Every Friday I cover culture on my new MSNBC series, So POPular! The weekly show is my attempt at using art and movies, books and celebrities, as a lens to discuss where we are politically and culturally. So POPular! challenges our ideas on what’s considered political and worthy of analysis.
I end every show with an editorial on one pressing and personal cultural topic. This week’s editorial takes on Mindy Kaling‘s ”Invisible’ Super Bowl Ad to discuss the hypervisiblity and invisibility of influential women of color in media. Watch the segment and read the transcript below.
This Sunday marks one of the greatest American TV traditions: No, Scandal is not airing. It’s the Super Bowl!
I grew up watching football with my father – the biggest Dallas Cowboys fan you will ever know — and though I am not a football fanatic myself, I do enjoy a pop diva halftime show and any excuse to eat bottomless wings. It’s also the only time I actually look forward to commercial breaks.
This week, Mindy Kaling, the creator and star of The Mindy Project, released a teaser for her Nationwide Insurance ad which will air during the Super Bowl. Take a look:
Voiceover: “After years of being treated like she was invisible, it occurred to Mindy, she might actually be invisible…But Mindy was actually not invisible.”
Mindy: “Could you see me?!”
Kaling helped develop the commercial with Nationwide, telling AdWeek that the spot was all about “wish fulfillment”: “I have always wanted to walk through a car wash, and then I got to do it for the ad! In this ad I was able to have fun fantasizing about all the ridiculous stuff you would do if you were invisible…and mischievous.”
I, myself, love a mischievous, funny woman. And the thought of being able to eat a gallon of mint chocolate ice cream without judgment or guilt is heavenly. But the “Invisible Mindy” ad left me just a bit unsettled, reminding me how accomplished and influential women of color can find themselves to be hypervisible and invisible at the same time.
As the teaser states, Mindy had endured “years of being treated like she was invisible.” Mindy Kaling grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Indian parents who immigrated to the United States the year she was born. She was raised on American popular culture, staying up late to watch Conan O’Brien and developing a love and fascination with Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers romantic comedies, which largely star white heroines who chased Prince Charmings.
Like me, she rarely had access to cultural mirrors that reflected her. She was largely deemed invisible in the popular culture she consumed. It is affirming that Mindy exists. It is groundbreaking that she stands as the first South Asian American to headline her own network television series with the Mindy Project. It is revolutionary that we see her.
And she herself has noted the importance of her visibility, most recently at a Sundance film festival panel on women storytellers. Let’s listen:
“I think it’s so important for women who look like me — or who look different than me — find themselves, that they can be beautiful or be objects of love and attention and affection. I feel sad when people say, ‘You were the first person who made me feel like that was possible because it’s not represented in TV and film.’ So that’s also very important to me.”
Mindy’s visibility is important and it is vital, allowing girls of color to see themselves on their TV screens. Yet because she is only one of a few women of color in her position, she stands out in her hypervisibility. Because her presence is so rare, she must carry the burden of representation for all Indian-American girls, all dark skin girls, all girls who dare to exist in bodies that are voluptuous and that take up space.
Yet due to these facets of her identity — her gender, her size, her race and skin color – Mindy is not seen as the norm. She’s viewed as an exception and her presence up that Hollywood ladder deems her invisible.
Many will vainly view this commercial as comedy, but its deeper meaning resonates far beyond the confines of humor. This ad is an acknowledgment that while Mindy takes up space during one of America’s most-watched TV events, she’s simultaneously deemed invisible. The only way that Mindy and women like her – from Shonda Rhimes to Mara Brock Akil — will ever truly be seen is when they become the norm, not the exception.
Watch all clips, conversations and interviews from “So POPular!” anytime at MSNBC.com/sopopular. New episodes every Friday at 11am ET!