You know how there’s a word for all kinds of things in German that English doesn’t have a reference for? What’s the word for ‘I kind of got played and I think I like it’? Please advise.
Okay, ‘played’ is too strong a word, probably. But the way the story (or non-story) of Mindy Kaling’s pregnancy has played out is one of the few elements of 2017 that I have found surprising and charming. First there was the weird non-announcement, then the later revelation that she was outed by Oprah, which seems like a surprise anointing of a sort, right?
Then she not only thwarted people’s curiosity about how she came to be pregnant but posted zero ‘look at my growing pregnancy’ photos on her very active Instagram – and now has announced that her daughter Katherine was born on December 15th. It’s so chill. So un-extra. And a big part of it is the name she chose.
Parents these days trend toward names you know but wouldn’t have heard a generation ago – Dashiell and Silas and Adelaide. But while some people call them ‘traditional’ names and some say ‘old fashioned’, a lot of people love to say ‘timeless’. That’s a misnomer – William, for example, has always been classic, and probably was always in use, but it’s not timeless; a kid who actually responds to William was either born before 1940 or after 2002.
But Katherine is timeless. Literally. Katherine Brooke was Anne Shirley’s nemesis circa 1889; she was also the most stylish girl in grade 10 when I was in high school. Katherine is simultaneously evocative of Katherine Hepburn and of a 7-year-old. True, there are a glut of Katies in their late 20s who probably have Katherine on their birth certificates, but you can’t know for sure, if you get an email from Katherine, whether she’s 17 or 47.
It’s kind of genius.
Mindy Kaling knows more than a bit about names. Her name given at birth was Vera Mindy Chokalingam. I gave a TED talk last year, and in it I explained why I believe Mindy’s name is directly related to her success – it has to do with relatability. Accessibility. Things she’s built an entire career on.
‘Katherine’ strikes these same chords. It’s a name that is here, that has always been here. It fits perfectly with Mindy’s ‘there will be no questions’ approach to her pregnancy, because there are no questions to answer about Katherine. It’s timeless. It’s unassailable. Katherine was born on Friday, or she was born three years ago or five years from now. The choice was stylish and charming and alliterative – Katherine Kaling sounds great – and I’m sure that it’s a name Mindy loves. But it was also deliberate. You can’t make any judgments on a Katherine until you meet her. She is anything she wants to be, from any time in history – which would be true even if the reference to A Wrinkle In Time wasn’t hovering here, begging to be mentioned.
I feel this choice of an ‘anything’ name is particularly significant coming from Mindy Kaling. This is a woman who has defied expectations of who and what she can be since we first met her: The first Indian woman who created and stars in her own show; a successful multi-hyphenate who is asked to talk all the time not about her self-made career, but how incredible it is that she likes her body and enjoys fashion even as a self-identified ‘curvy’ woman. From a 2013 interview with Parade:
“I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’”
Maybe there are people who expected a name that’s a little more unusual from Mindy, or those who thought she might choose to highlight an ‘exotic’ Indian name. I’ve expressed my hope that celebrities might popularize non-Anglo names before, but I know exactly why Mindy didn’t – just like millions of our parents didn’t. And I’m so here for it.
After a lifetime of being judged on what she looks like before she ever opens her mouth, a career whose trajectory may have been helped by a name that mitigates those judgements, and her new path as an apparent ‘Choice Mom’, Mindy Kaling’s choice makes so much sense it’s almost chemical. A stylish but timeless name that gives absolutely nothing away, and the ability to truly be anyone she wants to be, is one of the first great gifts Katherine Kaling has received.