“The Mindy Project” writer Lang Fisher first wrote the episode “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man” before President Trump was elected. In it, Mindy (Mindy Kaling) wakes up one morning to find herself in the body of a white man, played by Ryan Hansen, which opens her up to a whole world of privilege that she exploits to the best of her ability.
“I was honestly writing it during the campaigns… without knowing the results of the election,” Fisher told IndieWire in a phone interview. “I was absolutely channeling the fact that Donald Trump could do the worst possible things and get away with it. And Hillary [Clinton] had one email scandal and it tanked her. She’s the most capable person who’s ever been up for political office and people just hated her.
“So absolutely that played a part in this script,” she continued. “There was some initial concerns from me that I was like, ‘Ah, is this episode gonna seem too simple? Is it gonna seem like I’m making it sound like all white men have it made in the shade? And it’s like not complicated enough?’ And after the election, I was like, ‘Nope. This is absolutely right. I’m dead on. Perfect.’”
[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Mindy Project” episode “Mindy Lahiri is a White Man.”]
Before Mindy’s fateful body swap, she was up for a job as the Head of Obstetrics at St. Brendan’s Medical Center. Despite being well qualified, neither she nor fellow Asian doctor Irene Lee (Ellen Williams) made it to the finale round of interviews; whereas her colleague Jody Kimball-Kinney (Garret Dillahunt), a white man, did. So did another elderly white male doctor who may or may not have killed his wife.
The blatant gender bias serves as a wake-up call in a way for the super-confident Mindy, which is perhaps why she woke up as Michael Lancaster (Hansen) the next day. Outwardly she was a dashing white man, but her inner monologue and instincts were still her own. That means that she had a really fun time hailing any cab she wants, man-spreading on the subway and getting a callback for that job. The main title sequence was even reshot to replace Kaling with Hansen.
“The kernel of this main idea came from Mindy Kaling herself,” Fisher said. “Since we’ve been on Hulu, we’ve been kind of able to sort of explore a wider array of types of episodes. And so we’ve done a couple that sort of break the bounds of reality a little bit. We had that Groundhog Day episode [‘Hot Mess Time Machine’] a couple episodes ago, and we’ve had the ‘Sliding Doors’ episode [‘While I Was Sleeping’]. She kind of lives in a rom-com reality anyways, so we kinda decided to do sort of like a body switch episode with this one.”
Fisher broke down some of the issues that the episode tackled:
White Male Privilege: “We chose Ryan Hansen because he’s as white as they come… If you put Mindy Kaling and Ryan Hansen next to each other and take away their fame and any sort of recognition factor, you know Ryan Hansen would beat her out for every job in every industry. It’s so true. So we feel completely justified in this episode. And that doesn’t take away from anything anybody has ever worked for or anybody’s abilities, just we’re really making a point about bias and the way our culture has been created. I don’t think we’re trying to say that life is just like smooth sailing for a white man, but I think it’s just that if you’re not a white man, you just have to try harder to make it.”
Getting Away With Murder: To make a point about how society is willing to overlook transgressions made by white men, the episode included the joke about the elderly candidate who is suspected of killing his wife but got the job as Head of Obstetrics anyway. “It’s a bit hyperbolic,” Fisher acknowledged. “But also our current president sexually assaulted women and might have peed on some prostitutes in Russia. And [the character] killing one woman is like a drop in the bucket. I think we wanted to push the envelope, but it honestly is kind of speaking to the times that we are in. And we wanted it to seem egregious.”
Humor: Mindy, as Michael, cracked a really lame joke and yet got a positive reaction. “Even the least funny men in the world still think that they’re hilarious,” Fisher observed. “I think that women are so self-aware, that I think we hold ourselves back… Half of the joke of the episode is that she is a character who has always had the confidence of a white man. And we just wanted to see what would happen if she were just given the chance to be one. So it’s like, that’s why there’s like this initial joy of just like being like, ‘Finally! Everyone sees me as how I see myself.'”
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Trying to Fit in by Ignoring Other Minorities: When Mindy was at the job interview, she tried to disengage from a conversation with Dr. Ellen Lee in the waiting room: “I don’t think it’s such a good idea for us to be chit-chatting. We’re the only two minority women where so I don’t want them to think that we’re some little Asian clique.”
The idea of that scene came directly from Kaling as an observation on how some minorities try to get ahead by not trying to seem like a minority. “When you are trying to seamlessly blend in with the majority, you don’t want to seem like a minority,” said Fisher. “If you’re a woman who’s trying to be ‘one of the guys’ and you don’t want to seem girly. If you are an Asian woman hanging out with another Asian woman, then you can’t fit into the white boys club. At the end of the episode, Mindy wants to hang out with Ellen because they’re proud of each other and they know that they’re good. The way to bring each other up is not to ignore each other… And they both love snacks!”
The Power of Overcoming Stereotype: Not only was Ellen the wrong gender and ethnicity for the job, but she was also the least put together. Her appearance was rather haphazard, and even the way she ate was sloppy. Yet she was probably the most skilled doctor of the group. “If you are starting up from any kind of minority circumstances, you have to start several steps behind and make up a lot of ground to to get up to those ahead of you. So I think a lot of it has to do with her personal feeling of having had nothing given to her, and having to sort of grind away to be where she is now,” said Fisher. “If you have to overcome your type to be good at something, then you can be great at that thing because you really appreciate the amount of effort it took to become good.”
Mindy’s Sexuality: While in Michael’s body, Mindy hooked up with a woman from a bar and even wondered later if that made her gay. This experience probably won’t carry over into future episodes though. “Mindy Lahiri has a very healthy sexual appetites. She is no holds barred,” said Fisher. “Mindy Lahiri, I feel, like has a certain level of sexual fluidity, but I think that she’s pretty heterosexual for the most part. This episode kind of lives in its own world.”
Mindy’s Growth: Fisher said, “We’ve spent like the first few seasons really on her search for love and like trying to find love. In this season, she has a really good guy and I think she’s starting to look inward a little bit. We try to do some episodes about ‘Hey, I have someone good. Now what’s going on with me and what are my own flaws?’ This episode was kind of supposed to be in that. What parts of her personality, in relation to her femininity and her race, are things that she should be aware of?”
Comedy With a Message: “It is very important and satisfying to write episodes of comedy that are meaningful,” said Fisher. “Dramas tackle huge issues all the time, and I think it’s really important that comedies also tackle big issues but with comedy. And I think that that is how you change people’s minds— not shoving things down people’s throats, but by making them laugh and see how ridiculous certain things are. When times are dark, you need comedy to lighten things up. But also, comedies just can’t ignore stuff that’s going on either. So, I just think it’s another way to sort of point certain things out without losing the levity that is necessary to keep people happy.”
All episodes of “The Mindy Project,” including “Mindy Lahiri Is a White Man,” are currently streaming on Hulu.
Richard Foreman/Universal Television