I had been looking forward to the new Mindy Kaling show, Never Have I Ever, for a while and not just because we’re all living under lockdown and desperate for fresh TV. I was a big fan of The Mindy Project — a hilarious show about a curvy woman of colour who sees herself as beautiful and desirable and was never on a quest to be skinny — and of Kaling herself who has joked that, unlike almost every other woman in Hollywood, her body falls under the “nebulous quote/unquote ‘normal American woman’” category. In the lead-up to the premiere in late April, there was a lot of talk about how Never Have I Ever champions diversity, which was exciting because representation in pop culture is so important. And also because — how should I put this? — when you are a fat person, watching comedy is often a really uncomfortable experience. Part of you is enjoying whatever it is you’re watching, but another part is just waiting for “Fat Monica” to show up.
I assumed Never Have I Ever would be a safe zone. The story is about a first-generation Indian-American teen named Devi, who is loosely based on a young Mindy and whose high-school experience on the show is narrated by 1980s tennis phenom John McEnroe (weird… but it works). To cast the part, Kaling held an open audition as a way to open Hollywood’s largely impenetrable, largely white universe to South Asian actresses. (The winning candidate was 17-year-old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan — from Mississauga!) Devi’s best friend Fabiola is half Black (and secretly gay) and her other best friend Eleanor is Asian-American. They are not the “cool kids” in the classic ’80s movie or ’90s TV series sense — the show upends this whole concept. “We are glamorous women of colour who deserve a sexy high-school life!” Eleanor proclaims in the pilot. This is awesome, I thought.
And then I met Eric.
Eric Perkins is a third-tier character, who represents pretty much every shitty, offensive fat stereotype there is. Remember Long Duck Dong, the Asian exchange student from Sixteen Candles? Eric is that but for fat people. We first meet him in band class wielding his tuba and complaining that something around him “stinks like shit.” If you are not fat you may not know about the long history of associating this particular instrument with large bodies. See: The running gag in Family Guy where Baby Stewie gets a job “following fat people around with a tuba.” Or see me: An insecure 12-year-old who sat in band class desperately hoping that that the teacher would give me the flute or the violin or any other instrument that wasn’t reserved for the fat kids. (ICYWW: I got the bass drum. You know, the giant circle that the quintessential husky band nerd wears like a front-facing backpack)
Things get progressively worse as we see Eric drinking spoiled milk (twice!), showing up at the end of the bake sale clutching an unfilled garbage bag in the hopes of getting the unsold goods for free. He falls — splat! — in the hallway clutching his packet of Glosette Raisins for dear life and eating the spilled candies off the floor (“that’s where I get all my freakin’ vitamins,” he says — apparently he’s not just fat, but stupid). He barfs (of course). Finally he approaches a girl at a party saying “Hi I’m Eric. A very popular and handsome jock.” Get it? Because he has a plus-sized body, the idea that he might be popular or attractive is so implausible as to be hilarious. This represents the entirety of Eric in the series: six scenes, six versions of the same lazy, offensive fat joke. There is no character development; Eric’s existence doesn’t facilitate any particular plot line. He is there solely to be food-obsessed and friendless and gross and pathetic.
Not only that, he is one of the only large bodies that exists on the show — the only high-school student who isn’t slim. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Kaling’s co-creator, Lang Fisher, explained how, “Growing up, I don't think Mindy saw herself in any teen shows, and she wanted to make sure that that would be different for this generation.” As someone who grew up with Brenda, Kelly, and Donna (diversity on 90210 was a red-headed guest star), I totally support this mission. But I’m also confused. Because either that means that as a fat person I am supposed to see myself in Eric (hard no). Or I just don’t get to see myself at all. Exception alert: Devi’s therapist and principal are played by full-figured women of colour, but on a show about high school is it too much to ask for a seat at the lunch table?
If this piece were a high-school sitcom, now would be the time for a flashback montage. You would see me growing up in a plus-sized body, mostly surrounded by friends whose bodies were, hmmm, minus? As a kid, I loved Jem and the Holograms and once attempted to pull off the crop top and short ruffled skirt look much to the dismay of my neighbours. The Flintstones — The Flintstones was fucked! Two full-figured men snacking on brontosaurus burgers, married to women with waists that are the same size as their necks. I was a teenager in the ’90s, which meant the heroin-chic vibe was unavoidable. When 7 For All Mankind jeans first came out my friends traded their size 28 jeans back and forth, meanwhile, the brand didn’t even make a size that would fit me. (At the time I’m not sure I appreciated the irony of the “for all mankind” tagline.) When Kate Moss quipped, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” I remember thinking, Why can’t that be me? And also: clearly this woman has never tasted my mom’s carbonara. I can joke about it now, but at the time, to a teenage girl who just wanted to fit in, the clear message was that I did not.
I love living in my fat body, though I don’t love the fairly frequent reminders that a lot of other people seem to have a problem with it.
I don’t want to give the impression that fat people are a monolith or that I consume culture only as a person of size. Sometimes triggers aren’t logical. For example, I loved Gossip Girl and totally identified with Serena, but for some reason Marissa Cooper’s spindly arms and protruding collarbone on The O.C. sent me into a spiral of self-loathing. Don’t even get me started that the “show of my generation” featured a recurring gag (ie, Fat Monica) that turned people shaped like me into a punchline. The fact that we now recognise that kind of “comedy” as hurtful and hateful is awesome. Along with fashion, the entertainment world has come a long way in recognising curvy women. I own several bikinis and even a crop top (take that Holograms!). I love Shrill, the comedy based on the amazing memoir by Lindy West and starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant as a woman who totally owns and celebrates her body. In general, there is a much more diverse landscape in pop culture these days (thank
God Lizzo!), but what you don’t often see is a full-figured character where the plot isn’t about their size. That’s why The Mindy Project was so awesome. I loved the running joke where Mindy responds to any criticism of her size by saying, “Whatever do you mean? I’m a petite Asian woman.” Like, you don’t get to decide what my body is or what it means. I can’t imagine how amazing it would have been for my younger self to see a character like that. Okay, flashback montage over.
I’m not sure if it makes it worse that Never Have I Ever is otherwise so inclusive, but it definitely makes it feel more pointed, more personal. The younger sister of Devi’s crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida has Down syndrome. She is also funny and fashionable and a far better judge of character than Paxton. The kid representing Russia at the Model UN is played by an actor who has osteogenesis imperfecta (a genetic disorder also known as brittle bone disease), and that isn’t even mentioned. And of course Devi herself is a clapback against the idea that South Asian girls are supposed to be dutiful daughters and/or geeky sidekicks. I understand this and I celebrate this and honestly it makes me think maybe I should just shut up and let the show be recognised for everything about it that’s funny and socially significant. Believe me I see the irony in a white person making a fuss about not being represented on TV. But then I think that people of all colours live in bodies of all sizes and wonder why cheap laughs at the expense of fat people remain permissible.
I’m sure some will say that body diversity is different because unlike race or orientation, my body is something I have control over. I say that that’s bullshit and for the record, science says the same. That kind of thinking also assumes that I want to have a different body — that every fat person is desperate to slim down and that being thin is inherently a superior form of existence. Also bullshit, btw. I love living in my fat body, though I don’t love the fairly frequent reminders that a lot of other people seem to have a problem with it. The way the internet reacted to recent photos of a slimmed-down Adele, you’d think she had come up with the COVID vaccine. Adele’s body, for the record, is none of my business — or yours. I just wish the world didn’t act like she’d become a better person by conforming to traditional beauty standards. I wish that people (especially women) could exist in our bodies without judgment; that I could love my body in peace without worrying about all the fat-shaming comments that this article might generate. And I wish I could have two minutes with Mindy Kaling. Like everyone else, I’m dying to know if Devi ends up with the guy… or the other guy. But even more than that I want to know why a body like mine doesn’t deserve the same basic dignity as everyone else’s. The woman wrote a book called Why Not Me? I guess I'm just asking the same question.
As told to Courtney Shea and edited from its original transcription.