Last October, a little after The Mindy Project debuted on Fox, Mindy Kaling told me that she didn’t mind if her character, Mindy Lahiri, sometimes seemed unlikable. Citing the example of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, who often says and does obnoxious things viewers wish they, too, could get away with, she said,
I want her to be realistic and authentic. So many of the female characters that I see on TV, they’re just kind of put-upon and boring. They’re so worried about viewers not being able to handle them being nuanced or occasionally selfish. But every woman I know is occasionally selfish—and also can be heroic and funny. I just try to make her interesting and nuanced, and if some people think she’s obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes.
As the season progressed, it became obvious that this was a problematic choice. As my Slate colleague Willa Paskin pointed out in her former home at Salon, “Mindy Lahiri has been an asshole many times over, but it’s not always clear the show knows she is being an asshole.”
Yesterday, as the show heads into its second season, Kaling conceded that her initial willingness to showcase Mindy’s selfishness was a mistake.
“Yeah, as it turns out, you shouldn’t be on TV and be like, ‘I want to be unlikable,’ ” she said.
That’s one of the things you learn. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman, there are some things that people don’t want to see. There’s a sense of protecting the female character that I hadn’t really anticipated. Some of that is bullshit, and we need to stretch what we expect our female characters to do. But you want the lead character who’s a doctor, who’s going to find romance, to be someone you respect and who does noble acts. We all come from comedy cred, and we have that side of us where we think, “Oh, we should just do edgy stuff.” But at its heart it’s not that kind of show. So the character has evolved a little bit.
Of course, writers should be empowered to create all kinds of characters: kind, noble, selfish, downright despicable, and everything in between. But for the moment at least, if you want a network hit, it’s probably not a good idea to put an intentionally unlikable female character at the center of the show.