I Understand Why Mindy Kaling Is Defending Her Much-Criticized Elle Cover, But It's Still Hard To Watch Her Do It

Growing up Asian American, I could count the number of Indians on television on one hand. The Simpsons’ Apu was one of them.
Publish date:
January 14, 2014
race, entertainment, Mindy Kaling

In the past couple of years, we — women, the press, bloggers, activists, concerned citizens — have managed to put enough pressure on certain fashion magazines to ban underweight models. Obviously, there’s some victory in this, but here is where we’ve failed: While we’ve made it un-PC to glamorize women with protruding bones, we haven’t actually eliminated magazine editors’ distaste for women who aren’t skinny.

Take the recent uproar over Mindy Kaling’s Elle cover. The magazine released alternate covers featuring Girls’ Allison Williams, Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler and Zooey Deschanel — all were in color, all were full-length. Only the fourth cover, with Kaling on it, ran in black-and-white and was cropped just above the actress’ waist.

To be fair, I’m guessing Elle created its Women in Television issue as a reminder of women’s impact on the small screen. And they deserve a high-five for that and for an attempt at diversity by putting Kaling on the cover. Unfortunately, their grandmothered-in bias towards race and weight played out in the worst way possible — with a size 8 woman-of-color conspicuously set apart from her three thinner white counterparts. #facepalm

Race card aside, Elle has controversially done this before with their cover featuring a very sheathed Melissa McCarthy. And while we’re on the topic, Vogue likewise took heat for its cropped-and-Photoshopped Adele cover — and will, no doubt, have all eyes analyzing its upcoming Lena Dunham cover.

In most cases, the celeb reaction is pretty much the same. The reverse-objectified woman in question voices her comfort with her body and without completely damning the magazine, expresses her ambivalence towards the reaction to body-shape elicits in general. And that is what makes Kaling’s reaction to the controversy alternately baffling and powerful: She’s been defending Elle.

Kaling tweeted: “I love my @ELLEmagazine cover. It made me feel glamorous & cool. And if anyone wants to see more of my body, go on thirteen dates with me. Later, on Late Night With David Letterman, she flipped the rhetoric to actually chastise Elle’s critics: “The implication was, ‘What, Elle, you can’t put her big, fat body on the magazine? Why? ’Cause she’s just fat and gruesome? Why can't we look at her beautiful fat body?’”

There is a miasma of issues at play here.

First off, Kaling, who has upwards of 2.7 million Twitter followers is basically a social-media ninja. With that in mind, she shrewdly used this opportunity to plug the next episode of her series: “Wishing for more skin on my @ELLEmagazine cover? Chris Messina & I are naked on a brand new #themindyproject tonight, ya pervs! 930/830 FOX.”

At the same time, she just assured about 2.7 million folks — plus Letterman’s viewership — that even unintentional discrimination is kinda okay. And, you know, it’s not. That is especially head scratching given her regular practice of saturating The Mindy Project with weight and overeating jokes, which are either satirical or self-hating, depending on whom you ask. (And for the record, I refuse to call her “curvy” — that’s code for full-figured, and Kaling, who runs regularly, is pretty petite and toned.) And that’s not to put Kaling in a corner: Both Girls’ Dunham and Super Fun Night’s Rebel Wilson come from that same school of comedy.

That finally brings us, in Kaling’s case, to race and the desire to assimilate. Growing up Asian American I could count the number of Indians on television on one hand. To put this in context, The Simpsons’ Apu was one of them. And he is, you know, a cartoon. On the one hand, you’re bummed out for not being represented. On the other, you accept that mainstream white culture is the norm and readily cash in your inherited culture simply to fit in.

Kaling’s “white-guy obsession” — in never casting men of color for her romantic leads — is well documented. When Dunham faced similar criticism, she promptly cast Donald Glover as a love interest. But let’s face it: Her perceived insensitivity was viewed as oversight, while Kaling’s has taken on the pallor of ethnic self-hatred. Blurring the lines here, her series’ admittedly vapid character tends to “surround [herself] with the invisibility of whiteness” — as this academic so aptly points out — obsessing over rom-coms, upper-middle class perks, and maxing-out her cuteness.

If there is anything subversive about Kaling, it’s actually the writer-producer’s unrepentant, unrelenting desire to fit in through the character she plays. That applies to both race and weight. Being put on the cover of one of the world’s largest fashion magazines is the ultimate validation for anyone who’s felt like an underdog. But having your difference pointed out in reaction to that? Well, those well-intentioned critics are actually nixing the coolness of your presence on a fashion magazine by harping on your differences.

Perhaps it’s unfair of us to saddle these ladies with such responsibility. “When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show,” Kaling once remarked to NPR, “you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one.” Since weight is a recurring theme on Kaling’s show, we’ve taken the liberty to anoint her an activist of sorts — as Dunham already knows all too well. Race is inherent, so we tend to slap that onus on Kaling, too.

I watch The Mindy Show for the most biased of reasons: I simply want to support a smart, successful Indian-American woman. But do I judge her for her “white-guy obsession”? All the time. Was I annoyed that she defended her Elle cover? Absolutely. But as an Indian-American woman, do I fall into the trappings of assimilation? Every freakin’ day.

So maybe instead of expecting Kaling to be a surrogate who empowers us, we just have to accept that she is merely one of us.