For a moment, it looked like the fourth season of The Mindy Project was not going to happen. Its cancellation after season three provoked outrage and despair from its cult following. It was reminiscent of the reaction to Arrested Development's cancellation almost ten years ago, and Community's just last year. Then, much like Arrested Development and Community before it, Mindy was given new life in the streaming world — on Hulu.
In addition to moving to a new network, The Mindy Project entered new story territory as well. After three seasons of dating adventures and mishaps, the character Mindy Lahiri is tackling pregnancy and commitment head-on. Among the many changes for both Mindy and the show itself, one thematic shift has stood out the most, provoking the question: When did this show abandon its feminist ideals?
In past seasons, The Mindy Project has managed to put a fresh and non-preachy spin on everything from racism and gender norms to teen sex and gynecological health. Mindy has always been headstrong, independent, sex-positive, body-positive and unapologetic. She takes no bullshit and is not afraid to voice her opinions, be it in her profession or her romantic relationships.
These qualities made both Kaling and the character Mindy symbols for genuine modern-day feminism. Despite her staunch values, Mindy was relatable and complex and very often imperfect. She was just as unashamed about wanting casual sex as she was about wanting a fairy-tale ending.
This season, the feminist values Mindy previously stood for are noticeably lacking. In the season's second episode, Mindy tries to have a cesarean section. Her boyfriend Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) argues that she should have a natural birth. They both make fair, equally presented points — but then the show takes his side. The depiction of C-sections is absurd to the point of being offensive. The birthing center is opulent; C-sections are for "rich women that schedule their births between spin classes."
The message is clear: C-sections, for those who choose them, are frivolous and shallow.
Mindy is adamant. "This is my delivery," she says, "Just let me do what I want." Instead, Danny tries to trick her body into going into labor in the way that he prefers, and it ultimately works. The title of the episode: "C Is for Coward."
The challenges Mindy faces as a new mother do not end there. During her maternity leave, Danny watches her secretly on a nanny cam to make sure she doesn't screw things up. Later, on her first day back to work, Mindy rides the subway and begins to breastfeed her newborn son, Leo. A fellow passenger immediately expresses his disgust, to which she responds that no man can tell her what to do with her body. Point for Mindy, right? Nope.
"That's the trouble with women like you," the passenger continues. "You confuse exploitation with empowerment." He goes on to compare breastfeeding to strip clubs, Hooters and cheerleaders wrestling in barbecue sauce, asking if these things are really all that different from breastfeeding in public. The whole subway car cheers. Mindy quickly covers up her breasts and leaves as fast as she can, as the crowd chases her out with boos and rousing chants of "Put them away!"
Another story arc this season has addressed Mindy's dilemma over whether to stay at home with Leo, go to work or try to do both. There are moments in which this relevant question is presented well. "I love working," Mindy tells Danny vehemently. "I've always worked. That didn't change just because I had a kid."
Back at work, however, Mindy begins to doubt her decision. She faces new sexism there, along with comments from co-workers ("I thought you were gonna wuss out and cut your hours like those moms who love their kids"). When she does try to express to Danny that she wants to continue working and won't be fully satisfied staying at home with Leo, he interrupts her tearfully, saying how important it is for a child to know that they always have a parent at home. That settles it. She stays home.
In each of these moments, the show has approached a significant issue facing women today. If we get pregnant, how will we choose to experience childbirth? How will we decide to parent? Will we go back to work? Will we breastfeed in public, or at all? Will we have supportive partners, ones who secretly nanny-cam us or both? How will we deal with sexist assholes on the subway or in our places of work? How will we react to this monumental change, which inevitably affects our bodies, our position in the world and the rest of our lives?
It's commendable that The Mindy Project has attempted to touch on these questions at all, but the answers leave much to be desired. What is problematic here is not the choices Mindy has arrived at, but how she has gotten there. She voices an opinion. It's glossed over. She does what Danny wants her to do. Feminism is not about making the right decision — it is about making your own decision. The Mindy fans have come to know and love would not dare let others decide for her.
One could argue this is just a shift to a more satirical tone. The problem is that said shift is such an abrupt departure from the show's prior tone, which was unique and subversive while remaining funny. It's a bold choice, but unfortunately, one without much payoff so far. Is it possible that these earlier episodes have been a fake-out of sorts, building up to a surprising feminist conclusion? That's the hope — one that dwindles further each week.
The Mindy Project had a three-season track record of representing women and the challenges they face in a way that was nuanced, relevant and meaningful. That's why this shift in tone comes as such a big disappointment.
Yet there is still hope that The Mindy Project can be the show it once was — one that understood its own influence and reminded viewers why feminism matters, in a time when the definition of that word is nebulous at best and sinister at worst. Mindy can be that beacon once again, but only if it's able to remember and return to the values it once championed.