Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling and the Importance of Live Panels

I'm a fan of both Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling. Yet I found myself somewhat surprised by just how impressive I found both women while recently watching their contributions to a Sundance live panel moderated by Emily Nussbaum via YouTube. I tried to pinpoint why exactly I was so taken with the extent to which I found both women endearingly self-aware, thoughtful and humble.

Perhaps, I finally realized, it had something to do with the panel format itself. Instead of answering the typical lazily sexist questions both women are frequently asked — like about existing as a female in Hollywood or what it was like to work with [insert male co-star here] — these talented individuals were given open platforms to discuss substantive issues they actually care about. Dunham, Kaling and the other panelists were able to have an enlivening discussion full of insight because they were liberated from the filtered, two-dimensional version of their lives and opinions typically constructed by the mainstream media. They are especially able to shirk the persistently sexist media focus on female artists’ bodies and appearance imposed by journalists’ lazy questions and use the self-directed platform to focus on their minds and opinions, instead.

Dunham and Kaling’s work challenges the typical mold into which female characters are routinely forced. On their shows, they both experiment with unlikeability, brazen sexuality and, yes, body image positivity. But rather than focus on the many ways these women’s work breaks this prototypical mold, the media, even when praising them and lauding them as role models, often does so in terms of their physical bodies rather than their bodies of work.

Both women's bodies deviate from our society’s expectations for female celebrities in multiple ways, including non-normative size and, in Kaling’s case, a racial deviation from the white norms. In fact, not only do their bodies passively fail to fit the mold — their occupiers actually take pride in that fact and use their bodies as instruments for their work.

But instead of celebrating Dunham and Kaling for this work, much of the praise for both women focuses on their tools: bodies they inhabit. Although these women’s bodies are arguably just the containers for creative, intellectual forces that would be equally deserving of attention and success in any other body, the media constantly equates them with the merit of these artists’ work itself.

Traditional media presentations of these artists obsess about these women’s bodies on the most basic level of their existence, constantly referring to the fact that these women have the audacity to not hate their bodies. A 2012 New York Magazine article about Dunham notes she places her body “quite deliberately in the spotlight” although she is “short and pear-shaped” and is praised for being one of “few powerful women [to] open themselves up so aggressively to the judgment of voyeurs.” In 2014, Vogue identified Dunham’s body and her confidence in it as “the reason many people see her as the voice for a new generation of empowered young women.”

It’s worth noting that this coverage usually isn’t malevolent. That these women portray unabashedly confident women is, in fact, largely praised. But regardless of their benevolent intent, these profiles miss the point. They praise these women for their bold inhabitation of their curvy figures but in doing so still emphasize their bodies as being central to why they’re remarkable artists. They argue that their bodies represent progress and express confidence just by existing on screen, rather than contend with the idea that these women’s bodies are instruments of great work, not the great work itself.

Furthermore, despite the perhaps benevolent intentions of holding these women’s bodies up as exemplary, as all-encompassing representatives of their various categories of “difference,” doing so actually just categorizes and marginalizes them differently. We have harmfully exchanged a media presentation of women as one-dimensional sexualized objects for one in which women are one-dimensional, all-encompassing role models. If the goal of feminism is equality -- a reality in which the body you’re born into doesn’t matter, in which a talented comedian shouldn’t be inhibited nor defined by the body she inhabits -- we must stop categorizing these women as different by asking them to embody an entire group and to be flawless role models based on their membership within that group.

Kaling has, in fact, spoken out about this point. “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists,” she told Vulture in 2012. “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”

Live panels allow these women to break the mold: to self-present as agents of important ideas, missions, goals. At Sundance, for example, Dunham addressed her creative process and approach to pushing boundaries in her work. “I think in some ways America is at its most puritanical and people are forgetting that humor is a tool for debate and humor is a tool for expression,” she told moderator Emily Nussbaum and that calling for censorship of such humor “shows a very basic lack of understanding of what humor can do for us culturally and what it has always done.” Kaling addressed experimenting with a type of flawed female protagonist rarely displayed on network television on the same panel. “Likeability is not remotely important to me. Relatability is very important to me,” Kaling stated. Although due to her feminist sensibility, she noted, she often wants to be “very prescriptive and [to] show the character as an ideal for all women, especially Indian American women who are not represented on television” the result is “a really fucking boring character.” In fact, the most enlightening moments of all arguably came at the end of the Kaling-Dunham-Kohan-Wiig panel, when the panelists were asked by an audience member which political issues matters most to them. They were able to discuss issues that rarely make it into tabloid stories about their work, such as reproductive rights, food justice, absolutism and campus sexual assault.

This is why panels like the one these women participated in at Sundance are so important. These panels offer celebrities who have been pegged into rigid narratives to present their own stories in real time, to speak completely for themselves without the mediation of a journalist, editor, pressure of viral clicks, etc. They have control in the context of a media that presents women — even women they’re praising — in non-complex, stereotypical ways. Allowing these artists an hour and a half to share their complex thoughts, theories and feelings sans editing or media frameworks is invaluable.

This is not to say that having representations of bodies that are normally excluded from our screens isn’t important: it undeniably is, and it’s salient that the media is approaching these bodies from a seemingly good place. But it’s not enough. It’s insufficient, and insulting, to praise Kaling and Dunham for merely existing in bodies we normally don’t register, and fail to fully recognize and contend with what they’re trying to do with those bodies. Whether you love them or hate them, agree or disagree with them, it’s undeniable that they are agents of ideas and opinions and messages and we owe it to them to content with their minds and thoughts over anything else.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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