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What Can We Learn From The Sex Lives of College Girls? Mindy Kaling’s Portrayal of Bela Malhotra

Updated: Mar 28, 2023


The Sex Lives of College Girls explores themes of sexuality, identity, and personal development through the journeys of four college freshman roommates. Mindy Kaling brings a new angle and much-needed representation to a familiar coming-of-age storyline so often reserved for white characters. Easy A, Superbad, The Edge of Seventeen, Love, Simon, Sixteen Candles, Clueless; when Americans think of coming-of-age classics, the vast majority feature white protagonists. Thus, the raunchiness of Bela Malhotra, a comedy-loving, extroverted Indian-American protagonist in The Sex Lives of College Girls, immediately strikes the viewer as a departure from stereotypes often ascribed to Asian-American women: in the first minute of Bela introducing herself to one of her roommates, she explains in front of her parents and roommate’s parents that she has hung a poster of Seth Meyers because he’s her “dream guy.” “It’s like I wanna have sex with him. But I also wanna be him,” she says.


Hollywood often perpetuates white standards of beauty, which hold whiteness the ideal, while exoticizing Asian women and upholding dominant stereotypes by portraying women of the diaspora as submissive. Bela, played by actress Amrit Kaur, is anything but submissive. Throughout the first season, Bela was celebrated for her liberated nature despite facing many road bumps. In her effort to “flip the script,” she rarely hesitates to engage in morally questionable endeavors; she goes so far as to exchange sexual favors in hopes of advancing her comedy career. When her roommates balk at her actions, Bela assures them that she is simply doing what men have been doing for centuries. Bela is goofy and carefree until the consequences of her own actions confront her. She believes her overt sex-positivity to be subversive, though her innuendos and actions often elicit grimaces from even her closest friends. She is enrolled as a Neuroscience major in order to appease her parents, but her true passion lies in comedy. She desperately wants to gain acceptance to The Catullan, the school’s premier comedy club run by mostly white, male students. Bela embraces her sexuality and stops at nothing to achieve her goal of rising to comedy fame.


Unfortunately, Bela frequently learns that her actions have unintended consequences for the other women fighting to succeed in comedy, an environment that has historically not supported women. Not only does Bela have to deal with sexism and the presumption that she’s not all that funny, but she also deals with white male leadership that attempts to refer her to an all-Asian comedy troupe called “the Pot Stickers”. In the end, Bela finds a way through her struggles, often by rallying her roommates to go to parties and find hot hookups. On one hand, the viewer sees Bela as a carefree spirit, yet Bela also tends to espouse beliefs that potentially run counter to her attitude of empowerment.


While Bela has made major headway in breaking stereotypes and diversifying South Asian representation in Hollywood, audiences have simultaneously criticized Kaling for crafting yet another character in the form of a self-deprecating, messy, quirky Indian woman; within the first season, Bela refers to her high school self as an “Indian loser” who she desperately wants to leave behind in college. Not only do statements like “Indian loser” hurt young viewers who are not desensitized to Kaling’s M.O., but they inadvertently legitimize white standards of beauty and Hollywood’s view of social desirability. From characters such as Mindy Lahiri from The Mindy Project and Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever to Velma Dinkley in the new HBO show Velma, Kaling allows these women (and audiences) no reprieve from their own self-abasement. These characters also tend to chase nerdy, derisive white men who seem actively opposed but eventually powerless to their attraction towards characters like Mindy, Devi, Velma, and Bela.


Ultimately, Kaling misses an opportunity to set the record straight once and for all: Bela should not have to conform to the white gaze in order to be respected. Anyone who made Bela feel like an “Indian loser” deserves the blame. In instances where Bela makes self-deprecating comments, the other characters do little to correct her and help her challenge her poor self-image. Bela’s hyper-extroversion, self-assuredness, and air of empowerment read more as armor masking her insecurities than true liberation from internalized negative beliefs. Considering that Bela faces racism and sexism from her male counterparts at The Catullan, it’s no wonder that she wants to embody the total opposite of the stereotypes ascribed to her. Kaling certainly deserves blame for creating yet another character whose internalized racism and girl-boss attitude appeals to Hollywood executives, but we can also celebrate Bela (and Kaling) for breaking away from stereotypes and representing a South Asian woman navigating her sexuality. These two things can both hold true. In the end, everyone embarks on their own unique, imperfect exploration of sexuality, identity, and personal development, all facets of Bela’s portrayal in the show. Hopefully, Kaling will allow Bela a moment of realization where she sees that she was wrong to ever see herself as an “Indian loser.”


 

Editor(s): Lang D., Cathay L., Joyce P., Claudia S., Leila W., Erika Y.

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