thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Weight Weight, Don’t Tell Me: Body Image in “The Mindy Project”

In Television on September 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Sarah T.

The first comment about weight in Mindy  Kaling’s new show comes at the six-minute mark. “My body mass index isn’t great,” Mindy Lahiri tells her well-coiffed BFF Gwen, “but I’m not like Precious or anything.”

Kaling’s comedic timing is impeccable, but the joke rests on unsteady territory. Sure, Mindy’s being self-deprecating — but the punchline is really about how big Precious is. It assumes that, like Mindy, the show’s target audience of college-educated, middle-class women in their twenties and thirties will laugh at Precious to make themselves feel better by comparison. Of course, there are plenty of viewers who are closer to Gabourey Sidibe’s weight than to Kaling’s — but the show doesn’t seem worried about alienating them.

“No, guys, a culture that tells women they always have more weight to lose is a culture that wants women to disappear,” is not what they are saying. Maybe next episode.

The Mindy Project, as Sarah S. wrote in a recent GLG post, is a funny show with a heroine who,  in the tradition of Bridget Jones, is both together (doctor!) and a lovable mess (drunk bicycle-pool incidents). And like Bridget Jones, Mindy L. is clearly a bit obsessed with her weight. “Do you know how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?” she demands as a patient tries to drag her away from a promising restaurant rendezvous.

HOW HARD IS IT?” this late-twenties, probably roughly-Kaling-sized viewer thought in a panic. And then I thought, “Wait. ‘Chubby?’ Is this show calling me fat?”

The answer, I think, is: sort of. The pilot mentions Lahiri’s non-stick-figure-size an average of once every 7 minutes. I don’t think Kaling, or the show, is intentionally trying to make fun of bigger people or rile up the insecurities of its audience. But while Kaling is a talented comedian, her approach to the subject of weight sometimes makes me wince. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out with Out Me, she writes about being a happy and confident size 8. Yet she seems stuck in the body binary she’s protesting:

“Since I am not model-skinny, but also not super-fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous, “Normal American Woman Size” that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size because, I think, to them, I lack the self-discipline to be an aesthetic, or the sassy confidence to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like ‘Pick a lane.’

While the language isn’t super-clear, I think Kaling means that the stylists, not her, see larger women as “total fatty hedonists.” But there still seems to be stereotyping of plus-size women at work in this passage, as if bigger physical size necessarily corresponds with an outsized personality.

What’s most revealing, though, is that Kaling describes herself as “Normal American Woman Size.” This is key to Kaling’s image as the ultimate gal-pal, the kind of witty, sparkly friend who’s always up for sleepovers and juicy gossip. “She’s become the contemporary Everywoman,” Jada Yuan’s New York Magazine profile of Kaling reports, “both a Mary and a Rhoda.” The central conceit of Kaling’s public persona — as well as of The Mindy Project — is that Mindy is relatable. And unfortunately, in our culture, one of the things women can relate to most is being self-conscious about weight.

Mindy’s not just calling herself chubby — other characters call attention to her weight too, including a cocky doctor who is pretty obviously her future love interest. In the midst of an argument, Mindy strikes a low blow about his divorce. He fires back: “You know what would really look great? If you lost 15 pounds.”

Mindy’s furious and offended, though hardly broken, by this comment. But the line moves Mindy’s concern with her weight beyond personal neurosis and into the world of established fact. This differentiates the show’s approach to body image from the Bridget Jones model. As Sarah S. said recently, “The point of the books is that Bridget thinks she’s chubby when she’s just normal.” Bridget monitors her caloric intake with alternating levels of vigilance and wild despair (“calories: infinity”), and reacts to the numbers on her scale as if she’s reading a Shakespearean tragedy. But the books make it clear that her size isn’t actually a problem. When Bridget finally manages to diet down to her goal weight, she realizes, with the help of her gently puzzled friends, that she actually looked better before.

“Hark, a mean joke about your body!”

The second Bridget Jones movie, on the other hand — a mean-spirited film with vast distaste for its own central character — features an onslaught of characters making fun of Bridget’s weight. It’s as if her internal self-loathing metastasized into the people around her. The same phenomenon occurs in another movie released around the same time, the mysteriously beloved Love Actually. In Love Actually, Natalie is supposed to be chubby. Her family’s nickname for her is Plumpy, because I guess they are sadistically devoted to attempting to give their daughter an eating disorder. Hugh Grant grunts when he tries to lift her up. This creates a bizarre reality paradox for viewers, since the woman playing Natalie is, in fact, on the slender side.

The issue isn’t that these movies and TV shows depict women who are average-sized as chubby. It’s that they imply that any woman who’s not super-skinny is necessarily flawed. Jabs and one-liners about their romantic heroines’ weight mark their bodies as imperfect, while male attention assures them, and by extension the female audience, that they’re lovable in spite of those imperfections. It’s a classic case of negging, and it’s just one small way that our culture reinforces women’s body issues on a daily basis.

I’ll definitely be watching more of The Mindy Project: I think it’s probably going to be a great series. And I don’t mean to ignore the significance of having a woman who looks like Kaling — that is, Indian and not-stick-thin — as the romantic lead. She’s undeniably pretty, not to mention smart and hilarious, and the show recognizes her character as such. That’s huge. But so far, its body negativity sure is weighing me down.

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  1. Yes to all of this, love it! Also, I totally did a slow clap, standing ovation in my head at this line: “…the mysteriously beloved Love Actually.”

  2. Interesting. Here are some thoughts…

    I like the pilot of this show, but, as your post points out, it’s treatment of this weighty material (no pun intended, seriously) does not seem very thoughtful. Yet, it does not seem malicious or intentionally cruel either (except the “15 lbs” comment). Ultimately, it comes off rather flat and uninspired. For example, I’m not sure if the Precious joke is quite as mean-spirited as you suggest. Rather than laughing at how heavy precious is, I think the humor of the joke lies in placing a very serious movie into a trivial pop culture context. The joke also shows the inherent absurdity of Mindy navigating the space between very small and very large. A space fraught with socially produced pitfalls and traps. Regardless, the joke, as with all of the weight jokes, is not particularly funny or clever. That’s what makes the treatment of weight here so disappointing. It seems so… pointless.

    Your post made me think about what a true post-weight film or tv show would look like, where the female protagonist’s weight had no bearing on the meaning or intention of the show. We are a long way from such a thing, but The Mindy Project could have made a stab at it, especially considering how dull and uninspired the weight references are. I like the show, but as you point out, it could be better in a variety of different ways.

    • I wondered about what a film or TV show that didn’t think women’s weight needed to be commented on would look like too, Jacob! Right now I think that only happens if the woman in question is very thin, which reinforces skinniness as the status quo. So even though I think weight can be a really important subject to talk about (Drop Dead Diva often does it well), I also think it would be valuable to have some media that represented a variety of women’s bodies without feeling the need to even point that out to the audience.

  3. I will admit to (no longer secretly) liking *Love Actually.* I’ll go hide now! Haven’t seen the pilot for *Mindy* but looking forward to it!

    • Ahh Psi let’s talk about this, I could use a rousing debate! Like: do you think anyone in that movie is actually in love except the singer and his manager? Lots of the people “in love” seem to barely know each other! And: Why is Emma Thompson the only person who ends up alone? Does everyone not understand that this is BEATRICE from Much Ado About Nothing they’re dealing with?

      • I only saw it all the way through the one time, at the theater, during a date. All I mostly remember was that it had Hugh and Colin being disarm/charm-ing, Billy Bob being an a-hole, and Emma Thompson being Emma Thompson. Game->Set->Match.

      • Also, Beatrice forever..! There can be no other productions of that play for me, because I will hold all B&Bs against Emma & Ken-Bran, and find them wanting.

  4. […] articles from Jezebel and Girls Like Giants also argue against the constant mentions of their “weight problems” in the shows […]

  5. […] I was in college, I fell into Love, Actually.  I recognize this is a bone of contention on this page, particularly for the Sarahs, but hear me out.  I first saw this movie recently […]

  6. Those comments Mindy said actually made me feel better. The things she said is something I can relate to alot. I feel like everyday women can relate to it alot. I find myself with those little quirks about weight too. I find people make those comments about my weight too. Seeing the way she bounces back and still goes on inspires me.

    I totally agree about love actually. Natalie was so thin and pretty. Then the stick thin lady said she had tree trunks for thighs?!!??!?!!

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