A seat at the table: Thoughts on Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night”

Being a woman can be maddening. If you identify as female, you’re probably nodding your head right now, because I’m preaching to the choir. For each step we press forward, our gender is pushed five steps back. I grew up hearing that the wage gap is a myth (it’s not). I was told I could do anything boys could do (newsflash—they don’t really want you to). I believed the lies I was fed about equality between the sexes. As a child and teen, I thought that we had taken all the steps we needed. I thought that I as a young woman was toe to toe with the men in my life, and with all the men I had yet to meet.

Then I went to college, and realized I hadn’t even been allowed to enter the ring, let alone stand toe-to-toe with anyone of the opposite sex. I naively believed that women were at the head of the table—but lo and behold, here I was, sitting on a trashcan in the corner.

What does this have to do with a comedy about women in the workplace? As it turns out, everything. Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, tells the story of a young Indian woman named Molly who has struggled with depression throughout her life and sought comfort in writing jokes. When she gets the opportunity to work for the only successful late night female talkshow host, Englishwoman Katherine Newbury, she fights for a place at the writer’s table—a table full of white men.

Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel

The plot won’t be surprising to any female viewer. We know these characters because we either ARE them, or have had to work with them. For all the talk people spout about equality, we know what it’s actually like for men to feel threatened by our talents. We know how it feels to try to get along with other women in the office who have had to be cut-throat to get where they are. We understand, intrinsically, the frustration Molly encounters at not being taken seriously because she’s a “diversity hire.” We get the story because we could have written it ourselves.

I work in a male-dominated office environment, and as I watched the film I couldn’t help but laugh—not just at the humor (because it is, indeed, hilarious) but at the sheer honesty that underlies every moment. It felt like Kaling’s script was directed right at me. “Push harder,” she told me. “You deserve to sit here.”

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury

There’s lots of other wonderful parts of the movie, like a sharp social commentary, an exploration of mental health, and terrific performances from Kaling and Thompson. There are a million and one reasons to watch and enjoy Late Night. But the one that stuck with me was the simple picture of a woman’s seat at the table. Not an overturned trashcan, but an actual chair no different from a man’s. (This makes more sense if you’ve actually watched the movie.) Maybe it’s because I, too, am a writer, but to me Late Night is a modern Virginia Woolf essay, where the room of one’s own is taking your rightful seat—the one you’ve worked hard for, deserve, and shouldn’t have to prove.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” —Virginia Woolf

Late Night is currently in theaters.