whoever you want to be…

Mindy Kaling’s new show, what I love and hate about rom-coms, and why single —> married isn’t a redemption story

Not that Mindy Kaling needs my approval, but I’ve seen the pilot episode of the new sitcom she created and stars in, The Mindy Project, which premieres in the US tonight, and I loved it. I’m not saying it didn’t have a few issues, but starting any show with a shot from When Harry Met Sally is an easy way to win my heart.

Kaling has a charismatic persona, and it seems like The Mindy Project sprang fully-formed from her brain: a place of judgemental Barbie dolls, glittery dresses and wine-induced oversharing. Even though the programme’s main character Mindy Lahiri is an accomplished OB/Gyn, she harbours fantasies of her own life turning out like a romantic comedy. Which might sound kind of sad for a 31-year old professional, but I completely relate.

Because that’s how I’ve always wanted my life to turn out, too.

Not because of the romance — although that can be a fun diversion — but because even the worst examples of the genre usually feature:

1. A (usually) glamorous (usually) New York, I’ll-just-grab-a-latte-and-stroll-through-Central-Park lifestyle.

And

2. An aspirational yet flawed woman who, for want of a less cheesy term, goes on a journey of personal discovery.

You can spend hours trying to convince me of the problems with Pretty Woman (although your time would be better spent pouring scorn over Runaway Bride) but ultimately Edward is just a plot device for Vivian to decide what she really wants — and she doesn’t need his help to get it. In a less sex work-y example, Sam and Annie from Sleepless in Seattle can’t get together until he’s confronted his grief over his wife’s death, and she’s learned to follow her heart instead of always doing what other people expect.

I get that some people see these movies as enforcing the idea that women need to perfect themselves in order to be lovable, and there are certainly some where that seems to be the main lesson (it’s one reason Must Love Dogs made me apoplectic). But there are a lot more that can be read as narratives of female empowerment, and for me, a near-housebound woman with physical and mental health problems to overcome, they provide hope that major life changes are possible. Even if that hope is packaged in a glossy Hollywood format, there’s still an emotional truth that resonates.

So while I’m not opposed to a conventional happy ending (heteronormative, usually racially undiverse couple ends up in monogamous relationship, people rejoice), that’s never been the point of rom-coms for me.

Because it’s never been the point of real life, either.

The thing I have to overlook when enjoying a rom-com or a sitcom like The Mindy Project is that it’s often based on the assumption that finding love is not just the key to happiness but the key to everything (success, fulfilment, approval, etc.). It seems like no matter how many feminist strides we make, the stereotype of the single woman as a total saddo whose dating status must be rectified as a matter of urgency never goes away.

And as any woman who has dared to be single for more than a month from her late twenties onwards can confirm, that attitude isn’t limited to fiction.

Grazia recently ran a heartfelt article by 29-year old journalist Jessica Hopkins about how hard it is to be a single woman. Not because you don’t have someone to snuggle with, but because other people see us as second class citizens, and assume we also think we’re lesser beings if we’re not part of a couple. Hopkins even argues that we’re prejudiced against, which seems like strong language for a bias that’s more annoying than potentially dangerous. (I can’t call an intrusive hairdresser demanding to know why I didn’t have a boyfriend a hate crime, even if I did cry from frustration later).

But I do relate to her piece, especially to how disappointing it is when people who seem otherwise normal start listing the reasons you haven’t let yourself fall in love, or tell you that “we need to find you a boyfriend” every time they see you, as two “friends” I’ve since cut out of my life kept doing.

The truth is, I never thought finding a boyfriend was that difficult. Making a meaningful connection might be more challenging, but people find people to date all the time and if you’re only after sex, there’s Craiglist or grown-up toys or taking up knitting to keep your hands busy. What’s the biggie?

I get that if you want to have kids and aren’t keen on raising them alone, it makes sense to mate before your ovaries shrivel to nothing. Even so, having [your own biological] kids is just one part of life. It’s a big part, but it isn’t everything — and happiness is far from guaranteed. Yet somewhere down the line, whether thanks to social pressure or the patriarchy, getting married and having children became conflated with being a worthwhile person.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have children but if I do, it won’t be because I needed to get a life. The same goes for marriage.

Although everything from romantic comedies to wedding magazines to government policy promotes the idea that getting wed should be the pinnacle of my aspirations, if I do get married it will be because I want to cement a serious partnership (I’m frivolous like that), not because I have visions of tulle dresses dancing in my head. And despite how the media writes about Jennifer Aniston, I never want to see getting engaged as some kind of redemption story, proof that I’m finally socially acceptable.

Partly because that’s sexist and reductive and partly because I want my life to be about other things, too: I want to have deep, lasting friendships, writing-related triumphs, and OK, fine: spiritual experiences, man. I resent and reject the idea that the answer to loneliness or sadness is not to face it head-on but to glue yourself to someone else’s hip. (And — not an original observation but still a true one — it’s always women who are viewed as hideous ogres for being alone, whereas men are carefree Clooneys, the epitome of suave.)

Maybe pop culture will stop seeing us as so pathetic one day, but until then, I’ve had to overlook the “save me from dying alone” trope in many of my favourite shows and movies in order to enjoy them. And yep, it turns up in The Mindy Project too, where our heroine says:

“Maybe I won’t get married, you know. Maybe I’ll do one of those Eat, Pray, Love things. Ugh, no. I don’t want to pray. Forget it. I’ll just die alone.”

Kaling’s delivery made me laugh, but the sentiment made me roll my eyes. As did the news that Ellen Degeneres’ production company just sold a sitcom about a 32-year old woman who notices she’s listed as “single” on some paperwork and thus starts to panic that she’ll… you know.

Newsflash! We all die alone. It’s a solo trip with no return journey. (On the plus side, there’s no need to pack.)

It’s especially disappointing that Ellen is joining in this crap, as the main character in her ‘90s sitcom was never defined by her relationships with men. Sure, this was less a feminist statement than an attempt to remain closeted, but it was still pretty revolutionary.

Likewise, while I hated the stereotypical sassy black neighbour-girl (for not fitting in with the rest of the cast and so obviously being inserted to fulfill the network’s diversity quota), it was lovely to see the way NBC’s short-lived Best Friends Forever centred around female friendship instead of some “will-they, won’t-they” love story. It also felt like someone was speaking my language on the small screen at last (“Steely Mags”, anyone?)

Sadly, shows that aren’t about male-female romantic relationships seem to struggle to survive, but if we do have to see those relationships presented as the focus of women’s lives, let’s at least see something more real. A woman not knowing if she wants kids, perhaps, or being certain that she doesn’t, or even having an abortion and it not being a huge tragedy (it happens!). And perhaps we could even have the odd episode that suggests that a woman’s life and self-esteem doesn’t revolve around finding a husband. Because often it doesn’t.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Images via: 1, 2, 3.

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About diane

Freelance journalist, inveterate blogger and long-time tweeter (@dianeshipley). Obsessed with US television, feminism, and memoirs. Lives for pizza.

8 comments on “Mindy Kaling’s new show, what I love and hate about rom-coms, and why single —> married isn’t a redemption story

  1. Jacqueline Christodoulou
    September 25, 2012

    Great post, Diane.
    It reminded me of a documentary I watched at the weekend about Aung Suu Kyi who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for freedom and democracy in Burma. What I hadn’t realized was that she was never forced to stay in Burma, living alone for years under house arrest, away from her husband and sons. She could have left at any time. She chose to stay there because if she left she may never be allowed back in. Even I, as an ardent feminist, had assumed that someone had forced her to do it, physically kept her away from her husband – it had never occurred to me that she might be committed to something more important to her than her family.
    Since that program I’ve discussed this with several women and they are completely horrified that she ‘abandoned’ her family, as someone put it. None of them mentioned what clearly was and still is the most important thing in her life, her duty to her country, which she chose to honor, with the full agreement of her husband.
    Social programming has a lot to answer for.

    • diane
      September 25, 2012

      It really does, and I can’t help thinking “but what about her kids?!” Yet men make those kinds of decisions all the time, and they’re often revered for it.

      I remember my A-level politics teacher telling us that Margaret Beckett was so devoted to her work that she “hasn’t even HAD KIDS!” As if this was some big surprise or a great sacrifice, instead of… you know, what she actually wanted to do.

  2. Robyn Wilder
    September 25, 2012

    What a brilliant post. I don’t get why singlehood raises an eyebrow, but it often does. I remember having a conversation once (while single) with a friend of a friend where every time I referenced “being single” the girls I was with kept adding “AND LOOKING” then exploding in cackles. It enraged me. I wasn’t looking, I was just ROBYN. Ugh.

    Also I want to punch your hairdresser.

    • diane
      September 25, 2012

      Aw, thanks, Robyn! I think the problem there was that you dared to have a conversation while single — you really should have hidden yourself away to spare others your shame. *covers self in shroud*

      And don’t worry, I only went to that hairdresser once (although you’re still more than welcome to punch him).

  3. mallymon
    September 25, 2012

    Always proud, always wondering how I (with a little help, obvs) produced such an intelligent person… Is it so very wrong that I used to be that person with visions of tulle dresses dancing … ? That’s probably the reason I’m now single … and loving it. Well done you!

    • diane
      September 25, 2012

      Oh, you! (Thanks, Mum.) And no, it’s not so wrong, but yes, it might help to explain your divorce… ;)

  4. bodhimoments
    September 26, 2012

    :) Really interesting read. Thank you for pointing out that it is okay to decide what one wants out of life with reference only to oneself

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