On Representation – “The Mindy Project”

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I recently started watching The Mindy Project on Hulu. Though I’d previously watched the pilot and thought, “Oh, this is truly funny. I should dig into this,” I never followed through. Until now. And holy crap, I don’t know what I was waiting for! Each 30 minute episode is a perfect little nugget on its own, with A and B story lines that unfold unexpectedly and round out nicely. However, as the story goes, I’ve found it hard to just watch one episode at a time. And why should I, really? This show is so well-written (duh, because Mindy Kaling is involved), has an off-beat sense of humor in the same vein as New Girl, and builds tension well. The whole series is pretty impossible not to binge-watch in a short time frame; my sister and I watched the first 38 episodes in a span of three days, so….

The story obviously revolves around Mindy, who is an accomplished OB/GYN co-running a practice with her two male counterparts. She is mega-intelligent, but she is also a major drama queen, kind of shallow, and relatively clumsy. She loves Hollywood gossip. She is rather materialistic. Her body is not the willowy Hollywood ideal, and she addresses that from time to time, whether it’s mentioning how proud she is of her big butt, or thanking someone for commenting on her flat feet, proudly stating, “I almost never fall down.” (See? Weird comic gold.) She says dumb things and makes cringe-worthy mistakes, which we all do.

And that is what is so refreshing about Mindy – she is relatable. She doesn’t always say or do the right thing, which I can definitely relate to. Also, I recently read that the average American woman is a size 16-18. And while Mindy is a size 6-8 (I only know because I read her first book), even seeing any leading female character who is above a size 4 is sadly refreshing and oddly more representative of the general public. Seeing her on the show is actually what inspired me to write these posts on representation.

I personally felt a strange kinship with Mindy from the outset because my body shape is nearly identical to hers, which is something I never, ever see in the media. Like, ever. Everyone is perfectly proportioned on TV – no one is ever smaller on top and larger on bottom, except for frumpy moms. It’s incredibly irritating. And Mindy is anything but frumpy, in style or attitude. The fashion on this show is incredible, so much, in fact, that there have been several web pages and serious retrospectives dedicated to Mindy’s many outfits. It’s cool to see someone with our proportions taken seriously, stylistically, and dressed in a flattering manner. But style aside, Mindy is a cool, informed (though with some weirdly and hilariously conservative views) 30-something who somehow manages to maintain the attitude and pep of a preteen while running a successful and time-consuming business.

Yet perhaps what is most different about The Mindy Project is that its lead character has dark skin, is a woman, and is still undeniably the star of the show. AND that star is also the show’s creator and head writer! Even in this day and age, that is all such an anomaly. Though great strides have been made in the past few years, a female minority lead character in a popular television show is unfortunately still something pretty rare to find. Add on the titles of series creator and lead writer, and you have something pretty unique. It makes me hopeful to think about young girls/women (and boys/men) of color seeing themselves in Mindy on TV, maybe thinking “Hey, I can be a doctor!” or “I can be the main character on a TV show!” or even “I can be a writer and director and TV star too!”. Mindy – the actual person – has certainly been a source of inspiration for me.

At the tail end of my first (of many) binges on this show, I just remember taking a quick break and saying, “It’s so nice to feel represented.” Superficially, seeing Mindy Kaling on my television, with my body, makes me feel not so awful about these inherited large hips, or small chest, or extra few pounds, because she is a confident, bad bitch. Not only does she own her shape and wear some killer outfits, but she doesn’t let her body alone define her. It’s kind of sad to think that at 31, I am so excited to see someone who kind of looks like me on TV that it almost brings tears to my eyes. It may seem like a small thing, or a superficial thing, but I’ve never really had that before. And sometimes it’s the little, seemingly insignificant things that hit us the hardest. Just seeing someone who resembles me in such a cursory way has made me think hard about what I’m doing and about the things I want out of my life. 

Because, more importantly than the physical representation, it is heartening seeing a female, minority writer living her dream. It’s just incredibly encouraging. Mindy worked her way into writing for The Office, penned some of the best episodes, and then took off to make something all her own. And while I realize that she has had a lot of amazing privileges and opportunities, it gives me hope that one day, if I work hard enough and stick to what I’m good at, I can also live the writing life I imagine. She helps me remember that the only limitations I have are the ones I place on myself.

I don’t know what Mindy Kaling hoped to accomplish when she created this witty, hilarious, well-written little show, but she has definitely made something significant.

Book Review – “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesI originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?

Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.

The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.

Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.

I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.

The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.

All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.

 

Recommended For:

Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.

The Mistress of Spices Movie
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