cecilia parekh

Discussion On Indian Identity and Privilege: New Girl vs The Mindy Project

I recently started watching New Girl, which is a show that centers on Jessica Day (played by Zooey Deschanel) and her adventures with her three male roommates. Her best friend, Cecilia Parekh (played by Hannah Simone, half Indian/half German, Italian,Greek Cypriot) is an Indian model. 

Quick background information on the Mindy Project: the lead is an Indian woman named Mindy Lahiri (played by Mindy Kaling) who is an OB-GYN and her adventures with her primarily male co-workers and/or love interests. It’s the first show with a desi/Indian/South Asian lead female character on network television. 

Something that stood out to me in New Girl season 2 onward was how often Cecilia’s Indian identity was an integral part of her storyline. We often saw her addressing her heritage, wearing cultural clothing, spending time with family members, or otherwise embracing her background. Some of it was portrayed stereotypically, but it was still relatively inoffensive exposure to Indian culture. 

Alternately, in the Mindy Project, Mindy seems to incredibly rarely reference her Indian identity, maybe a throwaway joke here, or romantic competition with another Indian/desi woman, maybe a guest appearance by her brother there. All things considered, Danny’s Italian identity or Peter’s Jewish identity are mentioned more often than the titular character. The closest we got to open acknowledgement was Mindy’s interactions with Neepa or the finale of season 3, where we see Mindy in a sari.

So the discussion matter: does New Girl hold privilege over the Mindy Project when it comes to portrayal of Indian culture? The show has a white lead, meaning they don’t necessarily have to draw in an audience with Cecilia, whereas in the Mindy Project, Mindy is the main subject matter. Is it a riskier move to keep reminding the audience of Mindy’s “other-ness” or is it simply a more cowardly move to not remind them? Is it revolutionary in itself that an Indian woman is being shown as assimilated within North American society? Or is it intentional erasure of Indian culture and representation? Does Cecilia’s attractiveness hold privilege over Mindy in terms of the storylines they can “get away with” wrt: Indian identity? Does Mindy have a larger burden to represent her culture as the lead character in a tv show?