The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Has a Race Problem
“I’m pretty and tough. Like a diamond, or beef jerky in a ball gown,”
That’s the quote that first pulled me into the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt rabbit hole. I saw the line on a friend’s Facebook wall and soon followed the trail of Tina Fey’s reliably quotable lines to my Netflix account, where the first season of her new show was waiting, freshly released. Here I was, coming off an especially potent full moon feeling like a werewolf all dressed up with no bar mitzvah to attend and I’d found thirteen episodes of post 30 Rock goodness, complete with a whole new werewolf bit.
At first, I was delighted. It’s Fey’s signature approach to humor, creating a wall of jokes and references the way Phil Spector once created walls of sound. I laughed, I tweeted, and I was excited to see that Kimmy Schmidt has a refreshingly optimistic outlook compared to 30 Rock, tempered by a dark edge that provided depth. It blends New Girl’s post-Spice World girl power with a heavy dose of 90s nostalgia that references everything from Babysitter’s Club to “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” to the OJ Simpson trial.
Kimmy’s 13 Going on 30 approach to fashion, bedroom decor, and life doesn’t require any of Jessica Day/Zooey Deschanel’s brake-for-birds rants explaining why hair bows and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, Kimmy is still very much the eighth grader she was before she was kidnapped, a woman whose adolescence was put on pause by survival. This works effectively to propel the plot forward, but it also mirrors the way that many millennial viewers feel about their own rapid march toward thirty. Just as Liz Lemon embodied the experience of career-focused thirty something women exhausted from leaning in and never being taken seriously, Kimmy embodies women of a certain age who have yet to master the advice given in Buzzfeed articles on how to get your shit together by your early 30s.
However, my laughter soon gave way to compulsive cringing. Despite being a well-timed, funny show that has its finger on an underserved zeitgeist of 90s nostalgia and pop feminism, Kimmy Schmidt has its faults. As in the rest of her oeuvre, Tina Fey doesn’t handle race especially well. This show makes matters worse by frequently trying to tackle these tender topics. One can see, if one squints, what Fey’s good intentions might have been, and where they went off the rails. The show’s overarching theme is exploring what it means to be an outsider, but approaches that question from the perspective of an insider white feminist, one that applies both to Kimmy and Tina Fey herself. The former is easy to forgive in her naiveté. The later, not so much.
The first episode begins with news coverage of showing the release of Kimmy and the other hostages trapped in the bunker, including three white women and a Hispanic woman, Donna Maria Nuñez. The joke is that the white women were kidnapped through Bundy-like feints that prey on women’s sexual vulnerability or determination not to appear rude, a darkly funny commentary on real patterns of victimization. However, Donna Maria was lured to the kidnapper’s home under the pretenses of his needing cleaning services. During the news coverage, a ticker tape reads “White women found! Hispanic woman also found,” yet another dark jab, this time at discrimination in the media.
This was just two minutes in and seemed to be promising. Yet once the captives part ways, Donna Maria presumably returns to the company she once worked for and doesn’t return for ten episodes. In the mean time the only other Latina character is a house keeper employed by the wealthy, white Jacqueline Voorhees. When Donna Maria returns, she gets a rant in about her fellow captive’s “white bullshit.” Still, two wrongs don’t make a right. A character of color calling out the white characters for their vapidity doesn’t make up for the majority of the season contributing to the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of people of color.
As for Kimmy’s fellow GED student Dong, I hope what Tina Fey intended was to create a fellow outsider for Kimmy to relate to. You don’t need to know much else beyond the fact he is a Vietnamese character named Dong to experience a case of the cringes you haven’t felt since you last watched Sixteen Candles. Dong is presented as a conservative, accented, working class Vietnamese immigrant. His competition for Kimmy’s affection is a wealthy eccentric who once summited Everest via a private blimp (“I’ve never even been in a public blimp,” Beekman admits).
The show presents a wealthy white man as a kind of outsider, someone who is beyond Kimmy’s limited suburban midwestern experience. Yet this goes to show just how unnecessary it was to resort to racial stereotypes to pursue the outsider theme. This is ironic given that the writers make a pointed joke where Titus calls out Kimmy for saying Dong is good at math, claiming she’s being racist. As with Donna Maria’s storyline, a person of color (Titus) calling out a white person (Kimmy) for being clueless or potentially racist doesn’t absolve the show of its own characters and stereotypes.
As for the Native American plot line, there too, you can see that Fey was perhaps aiming for another variation on the outsider theme, this time by showing how desperate housewife Jacqueline Voorhees isn’t the WASP she appears to be. She is, in fact, a Lakota descendent who turned her back on her native culture and moved to New York City, capitalizing on her ability to pass as white to get ahead. This thread is mostly lost from the beginning of the season to the end. When it finally reappears, Jacqueline comes around to claiming her Native heritage primarily because the rest of her life is in such a shambles. The result is a bizarre mashup of Native American stereotypes and jabs at the NFL Redskins debacle from several months ago that illicit compulsive head shaking, blinking, and sputtering.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt often juxtaposes its heroine’s plucky, determinedly sunny demeanor with humor rooted in a deep, dark place. The problem is that this deep dark place is about as limited in size and scope as Kimmy’s bunker. Fey is adept, as always, at taping into the foibles, failings, and fears of a certain kind of woman, a woman we’re used to being told is every woman. The reason this show resonated with me for the first few episodes is in large part because I’m Fey’s target audience. I’m a white, liberal, feminist, woman with penchant for night cheese. Yet I’m not all women. Neither is Kimmy.
Kimmy doesn’t feel like an outsider for the same reason less privileged women do. Kimmy’s otherness stems from a freak incident, a tragic stroke of bad luck. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was kidnapped. She is determined that she can change her outsider status by refusing to be a victim, by choosing to live in a city where she is anonymous, and where the only outward signs of her bunker ordeal are a tendency to startle easily and an endearing quirkiness. That type of otherness, while real and wholly felt, can’t be fairly, equally equated to the ways in which systemic racism and homophobia make people outsiders. The show is the story of Kimmy trying to attain a new, normal life simply by being herself and chasing her dreams. That is in no way the experience of most people made to feel other because of their race, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, etc.
This is where Fey’s attempts to universalize Kimmy’s experience breaks down, and where the possible intent behind her jokes veers into unfortunate stereotyping. Her attempts to deal with race head-on backfire. When the characters of color do address racial issues, they criticize the white characters rather than opening up about their own experiences. The focus remains on the white characters, and not on the character speaking’s experience of feeling like an outsider. We are invited into Kimmy’s journey from media sideshow and tabloid freak to normal, happy thirty something. We’re never invited into the supporting casts’ lives the same way. They dwell on the sidelines in the Kimmy Schmidt universe.
By the end of the first season, Titus is still too gay to get a part in The Lion King musical. Donna Maria is still pretending she can’t speak English specifically because, by the show’s logic, it helps her get ahead. Dong is under threat of deportation. Jacqueline is howling like a wolf, unleashing her inner noble savage. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to suggest that these characters, each a person of color and one gay, are all outsiders in their own way. The show needs to admit that their outsider status is not the same as Kimmy’s, and it needs to start portraying these characters in the same way the writers occasionally take a jab at. Kimmy Schmidt’s approach to otherness is way more out of date than Titus’ bedazzled Walkman or Kimmy’s earnest references to Care Bears. Kimmy the character has plenty of room to grow since she was released from that bunker. It’s unclear if The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has the same potential to grow out of the white feminist bunker Fey is writing from.