Ever since stepping into the spotlight, Mindy Kaling has been both a media darling and a hero to smart young women. But since the publication of this week’s NY magazine profile (coverline: “The Cult of Mindy Kaling”), there’s been some backlash. Smart writers are observing that she’s “Oh my God, SMUG” (although Alex Balk does temper his judgment with the admission that “men do that shit all the time” before dismissing once and for all the necessity of thinking twice about Mindy Kaling). At Gawker, Rich Juzwiak decides that Kaling probably deserves to be as self-satisfied as she is but still calls her “the human equivalent of a retweeted compliment.”
It’s easy to see why Jada Yuan’s profile is provoking these responses. It’s full of little asides from Kaling about how people would love her if she were a gynecologist and how she kills it at karaoke. The centerpiece of the article is her declaration, “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there.” The obsessive attention to Kaling’s self-confidence threatens to drown out a really fucking sad and compelling story about how she moved home at the height of her success to take care of her cancer-stricken mother, and how the only way she’s been able to deal with her mom’s death is to just keep moving forward professionally at a breakneck pace.
The piece itself actually annoys me more than the responses, because these are the reactions the article seems designed to elicit. We are supposed to read it and think, “This changes everything! Successful Mindy Kaling really is a smug bitch who thinks she’s better than me.” It is crafted to revise the way we feel about a writer and actress most of NY magazine’s readers were fully prepared to love.
It’s not that I think Yuan is being disingenuous in characterizing Kaling this way. She clearly does have a high opinion of herself, although who isn’t guilty of tossing off a half-joking karaoke boast every now and then?
What gets me is the lack of engagement with why Kaling might portray herself this way in the press and to her colleagues. The piece points out (in a paragraph totally unrelated to its subject’s ego) that the last woman of color to create and star in a show was Wanda Sykes, in 2003, which has to mean that Kaling had to fight extra hard for what she’s gotten, and she must know she needs to put up some armor. She isn’t “chubby,” but she needs to call herself that because she’s not a size 2, and if she doesn’t put it out there and defuse it, some tabloid asshole will turn it into an insult. In just the same way, she needs to project confidence or else someone who looks more like he deserves to be a writer or producer is going to question what she’s doing in a position of power.
The piece and the backlash prove, though, that even if this strategy has helped Kaling in her career, it hasn’t released her from the double bind that traps all women in positions of power. If she’s seen as insecure, she gets walked on and picked apart and criticized for not being a “strong woman.” (Men who are insecure get praised as charmingly self-effacing.) But if she creates an impenetrable wall of confidence between herself and her detractors, she’s a smug human retweet. (Men who are confident are just men.) Never mind that if she weren’t so self-assured, we almost certainly wouldn’t even know her name.