Recently, a piece in the Atlantic Wire criticized the pilot of Mindy Kaling’s new sitcom “The Mindy Project” with concern that it ends up reproducing “the most hoary of romantic comedy clichés, that in order for a high-powered female character to be relatable she has to be clumsy or bumbling.” There is a definite trend in the romantic comedy genre that finds our female protagonists overwhelmed, unable to juggle their professional, personal, and romantic lives. In Bridesmaids, widely hailed as a landmark in women-centered comedy, Kristen Wiig's Annie has a spectacular meltdown as her life falls apart around her. The story is sharp and smartly-written, and Wiig plays it well, but there is something a little alarming in her downward spiral over the course of the movie. We see her failing professionally (the closure of her bakery), personally (her jealousy of fellow bridesmaid Rose Byrne), and, of course, romantically (her hookups with self-absorbed jerk Jon Hamm despite the interest of totally decent good guy Chris O'Dowd).
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that Bridesmaids is a major step forward for women in pop culture in that it boasts an almost all-female cast with a female protagonist, female writers, and a potentially chick-flick theme that still transcends gender enjoyment. As to whether that needed to include a protracted and extremely unladylike bout of group diarrhea---I leave up to you. Toilet humor is a matter of taste.
When it comes to female disaster protagonists, my mind always goes to Bridget Jones, the queen of messy, disaster-prone, perpetually imperfect heroines. Bridget’s whole shtick—played with admirable wholeheartedness in the film versions by Renée Zellweger—is that she’s full of insecurities and unfulfilled goals, and that everything bad follows her around like her own personal Murphy’s Law.
Compared to the often flawless actresses who play even the most accident-prone characters in major film and TV roles, Bridget Jones is a bit of a breath of fresh air. She’s slightly overweight, her hair is never perfect (properly inverting the far less realistic always perfect paradigm), and she falls on her ass on what seems like a regular basis. Most of all, she’s obsessed to Austenian proportions with finding the perfect husband, while sabotaging herself with meaningless relations with men like Daniel (Hugh Grant).
Bridget Jones is like a fairy tale where, instead of being presented as the ideal, everything in her life is seen through her eyes as never measuring up to an ideal-- that ideal perhaps arguably being informed by other representations of women in pop culture. Despite her often pathetic self-presentation, we find that Bridget is actually a fairly successful career woman with plenty of friends and no shortage of men (and, in the sequel, women) who find her irresistibly attractive.
So when Bridget waddles as she walks—when she unknowingly covers her face in red blush—when she, during a live news report skydiving, inexplicably beats the odds and lands in the one pig sty for miles around—there’s an over-the-top, every-worst-fear-and-insecurity-come-true effect. It’s almost as if we’re seeing Bridget through Bridget’s eyes, with her constant attempts and failures to become the woman she believes she should be. That’s relatable, even if it’s often executed in an incredibly over-the-top manner. (And my disclaimer is that I don’t know that this was the intent of the creators at all; in fact, I think interpreting it this way gets us into some weird mimetic representations of reality territory as we unpack the layers of interpretation through which the "actual" story is filtered, including the narrator and the audience---but let's not go there.)
I’m not saying there aren’t problems with these roles. In particular, when Bridget declares that nothing is more unattractive than “strident feminism,” she represents a definite rejection of feminism that buys into the worst kinds of assumptions about what “feminism” actually means. Moreover, if the Bridgets and the Annies are the only types of lead female roles we see in major films and TV shows, we risk depicting all women as love-obsessed, marriage-prioritizing, perpetually-insecure-and-occasionally-inept 20- and 30-somethings whose role as wife and mother can’t help but take precedence over all other roles in life. And that's problematic, if only because such ideas tend to get recycled, reinforced, and potentially relived by real women.
Back to “The Mindy Project.” I admit that I’ve wanted to like this show since first hearing about it, though I wasn’t sure it would live up to its potential. Mindy Kaling is hilarious, talented, and simultaneously strong and (hyper)feminine. Even better, she’s a non-white, non-twig-thin heroine in a TV landscape that is, well, white and thin. The premise is promising: a successful OB-GYN obsessed with romantic comedies who believes, over-optimistically, that she could have her own rom com ending one day.
Particularly with the second episode, I think we’re seeing the potential for delightful subversion in this premise. While echoing romantic comedies, and realizing that many women do, indeed, enjoy them and emotionally engage with them, it nevertheless acknowledges the illusory quality of those same tropes that most TV and film for women are based on. I enjoyed a moment in the second episode when Mindy meets a guy (Seth Meyers) who turns out to be an architect (see this dead-on Cracked article on stereotypical movie occupations). “An architect? No one is an architect in real life!” scoffs her ornery male coworker (and likely eventual love interest---yes, I still expect a lot of tropes to play out in the expected way).
Along similar lines, when we see Mindy meeting her now-ex-boyfriend (played by Bill Hader) in an elevator, she is thrilled to find their interaction playing out like a rom-com movie scene, down to her hair falling out of her ponytail as she bends over to help him pick up papers. Fast forward to their breakup several months later and one of those "hoary clichés"---Mindy giving a drunken speech at her ex's wedding. It's a playful mix of acknowledging and unsettling these clichés that, I think, gives "The Mindy Project" its potential and simultaneously gives it a chance at commercial success on a major network.
Let's not forget that every protagonist requires weaknesses—otherwise, they’re completely uninteresting and unrelatable. We should of course acknowledge that women, like men, have insecurities, and that, yes, we occasionally against our better judgment geek out and feel awkward and feel ugly and make bad relationship decisions. What’s important is that we realize that these insecurities might be, at least in part, due to fairy tales fed us by Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan and other romance-centric ideals of modern womanhood. And that the post-rom-com female characters---your Annies, your Mindys---should be more than an amalgamation of weaknesses and failures. As fun as she is, one Bridget Jones is enough.