Margaret & Mindy
All-American Girl’s brief run began in the dining room––the Kim family seated, their plates untouched. Mr. Kim glances as his watch, then raises his eyebrows. Older brother Stuart suddenly stands up, offering to check on Margaret. “Stuart, your sister knows what time we eat,” Mrs. Kim says.
“Of course she does.” Stuart sighs, then pouts. “I’m sorry, everyone. I’m afraid I let my tummy take precedence over tradition.” The laugh track plays on cue, but it’s difficult to tell what’s so funny. Was Stuart’s line poking fun at the model minority myth, this perception that all Asians are obedient––or at how Asian rituals, often dated thousands of years old, can be seen as sacred?
All-American Girl debuted in 1994 as the first sitcom starring an Asian-American family. It only lasted one season, a shaky but necessary first step to Mindy Kaling’s new show––which is currently one of the only sitcoms by a non-white female and the first to star an Indian-American. “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists,” Kaling has said. “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers out there.”
All-American Girl failed because it tried so hard––too hard to provide a definitive portrayal of Asian-American family life. (“Perhaps you should have found someone more representative of the Korean American experience,” a journalist said of its star Margaret Cho to executive producer Gary Jacobs.) Nearly 20 years later, The Mindy Project is subject to similar criticism from its Asian viewers. The show begins with a series of flashbacks, narrated by Kaling while facing a policewoman inside an interrogation room. While explaining her charges of disorderly conduct, she’s narcissistic enough to start from the very beginning.
As network TV executives have learned, one sitcom cannot speak for an entire demographic––not females, not families, not males. What one sitcom can do, though (and has tried, twice) is confidently tell a story of interesting and compelling characters, starring an Asian-American.
A second-generation Korean-American, Cho still imitates her mother in her stand-up routine––her eyes squinting, her voice sputtering through every exaggerated syllable. More than any other topic, she riffs on her mother’s confused perceptions of LGBT culture. In her 1994 HBO special, Cho explained how her family bookstore off Polk Street, San Francisco––”a gay mecca,” she elaborated––forced her newly-immigrated mother to reckon with the neighborhood’s niche demands: “What is a[n] Ass Master?” “Mom, I have no idea what Ass Master is.”
Cho starred in All-American Girl as Margaret Kim, a community college student whose every decision––clothing, career paths, dates––was scrutinized by her straitlaced Korean-born mother. This clash between mother and daughter, first and second-generation Asian-Americans is a common story, one that Jacobs was proud to tell. “On a more primal and universal level, I saw the show as a young woman’s struggle to establish her identity and find her way in the world,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, “In Defense of ‘All-American Girl.'”
But as Margaret dated and attempted to forge one career path after the other (she assists in managing a band in one episode, then studies for the LSAT in another), All-American Girl churned out one stock portrayal of an Asian stereotype after another. In its second episode (“Submission Impossible“) Margaret agrees to date a nice Korean man of her mom’s choosing. This means that Margaret must stifle her snorts, speak sweetly and, when meeting his parents, toast to a relative’s cringe-worthy blessing: “May you swell with the bounty of many masculine children.” Even in later episodes, with the introduction of Stuart’s girlfriend (“Redesigning Women“) and Grandma’s engagement to a new man (“Yung at Heart“), it’s difficult to tell whether All-American Girl is satirizing this stereotype of the demure Asian female or simply perpetuating it.
All-American Girl did go on to deliver smarter portrayals of cultural assimilation. Permanently fixed to her loveseat, Grandma recited commercial slogans and immersed herself in American pop culture as a TV addict. (“With this remote, I found out who shot JR,” she says to her once-fiance.) In “A Night at the Oprah,” Grandma’s insistence to see a live taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show leads to Margaret accidentally spilling her decision to drop out of college to her shocked mother and studio audience. Admittedly, a career counseling session led by Oprah is the sort of story that can only happen on a sitcom. Yet in these particular episodes––where Margaret bears good intentions and her mother only wants what’s best, traditions aside––the Kim family seems far less foreign.
By the time All-American Girl ended, it was hard to tell which felt more rash: its Asian stereotypes or, as only seen in the last episode, Margaret’s sudden move to a new apartment with all-white and male roommates. (Grandma, now the show’s most popular character, was the only Kim who visited.) Immediately after the show ended, Cho confessed that, as a young talent having to face veteran TV executives, she felt helpless. “I was 23. I didn’t know who I was and I was so insecure because I had no role models,” she said to Asia Society. “There were no other Asian Americans on television that I could point to and say I want to be like that.”
Kaling’s creative control over The Mindy Project marks an important distinction between her show and its precedent: All-American Girl cast Cho, but on the condition that the show addressed her heritage more than her stand-up ever did. But for The Mindy Project, Kaling could write the starring role that she’s always wanted, without feeling obligated to also serve as this makeshift, reliable ambassador to her native culture.
For years, Kaling scripted and directed episodes of the U.S. adaptation of The Office, which first distinguished itself from its U.K. source material when Kaling made her on-screen debut as Kelly Kapoor. (The writers decided that boss Michael Scott should be slapped, and him making a racist comment seemed like a good enough reason.) The more Kaling contributed, the more she craved to be her own boss––hence, her best-selling essay collection, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns. “I am so terrified, you guys. Not because I don’t think the book is great––which it really is, I swear––but because it is the first thing I’ve ever done creatively that is 100% me,” she wrote on her personal (but mostly shopping) blog.
Kaling, now 33, stars in The Mindy Project as Mindy Lahiri, an Indian-American OB-GYN who’s fiercely pursuing the happily-ever-after ending that she’s absorbed from romantic comedies. Her search grows desperate for two reasons: Her ex-boyfriend married a younger woman, and after having endured medical school, she finally has the time for a relationship. Lahiri’s deep appreciation for Tom Hanks and clothes will feel familiar to readers of her book and blog.
She certainly discusses aspects of both more than her Indian-American roots. In the pilot, when a car nearly veers into the now-drunk bike-riding Lahiri, she yells, “Racist!” In the third episode, Lahiri’s standing in line at an exclusive club when her coworker discloses that NBA players frequent this particular nightlife spot. “It’s not racism. It’s a proven, scientific fact that black guys love Indian girls,” she says, as her coworkers hush her. In the tradition of Chelsea Handler, Larry David and Michael Scott, Mindy Lahiri will blurt out the type of rash generalizations that may cross our minds––or even lead to a carefully-told joke––but are never spoken aloud in earnest.
The Mindy Project‘s other main characters, co-workers Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) and Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), are essentially leading men that modern-day romantic comedy fans would recognize: The steely-faced, über-alpha male and the coy Hugh Grant-type, respectively. Lahiri hooks up with Weeks in The Mindy Project‘s first episode. And from that point onward, she’s maintained a steady love-hate relationship with Castellano, where there is enough spark––well, pointed jabs to a divorce and a fake declaration of sexual assault––to suggest that she will hook up with him, too. Both males are pretty narcissistic. Then again, so is Lahiri. Model minority? Hardly.
All-American Girl was caught up in its historic nature. In that same HBO special leading up to the show’s premiere, Cho admitted that she wanted to name it The Margaret Cho Show, “because I am such an egomaniac.” (Other prospective titles: East Means West, Wok on the Wild Side.) With The Mindy Project though, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the possibilities. What if it did debut as The Margaret Cho Show? Would the show not have tripped over its obsessive portrayals of Asian-Americans? If Cho was in charge, would it still be on the air today? Would The Mindy Project still have presented its own firsts?
The Mindy Project‘s run begins in the living room––a flashback that shows a young Lahiri sitting in front of the television, index cards in her lap, as she recites Nora Ephron’s lines from When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having.” This flashback segues to another one of teenaged Lahiri gazing longingly at Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail. Then to another, this time in her college dorm, as the dreamy-eyed young woman watches Notting Hill. The story of Mindy Lahiri’s personal history told through her love of romantic comedies lasts barely a minute, but it speaks volumes about the state of Asian-Americans today. Mindy looks and acts nothing like Julia Roberts, and chances are, neither does her show’s audience.