INTO THE NEXT STAGE: What Is Mindy Kaling’s Problem?

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

Over the years, two of the concerns I’ve had as a media activist is that Asian Americans rarely get to be the stars of their own television shows and significant Asian characters usually don’t get paired romantically with fellow Asians (unless they play grandparents).

The first problem is probably due to producers wanting to assemble elements that they believe will give them the best chance for success (e.g. white star is less risky than a minority). The latter, I believe, is because Hollywood worries that featuring too many minorities together makes it “too ethnic” and therefore, a turn off for white viewers.

So in the fall of 2012, after pressuring the networks, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (of which I was co-chair) got its wish when Mindy Kaling became the title character of Fox’s “The Mindy Project.” What’s more, she’s the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the show, meaning that this is her baby, her vision, and a reflection of what she likes.

Well, what she likes is her Dr. Mindy Lahiri character exclusively dating white men. Nothing but. No exceptions. So what’s her problem? Has Kaling internalized Hollywood’s habit of keeping ethnic couples apart? Or is she mistakenly believing that she’s becoming “more white” and therefore more acceptable by showing how attractive she is to men of the dominant culture?

She admitted to Us Magazine that her personal tastes run toward blonde men and that “I have taste in men like an adolescent girl.” One who’s mostly been offered white men to fawn over?

When asked about her “white only” policy on romantic interests this summer by Entertainment Weekly, Kaling had a strangely defensive answer: “Do people really wonder on other shows if female leads are dating multicultural people? Like I owe it to every race and minority and beleaguered person. I have to become the United Nations of shows? You can’t please everyone. I’m lucky, though, because I don’t have time to fixate, because there’s 24 episodes of TV to create.”

Oh, so now she associates minorities with “beleaguered” people? The downtrodden? The rejected? The unwanted?  The undeserving?

It’s a tough business, and sometimes people of color who make it like to think they succeeded despite their race and only because of their talent. So they don’t want to help out anyone else from their community nor promote messages that benefit them (the comedienne reportedly turned down an award from an Asian American group because she didn’t want the emphasis to be on her Asian background). But Mindy Kaling got some big breaks because she’s Indian American.

I’ve been told repeatedly by NBC executives that they developed Kaling through their Writers on the Verge minority writers program. From there, she became a staff writer on their series “The Office,” even joining the cast as a regular actor. The NBC/Universal Television Studio signed Kaling to a development deal, which led to “The Mindy Project,” and Fox picked it up.

Regardless of what’s going in on Mindy Kaling’s head, the on-screen results send an unfortunate message, that minority women can demonstrate their acceptance by white society by dating only members of that dominant community. True, like Margaret Cho before her, Kaling probably doesn’t want the burden of having to serve as an example for Asian people. But because she’s the only non-white or non-black person starring in her own network show, the reality is that how she approaches her character and sitcom either helps the cause or sets it back.

An array of Mindy Lahiri’s various white love interests.  Courtesy jezebel.com.

An array of Mindy Lahiri’s various white love interests. (Courtesy jezebel.com)

The Things I Do For This Column Department: I’ve forced myself to keep up with ‘Fox’s “Dads,” which started off with the most racist pilot in memory (mostly against Asians). In the second episode, they seemed to do a complete 180 by getting the dads to eat pot brownies. Suddenly, one of the dads became tolerant of gays and “liberals” like President Obama. Later, the other dad began singing a folk song to Eskimos apologizing for ruining their environment — with the other dad joining in.

OK, I thought, this was clearly a reaction against television critics and MANAA, which said the pilot was offensive, but you can’t get the dads to eat pot brownies every week. How are they going to be from here on out?  Well, in Week 3, the worst we got was Seth Green exclaiming to his father, “This place is disgusting!  And I’ve been to India!” and Martin Mull telling Brenda Song about her car, ”God, that thing is dented!” to which she sheepishly responded, “Yeah, everyone else on the road is a really bad driver…”

In order to get their Mexican maid to come back to work for them, Green forced his father to apologize for his jokes about green cards, large families, and beans (none of which we heard).

Nothing anti-Asian happened in either Week 4, 5 or 6. Still, it remains an unfunny show, and it’s surprising that the writers — who’ve worked on the animated “Family Guy” and the live action movie “Ted” — don’t seem to know how to write funny material or strongly end a scene before going to commercial. Maybe they’re used to writing quick quips for cartoon characters and they have no sense of rhythm for live action. Many scenes end abruptly just when you think something’s developing while another scene — when Warner (one of the sons) had a rectal exam gone wrong — just went on and on and on to the point of tedium.

Despite “Dads” getting less than a 1.5 rating in the 18-49 demo, Fox ordered six additional scripts, then surprised a lot of us by actually ordering a full season of the show. All of which means their entire Tuesday night line-up’s not doing that well either.

My Ears! My Ears! Department: Luckily, that awful song “(I Love) Chinese Food,” sung by 12-year-old Alison Gold and sounding like it was written by a 12-year-old, is quickly fading. Because it got almost 5 million views on YouTube in its first full week — and Billboard now counts that toward chart points — “Chinese Food” actually debuted on the Hot 100 at #29. But none of the almost 1,600 radio station the magazine surveys played it even once, and it only sold 1,000 downloads.

Alexander Weiss and Dara Yu, finalists on “Master Chef Junior.”

Alexander Weiss and Dara Yu, finalists on “Master Chef Junior.”

By comparison, “Fridays” by Rebecca Black, also written and produced by Patrice Wilson, sold 441,000 downloads in 2011. In its second week, “Chinese Food” fell completely off the chart.  Now if we can only stop Wilson from inflicting more of his terrible tunes on the masses…

Lightning Striking Twice? Department: In the summer of 2012, the surprise winner of Fox’s “Master Chef” cooking competition was Christine Ha, a blind Asian American. Now, we have the first “Master Chef Junior” — the same basic show but with cooks between the ages of 8 and 13.  It’s been such a surprise to see these kids know so much about sophisticated dishes — and how to make them — almost as much as their adult counterparts. Though when they get eliminated, they sometimes cry. It breaks your heart.

The finale airs this Friday at 8 p.m. and it’s come down to Dara Yu, a big but cute 12-year-old from Culver City, and Alexander Weiss, a curly-haired 13-year-old from New York City.

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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