I have long been a fan of Mindy Kaling’s flawed but whip smart sitcom The Mindy Project, which for the uninformed tells the story of Doctor Mindy Lahiri and her consistently ridiculous love life. The show’s second season finale aired last week and wrapped up (for now) the on again/off again romance of Mindy and her irritable but adorable coworker Danny. There were rom com references galore, a reunion atop the Empire State Building, and several scenes of friends yelling go to her! followed by montages of Danny running through Manhattan, getting hit by cabs, etc.
But what made the finale important was a throwaway joke from a supporting character that happened so quickly and quietly most viewers no doubt forgot about it soon after hearing it. Peter Prentice, the token dudebro doctor at Schulman & Associates, filled in his coworkers about his new relationship and said of his mature, wonderful girlfriend Lauren, “We are open and honest with each other about everything. She knows I’m an HPV carrier. She knows I’ve never given a woman an orgasm—” Mindy cut him off with an, “Oh god, yuck, okay,” but this was in response to his sexual ineptitude rather than his sexual health. For the first time that I can remember, a character on a primetime sitcom disclosed their STI status flippantly and without consequence. His friends did not cringe, the audience was not urged to judge, and the show whirred onward toward Mindy and Danny’s reconciliation. To the uniformed viewer, the moment would not even register as important. But it was, and its existence as barely a blip on the radar is what makes it so awesome.
If I had learned ahead of time that The Mindy Project would make a character STI positive, I would have cringed and watched the episode through my fingers. The program’s track record is less than stellar when addressing sexually transmitted infections, which makes it less the exception than the rule in a culture saturated with shame and misinformation about STIs. The United States has a powerful stigma against sexually transmitted infections, rendering such conditions invisible or powerfully judged. Although sexually active adults living with STIs are in the majority (according to the CDC, most sexually active adults will get at least one type of HPV in their lives), the media depicts STIs as gross, dangerous, and spread by promiscuous, immoral, and generally shitty people. Jokes about herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea pop up in every sitcom, reinforcing the stigma against STIs and making the very real individuals who are diagnosed every day with such conditions more invisible. A recent Glee episode devoted to the topic tried to tell a cautionary tale in which Artie was diagnosed with Chlamydia after having unprotected casual sex. Although it addressed the importance of getting tested and disclosing one’s STI status to new partners, the episode was riddled with stigmatizing language and humor. Viewers were left with the sense that STIs are disgusting, shameful, the fault of the patient, and to be avoided at all cost. Hardly a progressive message to send to the show’s primarily teenage audience.
As a show about an office of OB/GYN’s, it’s not unusual for the characters of The Mindy Project to discuss sexual health. A recent plot line involved a college student attempting to go on birth control despite her disapproving dad (sorry pops, she was over 18 and it was ultimately her decision). Less awesome have been the show’s occasional references to sexually transmitted infections, which are often quick jokes doubling as scare tactic-style lectures. In an episode in which Mindy visits a high school, she urges a huddle of teenage girls to use condoms because, “I’ll tell you one thing that lasts forever—herpes.” She also encourages them to get the HPV vaccine, offering some incorrect information about the shot as she does so. Herpes gets name-dropped again in season two when a celebrity doctor attempts to woo Mindy into joining her practice. “The rich and famous need medical help just as much as anyone else,” the celebrity doctor tells Mindy after explaining her practice does not take insurance. “Maybe even more so because they all have herpes.” It is worth mentioning that The Mindy Project and the aforementioned Glee are both on the FOX network.
But I’m going to let The Mindy Project’s iffy history of addressing STIs slide, because this HPV joke is different. Peter Prentice is an interesting character to make STI positive out of the show’s core cast: he is the least conventionally attractive of the male regulars and written to be a bit of a skeeze. In a recent episode he realized with much horror that he is, in fact, an asshole. His plotline in the final few episodes of the second season involved him trying to win the affections of a smart, hard working single mother, which proved to be a challenge as he was used to dating, using, and dumping the dim-witted. Him contracting an STI fits the media’s understanding of those with sexual health conditions: he was “at risk” because of his habit of relatively anonymous casual sex. Ah yes, punish the man slut, writers of comedy!
It also makes sense for The Mindy Project to give Peter HPV as opposed to herpes, which has a differently weighted stigma in our culture considering the widespread availability of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. HPV is also enjoying something of a moment in media—in an early episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath is diagnosed with HPV and spends the rest of the season wondering who gave it to her. But after the first season, HPV drops from her plotline, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter’s STI status were to never come up on the show again either. Continuity is hardly a strength of sitcoms, and STIs are rarely understood as becoming a part of one’s identity. Also important is that Peter is a dude, obviously, when HPV is a virus largely associated with women. The sexuality of men is far less policed in our society, and so Peter is be the safer narrative choice for an STI joke. He gets to dodge the consequences a female character would face if he casually dropped having HPV into conversation, at the office no less.
But here is what is so great about the introduction of Peter’s HPV: he mentions having an STI in the context of a partner accepting his STI status. Sure, it is intended to be a joke running on shock value: Peter has HPV? But the show does not give the audience the time to judge Peter because Lauren, his girlfriend, has not judged him. It is just another aspect of their relationship, just another conversation they had and survived. This depiction of an STI as acceptable relationship damage is incredibly unusual and something to be praised. It is a small but important strike against STI stigma, inverting the expectation that STIs are a relationship deal-breaker.
I don’t know that I want a perpetually dishonest dudebro to be the only character on prime time television living with an STI. The joke that Peter was honest with Lauren about his HPV implies that he has not been honest with other women about it in the past, a thought I do not want to dwell on. I look forward to the day there is a plotline about a character getting diagnosed, struggling with stigma, and exploring ethics of disclosure and transmission on national television. But Peter’s blasé workplace disclosure is a start, and so I say kudos, Mindy Kaling and co. I will definitely tune in for the premiere of the third season of The Mindy Project, whenever that might be. Maybe Jeremy, the dreamy and douchey Hugh Grant-inspired OB/GYN, will discover he has genital herpes and become the first TV heartthrob to utter the phrase “asymptomatic viral shedding.” Alas, probably not, but a girl can dream.