In one scene, Kaling, who is 33 in real life (and playing 31), goes on a blind date with a guy played by Ed Helms, who is 38 (and playing no one cares), when they are interrupted by an urgent phone call from the son of one of her patients. Annoyed at having to take the call, she grabs the phone from the hostess and hisses, “Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?”
I have no idea how hard this is, because when I was 31 (I’m now 44), I would have done anything to avoid enduring such an ordeal. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re meant to identify with Mindy’s desperation and buy into it, to perform whatever mental contortions are necessary to look upon her with pity, and despise her just a little for reaching 31 with nothing to show for it, except, of course, a medical degree. If Malcolm Gladwell is right about it taking 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to truly master the thing you care about most, then Kaling’s character faces the depressing prospect of being over the hill before she even gets within shooting distance of the hill.
“What we see on broadcast television is that the majority of female characters are in their 20s and 30s,” says Martha M. Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, “Miss Representation.” “That is just a huge misrepresentation of reality, and that really skews our perceptions.” In reality, the documentary says, “women in their teens, 20s and 30s are 39 percent of the population, yet are 71 percent of women on TV. Women 40 and older are 47 percent of the population, yet are 26 percent of women on TV.” And the women in their 20s and 30s on TV are too often depicted as freaking out about their age, reinforcing the idea that life ends when adulthood begins.
“When any group is not featured in the media, they have to wonder, Well, what part do I play in this culture?” Lauzen says. “There’s actually an academic term for that. It’s called ‘symbolic annihilation.’ ”
Nobody disputes the fact that age is more cruel to women than men. But why don’t we? Take a look at Facebook, tireless corroborator of the relentless march of time and its startling effect on the boys I knew in high school. The girls don’t shock in the same way. They tend to hang on to their hair. They submit to the torture of Pilates. They can moisturize without inspiring a Morgan Spurlock documentary. They look fine; in other words, they kind of look the same.
This is just superficial evidence of what science seems to be telling us. Suddenly, the news seems full of quiet debunkings of evolutionary psychology’s most cherished chestnuts, not to mention reports on the hazards of middle-aged sperm and hopeful sci-fi tidings about the creation of fertile eggs from the stem cells of Japanese mice.
And yet (mouse stem cells aside), the tragic, grotesque, totally unfair and yet unassailable ephemerality of a woman’s so-called prime is a trope we privilege over any evidence to the contrary. We expect women to submit to its incontrovertible veracity with equanimity and shame, and we expect men to be gracious about it and try not to gloat. Mostly, we expect nobody to notice or question the different ways in which “primeness” is constructed for each sex, which is not based on the same criteria at all. If, as Hegel suggested, ideas are not just ideas but come wrapped in all flavor of attitudes, then this particular idea is a giant, Gorgonzola-stuffed, bacon-wrapped fig of a notion: decadent, cloying, aged, cured in centuries of spin, warmed over and passed around again and again.