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Mindy Kaling's Super Bowl Ad: Are Indian Women Invisible?

A Super Bowl commercial for Nationwide Insurance shows an Indian-American woman — none other than author and actor Mindy Kaling — trying to hail a cab in New York City. And it's not easy.

"After years of being treated like she was invisible, it occurred to Mindy Kaling she might actually be invisible," the narrator says.

Kaling then pretends she is invisible, doing all kinds of ridiculous things. She steals ice cream from a store, walks through a car wash and stretches in a park, naked.

Watching the ad's teaser, I wondered if there's more to the message than trying to sell insurance. Do minority women in America feel invisible? What about women in India?

As an Indian woman who lived in the U.S. for 11 years and now lives in India, I have had a taste of both worlds.

Mindy Kaling and the author agree: A cloak of invisibility has advantages.
/ YouTube
Mindy Kaling and the author agree: A cloak of invisibility has advantages.

In the U.S., I experienced my share of invisibility. And my minority women friends there tell me they've also experienced it.

For me, one example was at work. Some colleagues were putting together a project highlighting the accomplishments of a group. But I wasn't included in the presentation, despite belonging to that work group.

Then someone higher up — I'm not sure who — decided the project needed to show "diversity" in the workplace. And so, I was eventually asked to participate.

I was game, did my bit and even teased my colleagues about making me the "token minority." They responded with embarrassment and self-deprecating comments, and we merrily went back to working together.

I must add a line here in defense of all the people who wittingly or unwittingly made sure I wasn't invisible for most of my time in the U.S. I mostly felt supported and encouraged by numerous colleagues and friends. An experience of significant visibility, I'd say.

Still, it was hard not to notice the times where I was overlooked or my work underappreciated. And I'm not alone. This problem has been documented in studies, especially on African-American women. Take this 2010 study for example, which shows how black women go "unnoticed" and "unheard."

Back in India, I find myself aching for invisibility — not when hailing a cab though, like Kaling. That would be no good.

But when I'm out and about in New Delhi, I wish I could go about my business unnoticed. That's because being visible comes with a certain risk of violence, especially in a city like New Delhi, often called the rape capital of India. Public spaces here often have different rules for men and women. Men outnumber women, and there are liberties a man can take that women still can't.

For instance, a man can loiter. A woman can't — at least, not without drawing stares from men and assumptions about the woman's character being "loose." It's a guaranteed way to draw all the creeps in the vicinity.

A man can go for a walk, anywhere and at any time of the day. A woman can't.

A man can walk out of the house wearing almost anything he wants. Indian men often wear shorts, lungis (wrap skirts for men) or even no shirt at all. Nobody raises an eyebrow.

A woman doesn't have that freedom. Each time I step out of the house, I have to consider carefully what I'm wearing. Is it too tight? Is it too revealing? Is it going to draw lewd stares and comments from men? There are no specific rules, so to speak. But anything that's too revealing and modern — shorts, short skirts, tank tops — is bound to draw unwanted attention.

When I was younger, I didn't care. I wore what I wanted, despite the stares. Now, in my mid-30s, I no longer want my clothes to be a potential risk to my own safety, so I worry about my wardrobe. An invisibility cloak would definitely come in handy here in New Dehli. I could wear it and go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And I could remove it when I needed to be visible, say, when hailing that cab.

But I recognize that invisibility isn't the answer. Only when more and more women step out into public spaces here can we hope to make spaces safer for Indian women. It will take time and maybe a few more generations. But, I think, it's the only way to go.

And actually, when you think about it, the situation in New Delhi isn't that different from that in the U.S. Only by persisting in workplaces and public spaces, and making sure we are seen and heard, can we hope for a day when women of all colors feel more visible.

Going about one's life as though one's invisible is definitely not the answer. Right, Mindy?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.