When The Mindy Project premiered in 2012, it held the promise of a television revival of the deflated romantic comedy genre. Starring and written by self-proclaimed feminist Mindy Kaling, the series tells the personal and professional story of Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a romantic comedy-obsessed and messy OB/GYN working at a prestigious office in New York. From the beginning of the series, her chemistry with her colleague Dr. Daniel “Danny” Castellano (Chris Messina) was perceivable despite their opposite personalities. After a false start in the middle of season two, Mindy and Danny’s relationship shifted from a close friendship to romantic in a Nora Ephron homage in the season two finale. However, the following season, the relationship turned progressively more controlling and more abusive, imploding with their disagreements about Mindy being a working mum. The two seasons later, at the series finale, the last two episodes saw Mindy and Danny reuniting and re-establishing their relationship under the pretence of Danny having changed. This was a very disappointing resolution to their clearly abusive relationship.
Season three began with excitement at the prospect of their relationship, but this quickly soured. Danny’s brutal honesty about Mindy’s flaws came off as mean and paternalising. The episode I Slipped began with Danny non-consensually attempting to have anal sex. Throughout the story, he lies about the reasons why this happened, including poor eyesight. In the end, he admits that he assumed that Mindy had done it before, and just wanted to “try”. Even if his assumption was correct, it is not a green light for attempting the sexual act without asking his girlfriend first! This was the first instance of Danny completely disregarding Mindy’s bodily autonomy. Danny’s ill treatment of Mindy was badly framed by Kaling: “At times he’s been not very feminist, but what has been nice about the character is that he’s always really challenged Mindy…” There is a big difference between a partner that challenges you and changes you for the better, and an emotional abusive and controlling boyfriend.
Mindy becomes pregnant by the end of season three, and near her due date on season four, she decides that she wants an induced birth, general anaesthesia, and an comfortable C-section. Danny disagrees and attempts to jump-start her labour so that she will have a “natural” birth. Again we see Danny granting himself power to decide over Mindy’s body, this time based on his belief of what’s best for her and the baby. The birth of their baby boy Leo exacerbates Danny’s controlling behaviour. He pressures Mindy into becoming a stay-at-home mum. When she’s unhappy with the arrangement, he becomes verbally abusive and accuses her of being a bad mother. Danny tries to get Mindy pregnant again against her wishes, prompting her to secretly take birth control. Many writers recognised the abuse behind this dynamic. The YWCA published the following in the post titled Power and Control on The Mindy Project: ‘The Mindy Project is a funny show, but domestic violence is no laughing matter. As Mindy and Danny navigate their relationship, we hope this very real portrayal of domestic violence continues to reflect the experiences of the one in four women living with the same (or greater) challenges that Mindy is facing’. Viewers saw Mindy become a shell of her former self. She censored herself and cowered at the prospect of Danny leaving her unless she agreed to his demands. Outspoken and vain Mindy was silenced and insecure. Fortunately, Mindy fought back. First by taking the birth control, and then standing up to Danny. At the eve of her break-up with Danny, she prepares her apartment for her imminent return, this time with her child.
The relationship ends and Danny becomes a background character, another ex-boyfriend of Mindy’s. They come together by the end of the fifth season because of their son’s behavioural problems. They get stuck inside an elevator and have sex, even though Danny is engaged, unbeknownst to Mindy. Mindy finds out and Danny denies any blame. As they re-examine their relationship and the possibility of getting back together, Danny accuses Mindy of ‘ruining his life’ by breaking off their engagement after months of fights and abuse from Danny. He again deflects any blame on the downfall of their engagement: “I don’t want to change. I don’t need to change.”
A season later, at the finale, Mindy literally runs to Danny (in rom-com convention) and declares that she hasn’t stopped loving him, and probably never will. The season ends with the two of them cuddling in a hospital break room couch, bickering. Matt Warburton, executive producer of The Mindy Project, said to The Wrap: “So the challenge was, this season we wanted the guy to be a good character. Because to fall back with a guy who treated her pretty badly would be weak of her. She’s proved to herself she has everything she wants in her life. And hopefully Danny has apologised enough and made up for his mistakes enough to the point where she can choose to be with him.” Had he though?
The last two episodes of The Mindy Project made an immense effort to redeem Danny, but his ‘changes’ were just him acknowledging that he was wrong about Mindy’s parenting skills, but not about everything else he had said and done to her. He did not even reach this conclusion on his own. Rather, Mindy proved him wrong with her actions. Mindy is not weak for returning to her abuser, but their reconciliation is a weak story line that leaves Danny’s abusive actions up in the air. The show’s finale reunited them under the pretence that Danny had “changed,” without recognising the abuse he subjected Mindy to, writing him off as an “old-school” guy that just needed to get with the times. The Mindy Project normalised Danny’s abuse as simply bad partnership, without ever truly reflecting on how it affected Mindy and how their relationship was detrimental to her, and without considering whether rekindling her relationship with an abuser lacking so much self-awareness and personal responsibility was the best thing for Mindy and their son.
by Gabriela Ramos Tavárez
Gabriela Ramos Tavárez (she/her) is an islander with LA screenwriting dreams finishing her BA in Film Studies and English Literature at the University of Puerto Rico— Río Piedras Campus. Some of her favorite films are Moonlight, Billy Elliot, 20th Century Women, In the Mood for Love, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and What We Do in the Shadows. She loves romantic comedies, speculative fiction, independent cinema, and dissecting the societal and cultural implications of all the media she consumes. You can find her on Twitter @gaba_rt and on Letterboxd @gabrielart.