpse of Neel's social circle: a group of Indian-Americans. The interesting thing that happens when you have a diverse group of a particular ethnicity is that race moves into the background and culture moves to the forefront. We see a range of Indian-Americans during the episode: Some, like Rishi, identify with hip-hop and black culture, whereas others value their Indianness, while also enjoying single malts and Crossfit. And then there's Mindy, who doesn’t think much about it at all. The commentary on varying identities within one culture actually deepen her character, and at the end of the episode, Mindy Lahiri is, if anything, more herself than ever before.

Ideally that’s the value of criticism. It can sharpen the lines of a show and make it braver, more complex. Jane the Virgin brought in a similar voice of critique in the form of Professor Donaldson (played by Melanie Mayron) who teaches Jane about the Bechdel test and has an instinctive aversion to romance. Jennie Snyder Urman, the showrunner for Jane the Virgin, told me recently that her character was a way to respond to critics who dismissed the romance genre as flimsy and non-feminist. “I like that [Jane] has to defend her belief in it as a genre, and I also like that it's being challenged,” said Urman. “Having somebody who's really critical makes the moment when they do like and appreciate your work that much more valid.”