Mindy Kaling: "In This Country, American Means White"

Kaling quoted Toni Morrison and called out the academy for attempting to exclude her from a list of "The Office" producers.

Mindy Kaling

Image Press Agency/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Mindy Kaling told Elle that when The Office was nominated for an Emmy, the organization in charge of the awards attempted to remove her name from the show's list of producers.

At the time, Kaling was the only woman of color on the team.

"They made me, not any of the other producers, fill out a whole form and write an essay about all my contributions as a writer and a producer," Kaling said. "I had to get letters from all the other male, white producers saying that I had contributed, when my actual record stood for itself."

In response, the academy delivered a statement that completely denied that racial bias had any part in the claims. "There was an increasing concern years ago regarding the number of performers and writers seeking producer credits," it read.

"I *was* singled out," Kaling responded this afternoon. "There were other Office writer-performer-producers who were NOT cut from the list. Just me. The most junior person, and woman of color. Easiest to dismiss. Just sayin'." She continued to Tweet, "The point is, we shouldn't have been bailed out because of the kindness [of] our more powerful white male colleagues," she added. "Not mentioning it seemed like glossing over my story. This was like ten years ago. Maybe it wouldn't happen now. But it happened to me."

Kaling was quick to emphasize the fact that this is a systemic issue. Though recent diversity initiatives may be improving things, the fact is that writers and producers of color in Hollywood—specifically women of color—still face steep barriers to success. "In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate," Kaling said, quoting Toni Morrison. She added, "It really doesn't matter how much money I have ... I'm treated badly with enough regularity that it keeps me humble."

While Hollywood has made a conscious effort to perform and prioritize diversity in the past decade, many Hollywood TV writers still face an uphill battle. A March 2019 report from the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity stated that diverse writers—a term that includes people of color, queer and nonbinary people, and people with disabilities—are "routinely isolated within writers rooms, often relegated to lower levels where writers possess little agency or power to contribute."

The report found that the "diversity hire" position, a staff writer position typically reserved for a person of color, is almost always an entry-level position at the lowest pay grade. According to WGA West's Inclusion Report for 2017-2018, while people of color made up 45% of TV writers' room staff, they made up only 12% of executive producers and showrunners.

Some writers of color who have been given this position have complained of feeling stigmatized for being chosen for it. Recently, writer and actress Amanda Idoko told the Chicago Tribune that "There's definitely an implicit bias in the system. There are shows that have a revolving door diversity slot — they hire a new diverse writer from one of the diversity programs every year, immediately let them go as soon as they are no longer free, and repeat," she said. "Instead of actually investing in the diverse writers they hire, these shows cycle diverse writers, usually POC, in and out, with no intention of actually promoting them, slowing down the advancement of their careers. It's a disgusting abuse of a system that was put in place to promote diversity, and it needs to stop."

And let us not forget that even these "diversity hire" positions came after intense struggle and protestation from people who had been systematically kept out of the industry since its inception, as Mindy Kaling was during her years spent helping The Office become the beloved if poorly aged phenomenon that it was and is.

Hollywood can't use the excuse that women of color aren't writing and producing great content, of course, and things are changing for the better. With shows like Jane the Virgin and Black-ish knocking ratings off the charts and star producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay making waves in every aspect of the industry, it's clear that times are changing. But as Mindy Kaling reminds us, it's taken us a long time to get there—and there's a very long way to go.


Does It Matter That Ariel's Black if It's Still a White Person's Story?

On its surface, this film's casting promises something that it is very clearly not going to do––tell an actual black story.

Halle - Part of Your World (From "The Little Mermaid")

Disney's live-action remakes may seem progressive on the surface, but they really just amount to cheap, safe, Hollywood liberalism written by white men.

That's not exactly "progress."

The Little Mermaid (1989) isn't a progessive film in the first place—like, in any way. The entire premise revolves around a teenage mermaid who sees a hot guy in a boat and goes: "Wow. He's hot. I will do literally anything to get him to notice me." That's it. Sure, there's a little about "true love" and social alienation, but mostly it's the story of a desperate teenager seeking escape from her monotonous (and emotionally abusive) life in the arms of an attractive man. Upon rewatching, Ariel certainly could use an update.

disney's black ariel written by white menYes Ariel, you're basic.The Little Mermaid 1989

Disney seemed to have a similar thought. "What's the laziest way we can revitalize this property to milk more money out of our millennial, nostalgia-hungry fans?" The answer was simple—make a beloved character just a little different. Make her black.

Their decision to cast a black actress for the role of Ariel has been met with widespread acclaim and celebration, with some outlets calling it a "an exciting step forward." So, in the spirit of this excitement, let's acknowledge the good:

  1. Black representation in mainstream, commercial films is embarrassingly low, especially from household names like Disney. Live-action Ariel is the first black princess since Tiana in 2011's depressingly underwhelming Princess and the Frog. More ethical representation is necessary.
  2. Halle Bailey has an incredible singing voice and will probably do a great job as Ariel.
  3. People seem genuinely excited about this casting. Little girls and boys of color will have a new princess to see themselves in, and that's a f**king beautiful thing.

Okay, that's all great. But as a person of color who loves big-budget movies, I can't help but feel that casting a black Ariel is a superficial way to appeal to the public's growing demand for ethical cultural representation. On its surface, this film's casting promises something that it is very clearly not going to do—tell an actual black story. I would argue that portraying an authentic minority experience is far more important in our current media landscape than simply giving an old, outdated story a face-lift. Don't we deserve a new black princess? One who represents the times and values that we live in today? The only black representation in 1989's The Little Mermaid was a problematic crab, and I'd rather not revisit the era when that was okay.

disney's black ariel written by white menTHERE ARE SO MANY ISSUES WITH THIS The Little Mermaid 1989

On the other hand, Disney's new princess films do seem to be more culturally conscious these days. Disney hired a whole team of anthropologists, historians, and cultural practitioners from the Polynesian diaspora to oversee the production of the 2016 animated feature Moana. That paid off. Not only was the movie a financial success, but it ended up being impactful to people of color, because Moana's story was influenced by the culture she came from. As Hugo Award-nominated film critic Lindsay Ellis put it: "The plot [of Moana] derives from lessons Moana learns about her own culture. The story isn't about a young girl finding herself, but discovering that her ancestors did incredible things and the joy of discovering that." If black Ariel could get the same level of cultural attention paid to her story, that actually wouldn't be so bad...

But here's the rub. In the midst of all our high-fiving and (admittedly dope) fan art, we're missing the bigger picture: Disney is only interested in our money. I'll let ex-Disney CEO Micheal Eisner emphasize this point through an internal memo he penned in 1981 to his team of executives: "We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement - but to make money. ...In order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three."

disney's black ariel written by white menWhat we've always wanted... Aladdin's dad.Aladdin: King of Thieves

Even today, Disney still seems to live by this ethos. It's clear that money is the core driving force behind all of these mediocre live-action remakes of beloved properties. Disney has been repackaging and reselling us the same s**t for decades, from re-releasing "Disney classics" like Pinocchio and Snow White on VHS, (and then DVD...and then Blu-ray…) to making a bazillion direct-to-video sequels like Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure and Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World. Live-action remakes are just Disney's newest tchotchke to shill, but with a twist. These movies need to match up to the "millennial sensibility," the "liberal discourse." They need to be steeped in the kind of zeitgeist that demands think pieces and twitter hashtags. As Lindsay Ellis said in her 2018 video essay about Disney's Beauty and the Beast remake: "These live-action remakes seem to pose themselves not as simple remakes, but as responses to criticisms of the films that they are remaking."

The simple truth is that Disney is in the business of making popular movies to make money, and they will follow any trend necessary to do that. Many millennials, including myself, want to see a socially conscious coming-of-age Disney movie featuring a woman of color. Is the new Little Mermaid going to be that story about a young black mermaid exploring the consequences of her identity, both as a princess and a global citizen of the world? Maybe! But from the looks of its current writers, probably not. For now, we can only speculate. The one thing we do know for sure is that Disney is more than willing to address the cultural anxiety around identity and representation in order to get at our sweet, sweet cash.

So it's up to you, the consumer, to decide: Is commodifying representation appropriate for this particular Disney princess story? When it comes out in 2020-something, we'll get to answer this question with our wallets. But in the meantime, I implore you to think carefully about the praise you give to a hundred-billion dollar media conglomerate. They don't have the best track record with cultural representation, and I'm not so sure this new Little Mermaid film is going to be the princess story we deserve.

Film News

Yalitza Aparicio, the First Indigenous Woman Nominated for an Oscar, Speaks Out

Aparicio, an aspiring teacher nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in Roma, may have found her largest classroom yet.

Yalitza Aparicio

Photo by Victor Chavez/Shutterstock

Yalitza Aparicio didn't mean for any of this to happen.

When she auditioned for Alfonso Cuarón's Roma on a whim—mostly to appease her pregnant sister, who insisted she go to the open casting call in her place—she never imagined it would launch her into the jet-setting life of a social media star, a press junket darling, and an Oscar nominee.

"There has never been a casting before in our hometown," Aparicio told Deadline in December. "I thought that it could be related to human trafficking, because they never do castings in Oaxaca." But she went anyway, and the rest is history.

When he first saw Aparicio, Cuarón knew instantly that she was his star. Things were less clear to her, an aspiring school teacher with no acting experience; she told the Times that she originally turned Cuarón's offer down, wanting to focus on teaching. But she had some time before application season, and after consulting with her family, she told Cuaron, "Well, I think I can do it. I have nothing better to do."

Flash forward to today, and now she is the first indigenous woman to ever garner an Oscar nomination. Before the nomination was announced, the New York Times asked Aparicio what an Oscar might mean to her. "I'd be breaking the stereotype that because we're Indigenous we can't do certain things because of our skin color," she said. "Receiving that nomination would be a break from so many ideas. It would open doors to other people—to everyone—and deepen our conviction that we can do these things now."

Certainly the Oscar nod, coupled with Aparicio's presence on the cover of Vogue and on the red carpet, will light the way for new faces who might not otherwise be able to entertain Hollywood dreams. Of course, indoctrination into Hollywood may not be the key to healing the disadvantages that violent colonization has always caused Indigenous peoples—changes to the structural forces that keep Indigenous people in poverty could do the trick—but Aparicio's emergence as a voice for her culture is at the very least a move towards counteracting traditional, constrictive beauty standards.

Roma, on the whole, operates in a tenuous duality; it is an indictment of stereotypes about indigenous people, but it also remains true to them. Aparicio's character spends the majority of her time picking up after the Spanish-speaking family whom she works for; her role is less of a tale of female empowerment than a document of the real. Her ascension to the limelight belies a similar underlying complexity, as her elevation to press and Instagram darling could be read as both a triumph of diversity in media and a tokenization of the Indigenous identity.

The film addresses the complexities of this issue by both addressing and not addressing it, portraying Aparicio's character Cleo as a three-dimensional but reserved and withdrawn character. It treats politics this way, too. Roma takes place against a backdrop of violence in the 1970s, which it shows only in short glimpses, mostly focusing instead on the minutiae of its characters' domestic lives.

But violence was very much present in Mexico of the 1970s—a fact that remains true of much of Mexico today. Aparicio is acutely aware of the tensions currently overwhelming much of her country. "Think about just the disappearance of students in Ayotzinapa [in 2014]—it's very recent," she told Vox of one of the recent acts of violence that has plagued Mexico, forcing many to flee to the U.S.'s borders in search of asylum. Ironically, one of Roma's stars, Jorge Antonio Guerro, has been denied a visa to the U.S. despite submitting letters of proofs to immigration services three separate times, according to Newsweek. He still hopes to be able to enter in time for the Oscars, as Roma itself took 10 nominations overall.

As for Aparicio, she still harbors dreams of being a schoolteacher. But she does see a correlation between teaching and acting, telling Deadline that "as a teacher, you educate. And films educate too, but they do it in a massive way."

Her performance in Roma is a master class of its own. She works the camera with such a natural elegance that it's easy to forget the learning curve she was up against. Not only has she never been on film before; she also had to master Mixtec, one of the Indigenous languages of the Oaxaca region that her character speaks on and off, and she had to learn to swim for the film's final beach scene.

In a way, with Roma she's just stepped into a much larger classroom, and she has plenty of words of wisdom and hope to share with the world. "I'm not the face of Mexico," Aparicio told The Times. "It shouldn't matter what you're into, how you look—you can achieve whatever you aspire to."

Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. She loves coffee, electric guitars, and subway rides to Coney Island.

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