Finale season on network television is also a glimpse at the future; this week we saw a flurry of pickups, renewals and cancellations. Among them were two major casualties, both female minority showrunners: Mindy Kaling of FOX’s critically-acclaimed but perennially low-rated The Mindy Project, and Cristela Alonzo of ABC’s endearing Cristela. To network executives, these are just two of more than 30 shows that got the boot; to viewers of color, however, their departure from the airwaves holds far greater significance.
For Kaling, criticism of Mindy came early and often; as a high-profile figure from her time as a writer and actor on NBC’s The Office, she entered the scene with high expectations placed squarely on her shoulders. Part of those expectations included an obligation to represent the South Asian perspective in prime-time, an obligation she occasionally balked at but ultimately understood:
I think it’s interesting. I think it’s a compliment because people do get excited that the show is about an Indian American woman and then think, “Well … what else?” I think it comes from an excited place where I’m held to a higher bar and I like that, I don’t want to deny that. We’re so interested in casting minorities on the show and we do that a lot. I’m always trying to find people of color to come populate our world.
As the show fought to find its place in the network landscape, it grew stronger and brought in characters from a number of walks of life to broaden its appeal. More men were able to see it as something other than a show for women, and initial skeptics returned to stronger storytelling and a more balanced combination of heart and humor. The fame it brought Kaling was even enough to nab her a Superbowl ad with Nationwide Insurance. But ultimately ratings remained low. And while Hulu is weighing its options to bring the show back on its platform, it is regrettable that a show with such high appeal will be relegated to a space that will reduce its viewership.
For Alonzo, her fate is far more disappointing. A shining star in the standup world, her show about a Latina-American working to complete law school while also caring for her family was the first to be created, written, produced and starred in by a Hispanic female. It carried both monumental expectations for success and a story relatable to an increasing number of Americans. In a television landscape that should seek to reflect such diversity (The Hollywood Reporter praised it as “one of the most diverse on network television at a time when diversity is high on every broadcaster’s wish list”), it was notable that a show seeking to employ and display the talents of numerous Hispanic actors and actresses had been ordered to series and debuted so strongly. But as ratings fell, ABC promoted it less and less in favor of shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat that were showing more return for their advertising dollars. In speaking about the cancellation, Alonzo made a few jokes rightfully designed to jab the majority decision makers:
My show has gone to a farm up in heaven…where as a show w/a Latino cast, will be expected to pick the crops of the farm for little money.
— Cristela Alonzo (@cristela9) May 8, 2015
But then she brought up a key point to consider when sharing the stories of historically underrepresented populations on television:
Thanks for everything but I just found out #Cristela has been canceled.
You can’t make people get something they haven’t lived.
— Cristela Alonzo (@cristela9) May 8, 2015
As I continue to lament the loss of the work of two powerful women of color, I was repeatedly nagged by the sentiment: What about Shonda Rhimes? As Kaling and Alonzo prepare to move on to other projects and pursuits, another showrunner of color is thriving, evidenced by the pickup of another program for the Shondaland canon.
However, Rhimes’ stories are, while compelling and highly watchable, less personal to her than the work that Kaling and Alonzo are doing. Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri and Alonzo’s Cristela ar alteregos of the showrunners themselves. Comparatively, Rhimes is telling impersonal stories (and, in the case of Scandal, based on other people’s lives) that aren’t dependent on the show’s viewers relating to her specifically. She famously portrays reality in her writing and producing, but that characterization here ignores the idea that Kaling and Alonzo wrote to share their reality. The loss of Kaling’s and Alonzo’s shows feels synonymous with the idea that the stories of Indian Americans and Hispanic Americans aren’t as valuable, profitable or worthy of our viewership. It should also be noted that remaining mostly-white shows (Two Broke Girls, for instance) run the risk of reversing progress made in recent years by advancing negative stereotypes against minorities.
Is it easier to slight the work of women in the pursuit of high studio performance? Earlier this week, Selma director Ava duVernay conducted a thought experiment over Twitter, asking her followers to name important films for women of color that were directed by women. She repeatedly had to clarify the rules, noting that featuring strong women or being based on women’s writing wasn’t enough for them to fit:
So… I’m looking at over 1k tweets with films. only a few have women of color lead films DIRECTED by women. Like a handful. #ArrayToday
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) May 8, 2015
Similarly, Alonzo encouraged those mourning the loss of her show to please support The CW’s Jane the Virgin, a network that is more forgiving in terms of ratings performance—but also a show that is about a strong female but run by men.
As we head into another season of network television dominated by white stories, or minority stories heavily supported by majority stakeholders, it’s worth it to wonder: How will more female storytellers and showrunners get their chance to shine? Will they have to align with those in the majority to get their stories told? Will we find a construct other than ratings to justify the legitimacy of the stories we see each week? Whatever the solution we find, one thing is for certain: We are losing the stories of Mindy Kaling and Cristela Alonzo, and the women across the country that they represent, all too soon.
Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog (“The Dedicated Amateur“) and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.