Subtitle of this post: if you like the same stuff I like.
I like popular culture that deals with regular people and everyday concerns. So, Mindy Kaling’s new book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? was a treat to read. The book is short, mostly biographical, and includes some sharp observations about beauty and the body in contemporary (North) America. For example, Kaling rightly observes that the word “fat” means so many different things to different people that it has become meaningless. She then offers a tongue-in-cheek breakdown of categories of fatness from “chubster” to “obeseotron” to explain the different types of large bodies we see (or don’t see) in popular culture. I suspect some folks on the Fat Studies listserv will have something to say about Kaling’s commentary on body size, but I see it as satire, especially because of the fun and funny critical commentary on women in popular culture that comes later in the book.
Case in point is the chapter “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real.” [Aside: the whole idea that some people are “real” while others are not “real” isn’t my favourite, only because I think there are many ways of being real and most people probably think of themselves as real]. Anyway, in this chapter Kaling takes on female tropes in romantic comedies. She outlines some of the “specimens of women who do not exist in real life” but appear frequently in the genre, i.e. the gorgeous “klutz,” “the ethereal weirdo,” “the skinny woman who is beautiful and toned but also gluttonous and disgusting,” etc. etc. The idea, says Kaling, is to make otherwise attractive and successful female characters palatable for a general audience. So, basically, making beautiful women seem silly, dumb, kooky, sloppy makes them more relatable to the general viewer.
What is clever about the schema Kaling lays out is that, without actually explicitly saying so, these versions of “real” women are completely crazy and often lame. Kaling doesn’t actually name any particular actresses or films that trade in these types of characters, but I’m sure you can think of a number of romantic comedies of the last five or so years which have featured white/slim/pretty women who are clumsy/nerdy/kooky scientists/journalists/teachers and for whom things eventually work out. Like me, Kaling thinks that it isn’t the genre that is wrong but the execution that may be more science fiction than reality. [Aside II: I’m sure that Mindy and I have much more in common].
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? isn’t just about women and popular culture, even if I read it that way. It also talks about being a non-white woman in Hollywood, a woman in comedy, (heterosexual) relationships, personal grooming, being a weird teenager, working bad jobs etc. It is a book that is both critical of and celebrates the fun that women have with popular culture, the bizarre fictions that culture perpetrates and the ways we take up these images in our everyday lives. If I’ve made it sound academic, the book isn’t. But, it is subversive in that it raises all of these issues while seemingly talking about feeling awkward, failing, succeeding, shopping and dating.