Credit- Gilbert Flores / Variety via Getty Images
In 2020, comedian and writer Mindy Kaling (The Office, Never Have I Ever) noted being the sole diverse figure in a room is an ‘unfair responsibility’, as it means ‘everything you say is a representation of all women and all minorities’.
Two short years later, Kaling is facing backlash, largely from those sharing her South Asian background. Of concern is that her television characters Devi (Never Have I Ever), Bela (The Sex Lives of College Girls), and Mindy Lahiri (The Mindy Project) reiterate negative racial stereotypes and display a lack of connection to their culture, implying all South Asians suffer from this. This criticism results from a lack of diversity on television. To quote Kaling, it is ‘unfair’ to squarely place the responsibility of representation on one person.
Media is influential. Representations appearing in film, television, and print journalism ‘create’ and ‘reflect reality’, popularising ‘ideologies and world-views’. The portrayal of South Asians on screen in the West is low. In the US, their depiction on screen stood at 2.6% in 2021, with South Asian women accounting for 0.3%, whilst Diamond in 2022 found South Asians are ‘consistently the most underrepresented demographic in the UK’. The small screen creates its own reality. When representation of minorities is minimal, what is represented could be taken as reality to the unfamiliar viewer. Those sharing the same background could feel misrepresented if their experience is not what is depicted on screen.
Mindy Kaling was born to Indian parents in the US and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She always wanted to work in television despite not feeling represented on screen or in day-to-day life. Kaling mentions dealing with this through self-deprecating humour, making fun of the stereotypes she faced.
Her characters Devi, Bela, and Dr Lahiri also deal with low self-esteem. They mention negative stereotypes surrounding South Asians and speak of a lack of connection with their culture. However, this does not define them; they all overcome or attempt to overcome these issues. Importantly, this characterisation is not representative of all South Asian women. Equally, it may also be the experience of some. As associate Asian American studies professor Lakshmi Srinivas notes, fighting negative stereotypes is ‘unfortunately authentic’ for many. Similarly, others may also struggle with self-esteem or feel disconnected from their culture as first-generation immigrants.
I believe Kaling is free to speak to her experiences, as other writers are. This should not be void for minorities who are few in their field. Tina Fey isn’t expected to speak for the experiences of all white women as there are other prominent white women in comedy. It may be more productive targeting television’s lack of diversity rather than for one person to encapsulate the experience of all sharing their background. Increasing the diversity of those on and behind the screen will give people from similar backgrounds with varied experiences a chance to tell their stories, becoming the representation many lack.