Mindy Kaling, It's Getting Weird
Sex Lives of College Girls is the latest in an alarmingly long line of Mindy Kaling productions that gives its Black and brown women characters some very questionable romantic storylines.
Sex Lives of College Girls season two ended on December 15 with a finale that drew mixed responses from fans. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to summarize everything that happened in this season — read Haaniyah Angus’ great recap for a closer look instead. College Girls, following roommates Kimberly, Whitney, Leighton, and Bela at a prestigious PWI called Essex College, is an absolutely relentless rollercoaster of a show. As I reflect on season two, I’m glad I watched it — it’s funny and exciting, and the chemistry between all the actresses is palpable in how warmly the heroines’ friendship radiates during the show’s best moments. However, College Girls is not without its faults, with a major one being the questionable romantic choices this show has made for its brown and Black main characters.
In this post, I’ll be focusing on something that people have been swift to point out online about Mindy Kaling productions — her tendency to make a white man the love interest of the lead brown character. Across most of Kaling’s productions, namely the shows The Mindy Project, College Girls, Never Have I Ever, and the movie Late Night, the main character is an Indian woman whose serious romantic interests and end-game partners are white men. Bela in College Girls dates Eric. Mindy ends up with Danny at the end of The Mindy Project. Devi in Never Have I Ever is in a love triangle that is currently heavy on Ben. Molly in Late Night ends up (somewhat ambiguously) with Tom. I’ll also add Whitney from College Girls, though she’s Black, not Indian like all the other characters — but similarly has a fling with a guy named Andrew.
Kaling has been the butt of many jokes and criticisms about this pattern in her work. To some degree, all the Indian women characters are self-inserts. Kaling also has an infamous on-again, off-again relationship with fellow Office alum BJ Novak, who was rumoured to be the father of her two children (he is their godfather). You might see where this is going.
Here’s where the real problem lies for me — it’s not just that her characters always end up with white men, but it’s specifically that these brilliant women of colour end up with white dudes who are awful towards them.
I can’t speak in much detail to The Mindy Project, a show that I watched the first few seasons of a long time ago. But when it comes to the other Mindy Kaling productions that I mentioned, virtually every male character starts off as an antagonist with an unfair preconceived notion of the female character across him. In Never Have I Ever, Ben calls Devi’s diverse friend group the “UN” and constantly belittles her intelligence. In College Girls, Eric does not believe Bela when she accuses their coworker at The Catullan of sexually assaulting her. Also in College Girls, Andrew is loudly judgmental of Whitney in class, refusing to work with her on group projects. In Late Night, Tom is so comfortable with the male-dominant culture of the writer’s room he works in that he’s immediately spiteful of Molly for coming in and spoiling it, calling her a “diversity hire.”
Kaling loves an enemies to lovers plotline, but these guys are jerks. They treat the woman like garbage, and it’s often the woman who meets them more than halfway. The men all have meagre moments of redemption — for example, Eric ends up sticking up for Bela in College Girls and supports her effort to get the abuser working on The Catullan removed from his position of power. Still, why does doing the bare minimum now qualify Eric as a romantic interest for Bela? I distinctly remember feeling uncomfortable when the show’s season one finale set up some tension between the two of them, as though College Girls itself had forgotten that mere episodes ago, Eric was more concerned about The Catullan than Bela’s wellbeing.
It’s difficult to watch the man’s animosity for the woman across him ultimately amount to romance because, well, I don’t think it’s sexy when men hate women! I don’t mean to simplify the stories that much, but truly, it’s hard to root for the progression of these relationships. Where Kaling and co. write scenes with competitive, flirtatious banter, I see a woman putting up with inappropriate behaviour until the man acquiesces and accepts her as a person.
I don’t believe Mindy Kaling should be held responsible for producing “perfect” representations of brown girls and women in her work, because not only is that an impossible task, but messy characters are more interesting. More true. Also, understanding your own identity is lifelong work on a personal level, and doing so while writing about it for other people is genuinely tough. I do believe that Kaling’s work has improved in its representations of women of colour over time, and though it still feels unsatisfactory, it’s worth noting that Kaling’s productions haven’t always bungled it.
The fifth episode of College Girls’ second season gives us one of the most impactful stories in the whole show. In this episode, titled “Taking Shots,” we watch as Whitney navigates a murky interaction with a white TA who keeps mixing her up with the only other Black girl in class. She recognizes it as a microaggression, one coming out of a racist, unconscious bias. It makes her uncomfortable, so she gently and confidently speaks with the TA about it directly. His reaction is to break down and cry because he is so overwhelmed by the accusation of racism. Whitney shuts that shit down almost immediately, then has a lighthearted but meaningful conversation about it with some of her friends at Essex who are also Black women. They immediately understand what she experienced and validate what she is feeling. (A quick note — Mindy Kaling does not have writing credits on this episode. It is written by Justin Noble and Sheridan Watson.)
Why, then, in the same show (and the same environment of bio class!) did Whitney put up with classmate Andrew when he repeatedly dismissed her and assumed she was stupid? Why did the sight of his muscly arms suddenly make her forget what she just learned with the TA? It’s disgusting to imagine her in a romantic relationship with her man-baby TA, and watching her hook up with Andrew felt the same.
Once again, Mindy Kaling’s shows and movies will employ the enemies-to-lovers trope, even when it doesn’t make sense. An earnest, gut-wrenching enemies-to-lovers story convinces us that the two characters need each other — that despite their differences, they make each other better. Whitney doesn’t need Andrew and he definitely doesn’t make her better.
What impressions of love are left with Kaling’s audience after the misuse (and overuse) of this trope? What potentially harmful messages does it share about healthy vs. unhealthy boundaries?
At the end of the day, this tiresome repetition appeals to whiteness, even in stories about brown and Black women. It tells us that weathering discrimination, harassment, and bullying from white men can be worth it — but it’s never really worth anything, is it? When have the Erics, Bens, Toms, and Andrews of the world ever been worth it? We must not bend over backwards to “earn” the love of the white men who question our power, criticize our talent, dismiss our beauty, and downplay our intelligence. We should choose to love people who love us back enthusiastically. And if they make you feel small, fuck ‘em.
Wait, no — don’t fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em.
You get it.
Thanks for reading midnight snack. And hey, if you liked this, let me know by subscribing or leaving a like and comment! I also want to dig into the pacing issues and Bela’s character on College Girls, so depending on what you thought of this, I’ll work on that next.
This is so accurate and on point. I also thought it was strange that there was that end of episode bit of Bela sleeping with that comedian. I don’t feel it was ever addressed outside of how it impacted Bela and Eric, despite it being this big cliffhanger and all the implications of this very imbalanced hookup. There have been a few inappropriate and strange relationships in this show and I don’t feel that they ever fully explore the emotional impact these might have on literal eighteen year olds.
the whitney bio boy storyline made me especially mad because that man was incredibly misogynistic and/or racist and yet he was somehow a viable love interest!!
Eric at least had a slightly more realistic redemption arc and it felt realistic that he would have needed a second before turning on his friend.
bella constantly hooking up w comedy men in power to get jobs is a SUPER weird dynamic that is worryingly not addressed at all and continues to work out for her which i HATE