Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

This book’s title gives a nod to female confidence, and is the subject of its penultimate chapter. Kaling’s insights on the complications of being a confident woman come from lived experience; she routinely has to answer men when they ask her where she gets her confidence, as if she doesn’t look like someone who should possess confidence and therefore has to explain herself. However, Kaling relays the story of being asked where she gets her confidence by a young Indian girl, who, with candor, foregrounded her own struggle with insecurity. This last chapter is an essay replying to that question, an answer she wishes she could have given at the time. “Confidence is just entitlement… and entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something”, she writes (452). Hard work certainly contributes to that belief, as well as courage. But, Kaling calls attention to the ways in which this severe emphasis on the confidence of young girls likely complicates their accessibility to confidence.

I remember as a teenager trying to convince my mom that she should give me money for good grades, because all of my friends got money from their parents for getting A’s. She laughed in my face. “Why would I give you money for something that you are capable of doing? That would just mean that I don’t believe you can do it without some sort of reward”. At least it was something along those lines; it was a long time ago. Kaling closes with this:

“So, if that girl from the panel is reading this, I would like to say to her: Hi, it’s Mindy Kaling. I’m sorry I let you down. The thing is, I’m in my mid-thirties and I was wearing my Spanx for fourteen hours straight. You’ll understand when you’re older. Here’s how I think you can get your confidence back, kid: Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled. Listen to no one except the two smartest and kindest adults you know, and that doesn’t always mean your parents. If you do that, you will be fine. Now, excuse me, I need to lie down and watch Sheldon” (464).

I should have warned against spoilers. I just gave the whole book away.

Like I said in my last review, Kaling’s life experiences are couched in friendships that bring meaning to these experiences: female friendships, colleague friendships, and relationships that are not easily defined and present more like a best friend-life mate hybrid like the one she shares with B.J. Novak. Consequently, reading Kaling – forgive me for being cliche – is a lot like listening to your funniest friend talk about quintessential LA life, including the time she offended an entire room of white anti-vaxxer moms. Kaling calls attention to the ways in which friendships are more similar to romantic relationships than we think. We have flings, we feel the spark of connection. She has a language for something that remains largely language-less: friendship breakups. Maybe this can be attributed to a societal framework that reveres romantic relationships as the most important relationships one can have. The passion, fizzling out or explosive end of a friendship goes largely unprocessed in our romance obsessed culture.

While most of Kaling’s material is light-hearted and witty, her essays have a strong politicized thread running through them. She discusses the ways in which the media treat her body like a public text that can be read and written about – what it’s like to be a woman in the public eye. She speaks candidly and honestly about the marginalization she experiences however much she might love her life.

Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I know its a faux pas in the practice of book reviewing to comment on the author rather than the book itself, but books reviews aren’t exactly what I do anyway. Now that I have that out of the way: I love Mindy Kaling. She writes playfully, imaginatively; there is something so exhilarating about the story of someone who is now successful relay the way they bumbled, stammered, groped blindly their way to a career they love. As I get older, the concept of success becomes more and more desirable, though it remains elusive and hard to reach; and while Kaling never promotes her life as a model of success, I am certainly spurred on by her honestly, openness to finding herself in possibly awkward situations and yes, failures.

Kaling is always foregrounding her love of comedy with the comradery and belonging she found in female friendships. In fact, her female friendships were the context in which she describes her first real success: Matt & Ben. 

“Brenda and I have always done ‘bits,’ even before we knew they were called ‘bits.’ Bits are essentially ‘nonsense time’ or, to describe it more pejoratively, ‘fucking around.’ We would take on characters, acting like them for a while on the way to the subway, or getting ready to go out. For whatever reason, around this time our favourite recurring bit was when Bren played Matt Damon and I was Ben Affleck” (86).

This ‘bit’ turned into a play that they then entered into the New York International Fringe Festival and eventually would be the vehicle that brought her to The Office. It might be slightly idealistic to chalk up success to the result of hanging around with women you love and making each other laugh, but it sure sounds like the utopia I’ve always hoped for.

Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? is largely narrative peppered with quippy chapters such as “Karaoke Etiquette” and “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real” with a segment on “The Ethereal Weirdo” which I especially appreciated an extended explanation and description of because I really resent being called a manic pixie dream girl just because I have long messy hair. “This ethereal weirdo abounds in movies, but nowhere else. If she were from real life, people would think she was a homeless woman and would cross the street to avoid her, but she is essential to the male fantasy that even if a guy is boring, he deserves a woman who will find him fascinating and pull him out of himself by forcing him to go skinny-dipping in a stranger’s pool” (101). I, for one, would never force anyone to go swimming naked. I rest my case.

I was surprised by how seamlessly Kaling weaved together her recollections of a myriad of failures – one of which she identifies as “contributing nothing to SNL” – and lists of people and things she delights in. Its not everyday that I read a text that shamelessly relishes the pleasures in life rather than calling attention to all the ways the world needs to change (as constructive as that work is). My favourite chapter is “My Favourite Eleven Moments in Comedy”; I love that Kaling has made a habit of delighting in comedic moments in history, and in turn, delighting in the people that make those moments happen. We need more of that – remembrance of the exquisiteness of this life.

You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain is hilarious, well written and extremely apropos. Not only does she have the ability to encapsulate complex and complicated life experiences into a few concise paragraphs, Robinson has an apt simile or metaphor to go with every one. One of my favourites:

“… I can explain why sometimes a black lady may straighten her hair. If she is anything like me, her natural hair has special shape-shifting qualities of epic T-1000 proportions, which means it has a mind of its own. For instance, when I sport an Afro, I may want to relax by sitting on my bed and leading my head against the wall. When I get up from that spot, my hair has assumed the shape of said wall… Yep. What was once a light, airy and fluffy Afro has turned into a condensed mass of tightly coiled locks that resembles fiberglass insulation used on House Hunters Renovation. Forgive me for not having the exact wording down for this particular scientific phenomenon, but I believe it’s called: That’s Some Damn Bullshit… I reach the limit of my fierceness when, while relaxing in the comfort of my own home, my hair is twisting into itself until it’s knotted like a pile of tangled iPhone earphones.”

Jokes aside, Robinson goes on to illustrate so beautifully the often fraught relationship that black women have with their hair and the ways in which their “hair journeys” marked with frustration, patience and learning to love often mirrors their own journeys of self-love. Robinson identifies her “natural hair” as “the most controversial signifiers of [her] blackness” and thus summarizes the reason for this complicated relationship: a white supremacist society will react to signifiers of blackness (78). Robinson discusses, not only that she felt less beautiful because her hair did not fit into Eurocentric standards of beauty, but a common lived experience for people of colour is that in order to be eligible for a job, hairstyles that explicitly indicate blackness (natural hair or dreads, for example) are out of bounds.

If this text had a thesis it would be: representation matters. Robinson’s memoir is crowned with the penultimate chapter titled “Letters to Olivia”, in which she provides a list to her niece – who is biracial – of all of the powerful biracial people she admires. While Robinson makes a habit of calling out society’s oppressive structures, she also, with even more zeal, calls attention to the rich and exquisite identity women of colour continue to maintain. Not surprisingly, the comedy world is one in which Robinson routinely calls out for being explicitly sexist and, you know, sexist in that banal, everyday sort of way. Because she lives it, Robinson has a myriad of exemplar comments from male comedians at the ready: “Women need to be pretty when they perform” and “Why do some women wear makeup on stage? Comedy is not about looks” (512). Or, “This girl’s a prude because she doesn’t bang any of the comics” and “She has sex with all the comics” (513). While this constant reminder of how unwelcoming the entertainment industry is to funny women is tiresome, it also seems to at once light a fire under Robinson; she meets this resistance with the radical audacity to be herself. After all, if Louis CK can perform a five minute bit gyrating while talking about an experience he had masturbating once, she should be able to say the word vagina without the (male) audience having a fit. Robinson points again to representation as a powerful force that helps to form and reform sense of self: “So much of comedy is about us all realizing, Hey maybe I’m not such a weirdo after all/Oh my God! You do that thing, too?/ Holy crap you just said everything I ever wanted to say, but didn’t have the tools to do so. The joy of seeing yourself in another is pertinent not just to stand-up comedy but to being alive” (515-516). And this is why I read. And this is why I write.