by El Anderson
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a great, funny show. DO NOT WATCH IT. I’m serious; you have a moral duty not to help this show get viewers. I’ll explain why below, but we’ll start off positive, shall we?
Women are Strong as Hell
Let’s start with the predictably obvious: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is flipping charming, and very funny. It more or less has to be; creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have some serious comedy credentials. It is also delightfully pro-women, again somewhat predictably. Do I even need to bother mentioning a series by SNL golden children depicts New York economic inequality well? Finally, the attempt to create an authentic imitation of a viral news remix worked spectacularly well, to the point that after marathon-ing a handful of episodes and trying to work the next day I was grateful when someone started Tweeting Spice Girls lyrics at me, just to have anything else stuck in my head for a change.
The incredibly addictive theme song proclaims ‘women are strong as hell!’, and that really is the point of the series, a point made well and hilariously throughout the show, as all the defining female characters survive and thrive almost entirely due to their own agency.
Kimmy Schmidt was rescued after 15 years in a post-apocalyptic bunker cult, where a reverend abducted women, then told them the world ended due to their stupidity. The youngest of the abductees, Kimmy was also the most resistant, challenging the reverend’s claims and retaining her positive outlook to a faintly unbelievable extent, but hey, it’s a comedy. Kimmy is also 30, making her one of the few adult female characters on TV that are targeted to younger viewers. The ‘juvenile’ clothing she dons on her return to freedom (belly shirts, lots of neon, light-up shoes) probably encouraged original network NBC to take the show, and Netflix later taking it over, but it is a small price to pay for getting someone who doesn’t physically look 22 onto a show not explicitly targeted to ‘mature’ people only.
The stress on Kimmy as positive and unbreakable is important character-building for a series that constantly bullies and exploits the main character’s inexperience, and critical to making it a positive story about an authentically strong woman. This series does the exact opposite of Law & Order: SVU, taking victimized women, completely avoiding the explicit details of their trauma and the forced vulnerability that comes from shoehorning that content into a short-form film medium, and depicting them moving the hell on. It has flashbacks and signs of PTSD, media exploitation (done brilliantly in the first episode when Kimmy asks that they not to be called ‘the mole women’ and then gets overridden with a ‘thank you, victims!’, a great look at race-class distinctions with the Latina maids and servants, and some really brilliant acting talent, especially from the female cast members.
The amount of plot-driving women in this show is pretty much breathtaking by mainstream TV standards. The main character is obviously Kimmy, who is a lovesong to female agency after her escape from the bunker. Kimmy has a male roommate, but after some quickly disregarded advice he is guided by her, not the other way around. The wealthy family Kimmy works for includes a step-daughter struggling to ‘defeat’ Kimmy’s attempts to discipline her, but hindered by blackmail over her invented sexual relationships with fictional boys, which she made to look cool. She also – and don’t die of shock here, it almost got me – looks like a 14 year-old. I KNOW, right!? You never see this onscreen. She has hair, makeup and clothes that scream ‘trying to be a 16+ goth’, but she still looks and talks her age. This must be a function of Fey having young teen daughters of her own, and it is amazingly nice to see.
The family is run by the wife, Jacqueline, who literally said goodbye to her family, set out to marry up and out of her social class, and succeeded. That woman is entitled, bratty, but also proud to own who she is, unafraid to acknowledge how she got there, pretty much hilarious, and becomes protective if clueless towards Kimmy. The young son is ignored and effectively treated as a thing by everyone but Kimmy, who cheerily indulges his desire to be a supervillain and beat people with sticks. He’s an amalgamation of stereotypes about little boys, but funny. Finally, there is the man who does the son’s homework, treated and spoken to as if he was the son himself by the household. Going in to episode three, I was all set to start making jokes about how this series is as Unbeatable as Squirrel Girl. (Sorry, can’t resist)
Jacqueline, the Human Eraser
Buuuuut…..yeah. Episode three. Some of the reviews already out there (FAR too few, but some) mention this: Jacqueline is a HUGE problem. Yikes.
So in episode three we get the ‘make Jacqueline sympathetic’ episode. She has a terrific actress in Jane Krakowski. She is given great personality from moment one. Then she gets a backstory wherein she dyed her hair, put in contacts, changed her speech patterns and moved to New York to escape the economic sinkhole that was…the Reservation where she was born. Meet Jacqueline, the human eraser.
Now, minus the casting, this story is handled literally as well as could possibly be done, given the subject matter. It really is. There are funny lines, and Krakowski saying ‘white people, am I right?’ cracked me up, even as I was openmouthed with horror.
But being funny doesn’t make it ok.
This is called ERASURE. Please don’t do it.
What is ‘erasure’? You may have heard it referred to as whitewashing; erasure is a broader term that encompasses doing the same to other groups, but same general idea. Basically we have a problem in western media/entertainment/life in general where we hire white people to fill roles that they shouldn’t, which involve overriding and speaking or acting ‘on behalf of’, or instead of, an actually diverse person.
This includes plans to make Ghost in the Shell and Akira as movies with white actors despite….JAPAN, and films like Exodus and Avatar: The Last Airbender which took stories that are by definition incredibly diverse, and giving them white casts because racism and nonsense about ticket sales. You get Transparent and The Dallas Buyer’s Club, where men were cast as transwomen for no apparent reason, and you get Glee, where a dude who could dance quite well played a character in a wheelchair. (Glee also cast and executed a character with Down Syndrome very very well. Doesn’t make Artie not an issue.)
In the real world erasure occurs often around civil rights issues, when you frequently get purely white women discussing feminism, because we are seen and heard by mainstream culture with fewer struggles than trans, black, or other women. We are the default, so they go back to us without thinking about it. We as people generally (rarely) do this on purpose, but we still do it. Incidentally, erasure also includes my pasty self taking the place of a Native American or…anyone else who has experienced racism ever…in talking about this show, but this is the review I got assigned, so I’m doing my best; please correct or guide my errors in the comments and I will gladly remedy.
How is erasure happening in Kimmy?
Jane Krakowski is super white, you guys. Like, as white as it is possible to get. There are like zero roles for Native Americans in media these days, and often those available are acting as other races or in a hugely problematic portrayal.
Kimmy would be flipping hilarious if Jacqueline were, say, played by a Native American woman who visibly didn’t fit the blond-blue-white-as-snow expectations of the viewer, but was visibly trying and no one noticed. It would also be a scathing commentary on erasure. Awesome!
It would be fine, in my unqualified opinion, if it was played by a Native American actress who looked like a bland white girl, but still had that heritage and lineage. There are plenty. The case that jumps to my mind is Jacob from Twilight, who looks white as snow but with a tan. Add some dye and contacts, and voila! He would be a very pretty Jacqueline. He lacks the acting skills, but there are….a zillion talented women of Native American heritage that would be happy to hop in there and do Jane’s job here. Heck, the Vice President of Femmes in the Fridge fits this description perfectly. (She has freckles, but still.)
This entire subplot is a woman erasing her entire past, her heritage, and her distraught but loving family, for the chance to be someone she saw on TV. For a chance to walk around carrying the privilege Jacqueline would get by default, just by being born to it. For a chance to hold the stewardess job that she used to meet her future husband, and her chance to seduce him, both of which would have been much, much harder as a Native American woman. (If not impossible, given when she was supposed to be doing it.)
Instead, by having the world’s whitest woman play this role, a job and platform was erased for a Native American. So was the chance to make an authentic story about the struggle to transcend a socio-economic disadvantage that is devastating in a way that is almost impossible for privilege on legs like me or Jane Krakowski to understand. Taking on that subplot and giving it to a white actress is not too far from blackface, wherein white actors in ye olde days (like 40 years ago; old culture isn’t that old) took on the identity and roles of black characters to avoid hiring people who actually live this stuff and forcing co-stars to undergo…the emotional trauma of equality…yeah. Putting on the face of another person’s struggle, speaking about how they can’t speak. When there are quite a lot of people who would be happy to make exactly that point, as or more effectively. Not that different. Not ok. Noooooooo.
It should have been amazing, but it is just disrespectful instead.
In a show that recognizes the racist slant of media well enough to describe the discovery of the three white and one Latina mole women as ‘THREE WHITE WOMEN RESCUED’ in bold with ‘Latina woman alive too’ underneath in small font, and where the talk show interviewer asks the Spanish-speaking woman, with no translator present, why she didn’t learn English in 15 years, but didn’t ask why the others never learned Spanish, there is no excuse for Jacqueline’s backstory. (That character, whose name escapes me at the moment, is awesome, by the way. Her subtitled responses in the interview and her commentary on what the other women are doing are a perfect balance of pissed off at inequality and clever sarcasm.)
The Jacqueline storyline was justified by the production as a chance to benefit from perspectives of a couple of Native American writing staff members. Now that is a resource that should be drawn upon; it is hard enough to find a woman on a writing team in Hollywood, let alone some actual racial diversity. But that perspective was co-opted and given to a white woman to enact, wearing what essentially amounts to blackface in the flashback sequences, and (as a teenager trying to speak ‘white’) conveying nothing but ‘OMG, you guys, we like, have to give up everything that makes us unique and assimilate completely, right? I mean, do you guys like, want to be super-poor and stuck in a tiny hovel forever?’.
There is a great point here that should be raised. One that honestly deserves a main character struggling with it, given the disparity in the number of children from Native American communities who get higher degrees (or, for that matter, GEDs) compared to Americans in general. I don’t know what percentage of CEOs are Native American, but I’m prepared to bet it is vanishingly small. (Give me the stats in the comments; I’ll send the first person who does a comic or graphic novel with some actual diversity in it!)
‘But I’m friends with some Native Americans!’ doesn’t cover it, guys. Not even a little. If you can do race issues with several other races well, and you did, you could see this problem coming as soon as this plot hit paper.
As of this writing, there has been no real acknowledgement of the erasure problem by the production. I…can’t recommend a series that would do this and not apologize. It’s a great series with tremendous potential and strong women that are fun to watch; if they apologize, you should check it out. Until then, it’s up to viewers like us to clarify to the production team that erasure isn’t ok, by voting with our clicks. I realize that it sucks to miss a show over a single episode, but there is an obligation to use what privilege any one of us has (and unless you are from Alaska, you have more privilege than a Native American actress) to help those who have less in not being silenced by a well-intentioned group of white people shoving them away from the microphone.