Diversifying television

Last updated 05:00 12/03/2014
Grégoire Colin
AMERICAN INDIAN: Is the Mindy Project a sign that American sitcoms are on their way to becoming post-racial?

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American writer/comedian Mindy Kaling, whose credits include the US adaptation of The Office and her own series, The Mindy Project, has delivered a scathing assessment of the gender and race gap on television.

"I look at shows on TV, and this is going to seem defensive, but I'm just going to say it: I'm a f---ing Indian woman who has her own f---ing network television show," Kaling told a packed session at the film, music and interactive conference South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

"I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks these other shows [run by white men] why there are no women or women of colour."

Kaling was responding to a question about "race in the world of TV" put to her by the session's moderator, Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider.

"People have a higher expectation for me. They say, why aren't you doing enough? And the answer is, I always want to do more because people should always be doing as much as they can, but my full-time job is not casting The Mindy Project," Kaling said. "My life is constantly disappointing people, politically or something."

Kaling is the show's director, writer and producer. She is also its star, playing obstetrician Mindy Lahiri.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her father is Tamil born and was raised in Madras while her mother is Bengali and was raised in Mumbai.

Kaling identifies as an Indian-American, although she told the panel at South by Southwest that she tried not to focus on that.

"I think one of the things that's been helpful to me is [that] I try not to think that much about how I'm an Indian-American," she said.

"I can't think about my legacy because it stops me from being productive. It's a distraction. I don't want to stop being who I am, but I can't rely on it."

However, she said that being an Indian-American woman in the comedy world was not without challenges.

"People think that you're not funny because of the way that you look, [but] you can get so hung up and say, am I the victim of this situation? Or be like, I'm in charge of it."

A study compiled by the University of California, Los Angeles and released last year at the 27th annual National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications conference found that ethnic minorities and women remained "woefully under-represented" on cable and broadcast programs as lead actors, writers and show creators.

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The same study revealed, ironically, that shows with more diverse casts generally drew larger audiences.

To the credit of Fox - the US network that airs The Mindy Project - it has been a long-time advocate of diversity on television.

The network's chief operating officer, Joe Earley, told a 2013 executive conference that more diverse programming was financially beneficial.

"Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business," Earley said.

In an interview given to the online publication Jezebel in 2011, Kaling said that gender and race were connected.

"Even though casting for pilots and movies are open to most ethnicity for parts, there's just a scarcity of female parts in general in stuff," she said.

"And then, if one of the cast members is a minority, there's such a relief with producers that there's very little incentive to cast two people of colour, if that makes sense?

"I wish there were more women of colour on-screen in comedy, for sure. But I do think that's changing. All my favourite shows now compared to, say, even 10 years ago, have more diverse casts. It's slow, though."

The Mindy Project was renewed for a third season last week. 

- FFX Aus

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