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'The Mindy Project's' Harassment Jokes Are Betraying Feminist Fans

Personally, I find The Mindy Project to be an entertaining sit-com — usually. I say usually because lately there has been a lot to criticize. Generally, criticism of the show centers on its lack of direction or the irritating nature of Mindy’s love life. Recently, though, a firestorm about season 2 began with the show’s casual portrayal of male rape. James Franco’s Dr. Leotard has sex while blacked out. It was a very awkward portrayal of a very real issue, and their attempts to tackle of sexual harassment in last week’s episode prove The Mindy Project is leaving its most staunch supporters behind.

With a female creator, star, and producer, it’s no surprise The Mindy Project became a favorite with feminists. Portraying positive body image as well as a (semi-)realistic love life, the show resonated with women of all walks of life. Then came season 1, episode 7. In this episode, someone in the office filed a sexual harassment complaint against Morgan, the male nurse. At first, we are led to believe it was buxom beauty, Shauna, at whom Morgan had been leering all episode. However, it’s later revealed it was shy secretary Betsy who filed the complaint. Not because she took offense to Morgan’s antics, but because Betsy felt ‘overlooked’ by the men in the office — left out because she isn’t harassed.

Then, in last week’s episode, the show again utilised sexual harassment as means of advancing the plot. This time, Morgan sued Mindy for sexual harassment because she wouldn’t sleep with him. Of course, this is just a way for Morgan to get close to Mindy and help her through her breakup.

These incidents are problematic for a few reasons. First, it’s lazy writing. Sit-coms have been relying on these jokes for years — sexual harassment seemed to be a staple of shows in the 1990s, especially.

Considering Mindy Kaling has been heralded as one of the funniest television writers — especially for her work on The Office — it’s disappointing for her fans to see the show resort to stale tropes. And I do agree she is probably held up to a higher standard than her male counterparts. Mindy herself points out that Steve Carell was not analysed nearly as much as she is as the star/producer of his own show.

However, the difference is that The Office didn’t take such a casual attitude to harassment. Even when Michael Scott was spewing ‘that’s what she said’ jokes and making everyone in the office uncomfortable, the humor was in the fact Michael was out-of-touch with social norms. The episodes revolved around bringing Michael to the realization that his behavior is offensive. The Mindy Project, on the other hand, would lead us to believe that sexual harassment lawsuits are frivolous tools used to advance our own agendas. Feeling unattractive? Lodge a complaint. Want to get revenge on a colleague? File a law suit. In an era when legitimate harassment suits are dismissed for asinine reasons, Mindy and company are doing little to advance the cause.

This is an even more concerning prospect given that one in four women is still harassed in the workplace. Harassment is not a past issue that was magically solved by federal legislation and class action lawsuits. In making light of this issue, The Mindy Show and its writers are ignoring their feminist fan base and verging into dangerous territory in the process. It may be unfair, but fans expect more from a show that is supposed to express a female perspective. It’s hard as a feminist to support a show that makes astute observations about women’s body image one minute and portrays sexual harassment as the butt of a joke in the next.

The Mindy Project, at its best, is a witty and sharp portrayal of a sit-com woman. Where it has run into problems is in its approach to more serious issues. That’s not to say it shouldn’t explore the more serious side of our culture — humor can actually be quite an adept tool in doing so — but instead of shoe-horning a sexual harassment suit into an episode because it might be funny, the show should explore the issues surrounding harassment in the first place. There is a wealth of comedic gold to mine here; it just needs to be used while the creators stay mindful of the real issues.

The show will truly excel when it can surpass the television tropes it seems afraid of leaving behind, and embrace the fact that it is a show so many feminists want to love. If it doesn’t, I’m afraid it won’t last very long in the fickle television market. 

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