Elle Magazine recently published a Women in Television issue that ran with four alternate covers, featuring Zooey Deschanel of New Girl, Allison Williams of Girls, Amy Poehler of Parks and Recreation, and Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project. Now, one of these things is not like the other. While three of these covers were full-length and in color, the fourth was cropped to the shoulders and in black and white. Yes, of course, Kaling’s cover did not get the same treatment as those of her thin, white counterparts.
Normally, a cover like Kaling’s would not be a cause for much outrage, as Elle has run covers of a similar composition before. But, the fact that this was part of a series of covers and is so radically different from the others makes me roll my eyes so hard that they almost don’t come back around.
Naturally, everyone and their blog-posting dog has something to say about this and anticipated the moment (if it ever came) when Kaling would respond to the controversy. When she did, it incited more anger and a lot of confusion from the internet. Kaling took to Twitter to defend Elle, and say that she loved her cover; and keyboards clacked with indignation over how she could endorse a publication that clearly did her wrong. In defending Elle, Kaling essentially says, “put your pitchforks and torches down my fellow average-sized and/or WOC, I’m okay with this blatant discrimination! It’s all good in tha ‘hood!” And while I cringe to watch her defend this magazine, I get why she’s doing it.
As one of the few prominent women of color on the small screen—writing and directing for The Office for eight years, then signing with Fox to write, direct, produce, and star in her own show—Kaling has been deemed, the Official Representative of Every Woman of Color Always and Forever, whether she likes it or not. Because she lives in the public eye, she must be a representative of all Indian people and all full-figured women, and the collective attitudes and desires of these groups are projected onto her. Kaling’s success in the world of television is significant, and at the same time precarious. As an underdog, one has to gain status in the industry and assimilate before one can subvert those norms.
Kaling’s first cover on one of the biggest fashion magazines in the world validates her success; when all anyone can talk about (justifiably or otherwise) is what’s wrong with it, the milestone is, quite simply, ruined. It’s like finally being invited to sit at the cool table, only to have others nag about how your seat was at the edge and not at the head of the table. Not only might the cool kids start to reconsider asking you over, but your newfound influence at the cool table would evaporate. How then would you ever be able to invite your other friends to the “cool table” later? You have to play the game before you change the rules. For Kaling, playing the game means cultural assimilation and not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Especially if that’s the horse you need to blaze a trail for more diversity in television. The same expectations don’t exist for any of the other cover girls because, as thin, white actresses, there are many more like them. Thus, each of them can have their own tastes, thoughts, and desires. Yet, because Kaling is the anomaly, you bet your butt everyone expects her to represent all aspects of herself in the way that everyone else deems acceptable. What those of us who identify with her should realize is that although we identify with her, we are not her. Kaling did not break some allegiance to us by liking her cover and defending Elle. Kaling is an individual with her own opinions and attitudes, and that is something she should not be lambasted for. She’s opening doors in the television industry, and we shouldn’t be criticizing her for the way she grabs the handle.