This guest post by Shannon Miller appears as part of our theme week on Sex Positivity.
If there was ever a word that could best encompass the essence of the central character of The Mindy Project, it would be “unapologetic.” Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) is unapologetically confident in her abilities as a doctor. Her fashion is an unapologetic cacophony of bold colors and daring patterns that always inexplicably work. She makes no apologies for subscribing to her version of femininity, which includes a sizable obsession with romantic comedies, flawless selfies, and overpriced blowouts from trendy hair salons. She’s more than occasionally rude, prejudiced, and self-absorbed and probably should apologize for a great many of those instances, but rarely does. She refuses to be the underdog in medicine and in love, and would be the first to tell you that she has earned the right to a cinematic romance and all of the enviable, announcement-worthy sex that comes with it. To summarize: Mindy Lahiri is determined to have it all and to those who feel like that quest is a selfish or unrealistic one, well…sorry, not sorry.
The romantic comedy genre is often the target of harsh criticism bordering on blatant disrespect – as are many things that are considered inherently feminine – but there are certain critiques of mainstream efforts that I do feel are worth examining, like the recycling of/lazy approach to certain tropes. Sex positivity, for instance, is frequently presented in an oversimplified, inaccurate package of rampant promiscuity and generally assigned to a side female character, like a free-spirited best friend or sister. Meanwhile, the main character frequently serves as the antithesis to said behavior who is later rewarded with “true love.” There is a cluster of issues with this model, like the implication that the choice to entertain multiple partners is always a negative one. The most troubling concern for me, however, is the notion that an active sexual appetite and the desire or ability to be in a romantic, loving relationship are somehow mutually exclusive. While there are plenty of aspects of the genre that I adore, it is always disappointing to see sex positivity treated as a cautionary tale, or something within the protagonist that must be cured.
And you might assume that a woman who would potentially give her right arm to be Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally would adopt this particular school of thought. Nevertheless; Mindy’s dream of finding the perfect husband and father to her nine future daughters is only rivaled by her desire to have her world categorically rocked by a man with the penis of Michael Fassbender. Her pleasure doesn’t take a backseat to her relationship goals, nor are they necessarily treated as separate entities. In fact, Mindy folds her sensuality into her overall ideals of dating and monogamy.
Additionally, open sexual expression in professional women is not something that we get to see reflected in our network programing too regularly and when it is, it’s treated with ranging levels of discretion. We know that the decision to keep one’s sex life private or public is a personal choice and a right, but it can get problematic when our expression becomes shrouded in societal expectations until it’s presented as an absolute (i.e. “a lady must keep her sex life private” or “real women should openly discuss their sexuality”). Our brightly-hued protagonist , however, isn’t terribly caught up in anyone’s expectations of her in this regard; she’s far too busy informing her entire staff when then-boyfriend Cliff (guest star Glenn Howerton) is routinely “getting up in them guts” (“Danny Castellano is My Personal Trainor”) or proudly lauding the oral skillset of current boyfriend and fellow OB-GYN Danny Castellano (Chris Messina). Yes, there’s definitely a lack of consideration for the privacy of her sexual partners within this compulsive need to share. Still, what makes her frank ownership of her sexuality so engaging isn’t that it’s some theoretical example of how women “should” express themselves, but a refreshing exercise in actual agency. Sure, she doesn’t have to broadcast her satisfaction with her and Danny’s sex life, but she’s going to and whether or not you decide to pull up a chair in the breakroom and listen (or tune in to her podcast dedicated to it, which she briefly hints to in the third season) is entirely up to you.
Her marque of sexuality also combats a lot of preconceived notions about sex positive women, in general. For instance, there exists an idea that sex positivity equates to absolute self confidence in all areas, which can include body image. While she is certainly accepting of her body to an extent, Mindy still holds onto some insecurity. In the season two episode “Danny Castellano is My Personal Trainor,” she divulges a few tricks to her coworkers that have kept her naked form a mystery to her partners over the years. This ultimately leads to her requesting the personal training services of Danny in an effort to get fit and gain enough confidence to allow Cliff to see her bare body. Her occasional reservations about her image don’t negate her desires, but they do shine a light on a certain vulnerability that isn’t always associated with sex positivity. Another popular assumption is that “sex positive” is synonymous with “adventurous,” or that those who identify as such are open to anything. It’s a misconception that can lead to events similar to those of season three’s polarizing episode “I Slipped,” which sparked a vital discussion about consent and in-relationship boundaries after Danny mistakenly assumes that Mindy is far more amenable to anal sex than she realistically is. She resists the false equivalencies that tend to strip much of the nuance and humanity from the sex positive movement, keeping an otherwise radical character somewhat relatable.
Though I champion Mindy as an audaciously sexual being, it’s important to recognize that there is a certain amount of privilege at work here (economic status, age, and ability, just to name a few) that makes her brand of sex positivity so largely celebrated. The fact that she is a young, wealthy, able bodied doctor not only impacts how she encounters inequality, but also the way her liberal sexual expression is positively received by others, whether it is intentional or not. It’s negligent to examine Mindy’s sexual identity and ignore the circumstances that afford her the benign label of “sex positive,” because that fortune simply isn’t awarded to all women, fictional or real.
That could be why The Mindy Project doesn’t protect its star from the sexist judgments of just about every one of her male counterparts, like her ex-boyfriend Cliff or previous fling and midwife/nemesis Brendan Deslaurier (Mark Duplass), both whom have taken foul jabs at the number of partners under Mindy’s belt (pun not entirely intended). This judgment is rife with hypocrisy – as slut-shaming typically is – when you consider how much Brendan prides himself on his open-minded approach to his own life, including casual sex, or how the men on the show experience virtually no judgment for their many previous conquests. This gross sexism is absolutely frustrating to witness, but it also grounds her experience in something that is accessible to many women. I may never personally relate to the glamorous life of a successful surgeon in Manhattan, but the indignation she feels when some guy tries to disgrace her for daring to enjoy sex, especially when he has no qualms about flaunting his own desirability, feels very damn familiar. How dare you, indeed.
We’re beginning to witness something really cool in sitcom television: genuine, recognizable complexity in women. Seeing a woman play both the helpless romantic and the unabashed sex enthusiast isn’t a revolutionary concept, nor is Mindy Lahiri the first to do it. I am, however, thrilled to consume quality programming that shows us thriving in our intricacies. My hope is that the future of TV includes more characters like Mindy: intelligent women armed with crass jokes, lavish fantasies of love, and a killer wardrobe.
Shannon Miller’s passions include bossy women, social justice, and her two-year-old daughter’s version of “Let It Go”. Her hatred of raisins is non-negotiable. You can read her thoughts regarding representation in media on her blog Televised Lady Bits or follow her on Twitter @Phunky_Brewster.