Never Have I Ever - Netflix

The Dirtbag Woman of Colour: How Mindy Kaling Ditched Old Tropes and Finally Got it Right

by Shaneela Boodoo

Mindy Kaling created, produced, and starred in the sitcom The Mindy Project, which aired for six seasons from 2012-2017.



At the beginning of season three of Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar has it all. Her popularity has skyrocketed, she’s dating Paxton, the guy she’s been dreaming of since she was ten years old, and she’s finally feeling like she is getting over the trauma of the untimely death of her father. While Devi demonstrates more maturity than we have seen from her in past seasons, she still leans into chaos—bitching out mean girls, getting competitively jealous, and pulling schemes whenever she can. 



In The Mindy Project, created by and starring Mindy Kaling, protagonist Mindy Lahiri has it all too—but in a different way. She has a thriving medical practice and is settling into her 30s, looking for the perfect man to “complete” her life. Mindy is a lifelong fan of romantic comedies and her sense of humour makes her a loveable character to cheer for, even though she seems misguided at times. 



In The Mindy Project (2012-2017), Kaling uses the trope of the difficult woman to perpetuate the notion of colour blindness, aligning herself with whiteness as a protective mechanism in her writing of Mindy. However, in Kaling’s newer creation, Never Have I Ever (2020-present), she shifts the racialization of women and girls on screen. Played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Devi is compelling because she is comfortable being characterized by her family and the people around her as someone who causes discomfort—often called out for instigating drama or being a troublemaker. However, Devi is also an overachiever and cares about fulfilling her mother’s expectations to an extent. Devi is confident about rejecting the notion of being a good example of South Asian girlhood, while simultaneously fulfilling aspects of it.



Mindy Kaling shifts the racialization of women and girls on screen in her newer creation, Never Have I Ever. (Photo: Netflix)


Kaling is instrumental in the creation of a trope that I like to call, “the dirtbag woman of colour.” This trope functions within the character of Devi and takes these contradicting behaviours into account by adding depth and dimension to them. Rather than using tactics informed by colour blindness and post-racialism, wherein race is treated as something that does not matter or even exist, Kaling newly transforms and crystallizes her writing through tropes informed by the internal and external tensions of immigrant and second-generation South Asian women. The dirtbag woman of colour is a concept that originates from the traditional tropes of the strong woman, the anti-heroine, and the difficult woman—which made room for more relatable and nuanced female characters, albeit with their own set of flaws. 



The strong woman, the anti-heroine, and the difficult woman are a few of the terms writer Margaret Tally says are used to describe the appearance of women within media who “defy conventional stereotypes of female characters.” In her book The Rise of the Anti-Heroine in TV’s Third Golden Age, Tally says that these women are allowed to be more “complex, multi-layered and morally flawed than ‘traditional’ female characters of past shows.” In Difficult Women on Television Drama, writer Isabel Pinedo explains that by having the story unfold around women’s actions and decisions, this allows the audience to experience the female gaze and find themselves aligned at the narrative centre with her perspective. Pinedo explains that many of these female-aligned shows were designed to “attract the spending power of working women” by including “desiring and empathetic heroines” that could not explicitly be characterized as “feminist” by nature. 



Not being able to distinctly categorize a show as explicitly feminist was important, as using this label was seen as radical in the mid ’90s.  Phrases like “feminazi” and “militant feminist” were still very common when these more relatable female characters started appearing. When looking specifically at the characteristics of the anti-heroine, Tally states that “the first characteristic of a female lead anti-heroine, as we have seen, is her unlikeability.” However, Pinedo distinguishes the anti-heroine from the anti-hero by saying that what differentiates them is that “their level of transgressions typically do not rise to the level of transgressions committed by men.” The female characters’ actions, unlike the male characters’, are usually for the good of others. When characterizing the difficult woman, however, Pinedo goes on to say, “The difficult woman who is not a straight-out antihero transgresses the norms of femininity unapologetically and systematically. She is abrasive, aggressive, ambitious, often defined by work more than motherhood, at times unlikable.” Within these differences, there are aspects of the anti-heroine that we see within the trope of the difficult woman.



Mindy plays into the trope of the difficult woman: she is egocentric, abrasive, and single-minded on her quest to form her life in the way that she wants.



Kaling uses the trope of the difficult woman extensively within The Mindy Project. In the show, which aired for six seasons, Mindy Lahiri is a successful obstetrician/gynecologist, navigating love and life at a medical practice in New York City amongst a cast of quirky co-workers. Her character is feminine and talkative, with a quip always at the ready for whatever situation she has gotten herself into, which involves a forever rotating lineup of men. As the show’s synopsis conveys, Mindy is trying to break bad habits within her life, aspiring to become the “perfect well-rounded woman” by finding the perfect man and rom-com scenario to fit her life. Mindy’s commitment to her work, not her family, becomes a major source of conflict between her and the father of her child, Danny Castellano. 



Mindy plays into the trope of the difficult woman: she is egocentric, abrasive, and single-minded on her quest to form her life in the way that she wants. She is not quite an anti-heroine, as there are many situations in which Mindy is tempted to do the “wrong” or selfish thing, but ultimately ends up being selfless and showing that she truly does care for others. Often the tough decisions within the show do not lie within moral qualms; they lie with Mindy making the right romantic decisions for herself. 



In The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling relies on a notion of colour blindness in order to make herself palatable to whiteness. (Photo: Fox)



Within Mindy’s Indianness, Kaling has relied on a notion of colour blindness that plays into the model minority myth through self-tokenization in order to make herself palatable to whiteness. Scholar Yuko Kawai speaks to this in her 2005 article “Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril,” where she states that colour blindness is a “dominant racial ideology in the post-civil rights era” that caters to whiteness by using tactics like racial triangulation—adjacency to white Americans but “superior” in relation to African Americans. In The Mindy Show, it seems that Kaling sought to remove herself from racialization by equating herself with whiteness.



But then again, I don’t think of myself so much as in terms of being Indian,” Kaling said in a 2012 interview with Uproxx. “So if that’s another thing that Americans see me as, we’ll have to see. I’m not worried about it.” In many interviews, Kaling has cited her love of pop culture and romantic comedies, but these are spaces that historically, she had not felt she was included in due to overarching whiteness. Her only point of entry into these spaces was to erase as much of the racialized parts of her identity as she could, which inevitably turned not only what she was saying into a joke, but the mere presence of her South Asian body into the joke.



Kaling was very aware of the othering that would happen to her and Indian characters she had written because of the positionality that viewers were accustomed to seeing depicted. For example, Apu in The Simpsons, who is a heavily accented Indian character, demonstrates that he belongs within American society because he can speak English, but simultaneously indicates that he inherently doesn’t because of this accent. Because of this, Kaling used her adjacency to whiteness as a protection tactic, since she did not want her Indianness or her identity to be the butt of the joke; she wanted herself to be the butt of the joke. However, where Kaling failed with The Mindy Project, she succeeds with Never Have I Ever. Devi is a character whose personality and race are tightly interwoven with each other, which shifts the classification of her character’s trope to the dirtbag woman of colour. 



The one defining characteristic and commonality that separates the difficult woman from the female dirtbag is her unabashed self-interest.



Another show that largely depicts the female dirtbag trope is Broad City, whose main characters, Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abrams, are women who are openly grubby, enjoy sex, smoke weed with a reckless abandon, and are committed to laziness and potty humour. In a 2019 Vulture article, Caitlin Wolper reflects that Jacobson and Glazer are “living life freely, in a way that veers messy in its carelessness”—a portrayal that is honest about their bodies, its grossness, and its functions. The one defining characteristic and commonality that separates the difficult woman from the female dirtbag is her unabashed self-interest. Maybe the female dirtbag ends up doing the right thing eventually, but her mistakes are usually the result of her all-consuming selfishness.



The dirtbag woman of colour functions differently than the female dirtbag. There is a narrowing of the expectations placed upon women, which depends on their race, ethnicity, and darkness of skin tone. This narrowing means that there is room to act, but only within the confines of the internal and external tensions of South Asian girlhood and womanhood. When watching Never Have I Ever, I was often struck by how Devi could be many things at once—boy obsessed, incredibly smart yet hot headed, and bad at making decisions. To understand the dirtbag woman of colour concept as it applies to Devi, we must consider the traditional expectations for second-generation South Asian girls. In Mythili Rajiva’s 2009 article “South Asian Canadian girls’ strategies of racialized belonging in adolescence,” she writes: 



“Girls use many strategies to negotiate belonging in mainstream adolescent contexts but, according to Handa, this belonging is fraught with internal and external tension as subjects struggle to fit into competing and often incommensurable roles: good daughters, good examples of South Asian girlhood, proud of their ethnicity (rather than wannabes) and yet still able to belong within dominant cultural narratives of youth.”



Protagonist Devi fulfills her mother’s expectation of going to India and university and being a good daughter, yet rejects the notion of being a good example of South Asian girlhood. (Photo: Netflix)



In Never Have I Ever, Devi often has conflicts with her mother’s expectations regarding boys. In the book Of Silk Saris & Mini-Skirts, author Amita Handa conducts interviews with young South Asian women, stating that “conflicts with parents emerged as the most salient and persistent issue…which usually focused on an unstated effort to protect women’s sexuality.” The characteristics of the dirtbag woman of colour need to take these tensions into account in order to accurately depict and understand the actions and experiences of the character. For example, at the end of season one, Devi’s mother tells her that she is moving them to India. Devi is unhappy about this, but due to a huge conflict between them earlier in the season, she still feels the need to go along with the move in season two, since she finally feels close to her mother again. However, when discussing moving, Devi still often comments on how she’ll be back to America in two years, “going to Princeton, dating a guy in a band.” 



Devi’s comments are a vivid and visceral picture of the lifestyle she intends to live once away from her family. “I’ll get a tattoo of his name under my boobs like Rihanna,” she says. This plays into the dirtbag woman of colour as Devi fulfills her mother’s expectation of going to India and university and being a good daughter, yet rejects the notion of being a good example of South Asian girlhood. Devi responds well to aspects of the external tensions that are placed upon her as a South Asian girl by not being selfish, but she also rejects the expectations placed on her by stating what she wants to do regarding her sexuality and her body. 



Representation is not just inserting a character into a space superficially.



By analyzing the evolution of these tropes through the protagonists in The Mindy Project and Never Have I Ever, we come to the conclusion that representation is not just inserting a character into a space superficially. There needs to be fuller, more authentic storytelling that truly depicts the nuance of life for women of colour. In viewing these characters through the frameworks of television tropes, we can see how Kaling first used her proximity to whiteness as a protective mechanism, and the subsequent flatness this created for Mindy Lahiri’s character. Kaling then used her experience to evolve and write complicated, unlikeable South Asian women characters like Devi Vishwakumar, who don’t just use their heritage as a prop, but incorporate layers of depth and dimension into the story. 



As someone who has often struggled to feel like they can take up space, I am always secretly pleased to come across a multitude of commentary and memes online reflecting shock and embarrassment at Devi’s behaviour, after each new season of Never Have I Ever, calling her “chaotic” or “messy.” I feel pleased because even though she gets made fun of, these comments are often a type of faux exasperation reserved for someone endearing, showing that slowly but surely, there is space being made to grapple with the fraught intricacies within the identities and existences of women of colour. 






Shaneela Boodoo (she/her) is a graduate of the University of Manitoba with a BFA (Honours) in Design and is also a recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg with an MA in cultural studies. She is a second-generation Indo-Caribbean immigrant, born and based in Winnipeg. As an emerging artist, designer, and curator, Boodoo explores the entanglements of themes such as colonialism, displacement, and womanhood.