SXSW 2014: Mindy Kaling Talks Diversity and Double Standards in Showbiz

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Mindy Kaling is tired of fielding questions about the politics of her appearance. Sure, she’s Indian-American and a woman with a healthy figure, but what she really wants to discuss is her creative process.

“I don’t want to deny who I am, because it’s so important to me, but I can’t rely on it,” Kaling explained to a room of thousands during her Sunday morning SXSW panel, “Running the Show: TV’s New Queen of Comedy.” “People will think you’re not funny because of the way that you look. You can get so hung up on thinking, ‘Am I the victim in this situation? Or am I in charge of it?’”

The 34-year-old creator and star of The Mindy Project touched on many serious subjects, but also kept crowds laughing during her hour-long chat with Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider. First order of business? A challenge to write a tweet in under 45 seconds. It took Kaling, who has 2.8 million followers, just 17 seconds to compose “Miami? Austin? Antarctica? Where am I? #sxsw,” referring to her brightly-hued spring attire in spite of freak 50-degree temperatures outside. “I dressed for the Austin I thought it would be,” she said sheepishly.

If the reaction on Twitter is any indication, audiences appreciated Kaling’s candid and often humorous discussion of the showbiz double standard. When Kaling was first hired to write for The Office ten years ago, she was the only female member of a team of eight. That number has since increased, but it’s still unusual enough that she’s been asked to give so many talks about how women can succeed in male-dominated industries that she doesn’t have much time left over to actually work. Even more frustrating is the fact that she has to deal with so many more questions in the first place. “I have four series regulars that are women on my show. No one asks these other shows why there are no women or women of color,” she said, referring to the glaring lack of diversity in mainstream television.

But Kaling doesn’t like to dwell on these things. “It’s challenging to get your own show no matter what,” she said humbly. “The writers I work with are excited about the voices of an Indian woman even if they are white men. All the guys on my staff would identify as feminists.” She describes her writers’ room as kind and collaborative, “like having really creative conversations with your funniest friends.”

Regarding constant comparisons to other female showrunners like Tina Fey of 30 Rock, Kaling expressed that this was one reason to envy her male counterparts. “It’s never a question of is Will Ferrell too Steve Carrell-y,” she explained. “They try to put you in a pageant that you never wanted to be in. It’s this mentality of there can only be one woman who is funny and successful in writing her own show.”

Kaling described her relationship with Fox execs to be much like a “lovefest” in terms of creative control. “I feel like it’s much more rare on network TV to do what [Mindy] does,” added costar Adam Pally. “For humongous corporations like Fox and NewsCorp to put money into one person and say, ‘We want to see your vision.’ It’s really, really cool that [she’s] able to do that.”

The final comment in the audience question-and-answer segment was from a 26-year-old who thanked Kaling for reminding professional women that they can be high achievers who still wear bright colors, act silly, and have fun. “It’s sad to me that women feel that if you show a certain kind of femininity or think guys are cute, it means you’re less good at something else, or less serious,” Kaling commiserated. Her advice? Work hard to be the best at whatever you do, but don’t hesitate to lust after Michael Fassbender.

Kaling is now in the process of writing a second book, and The Mindy Project was officially picked up by Fox for a third season, beginning April 1 at 9:oo p.m. EST.

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