“FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL,” is the songify-ed battle cry of Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The show, which I totally binged (actually double binged) the first weekend it debuted, is (for the unbaptized) is about the titular character’s liberation from the underground bunker of a doomsday cult and subsequent reorientation with terrestrial life in New York City. A week after it debuted (a generation in the world of the internet), there’s a lot of ambivalence about the show. One the one hand it’s funny as HECK — in all the ways that 30 Rock, its sitcom fairy godmother, was funny without the dampening filter of network television. On the other hand, it’s alienated some of it’s viewers with the very content designed to attract them.
The creative freedom that comes from being unshackled by a network has allowed the show to tackle a whole range of sensitive topics, like sex abuse, Native American assimilation, gentrification, immigration, racism, etc. — basically anything affluent white people whisper about when they think no one else is listening. The loudness with which the show expresses itself is one of its strengths. To me, it feels like Norman Lear went to Long Island City and met Tina Fey behind Silvercup Studios and whispered “Here. The magic belongs to you now.”
“Oh yeah, and here’s Carol Kane. You can have her too.”
Address as many social ills as it does is brave, but that doesn’t mean it always does so successful. The show has drawn a fair amount of high-minded criticism for the way it handles race, especially the way it handled it’s Asian and Native American characters. The show is dancing on a razor’s edge between depicting racism and racist depictions.
One of the most successful story lines involves, Titus, the African American lead, deciding to live as a werewolf because he’s treated more civilly in costume than he did as a black man. The absurdity of the set up is meant to underscore the IRL absurdity of modern day race relations. This is probably best example of the show succeeding at what it meant to do (Even if that joke was cribbed from an episode of the Chappelle’s Show).
Here are some of the other characterizations that have been considered less successful:
Dong: Kimmy’s Vietnamese classmate and eventual love interest. He’s good at math, speaks broken English, delivers Chinese food, and his name is Dong. The show goes through pains to point out what a stereotype he is, and how tired the jokes about Asians are, but the question is whether or not that acknowledgement adequately counterbalances the stereotypes themselves. My thoughtful friend Ashley pointed out that his character feels pretty wooden. He has a few lively scenes, like when he dances in a K-Pop version of the Friends theme, and that he fights a British millionaire to become Kimmy’s love interest. But at times it seems like his only purpose is to serve as a meta-demonstration of how portrayals of Asians are usually racist. That kind of focus deprives his character the opportunity of having a story that’s just as robust as the other characters. Do we have a name for the phenomenon for when non-white characters are marginalized just to point out how marginalized non-white characters are?
Dona Maria: Kimmy’s Mexican Bunker-mate. Before she was captured, she was an employee of “Happy Maids,” and is also a non-native English speaker. For the record, I think Dona Maria is awesome. First, she’s only pretending not to speak English because she can’t stand her fellow captives. She’s also responsible for one of the show’s best gags. She uses being a “Mole women” as the chance to turn herself into a sort of Aunt Jemima of mole sauce, which, by the way, is a real thing.
*Just a note on Dong and Dona Maria: a few critics cite they’re accents as evidence that they’re portrayals are racist. I have to take issue with that assertion. Yes, the Dong the character doesn’t speak fluent English and most of Dona Maria’s lines are in Spanish, but I don’t think the presence of non-native English speakers is inherently racist. And yes, it has often been a trope used to diminish the humanity of non-white characters (see Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But I live in a city where I interact with non-native English speakers every single day. Those people’s stories take place in a mostly English speaking world. If you think the mere portrayal of accented English is racist, it might say more about what you think about those people than what the show is actually saying about those people.
Jacqueline (Jackie Lynn) Voorhees: She’s secretly and (at least initially) ashamedly Native American. She left her family to masquerade as a “regular white person.” This story line has criticized for many of the same reasons as Dong’s; many of the jokes about Native Americans are just the demonstration of a stereotype and another character pointing out what a stereotype that is. Indian Country Today argues, “To an extent, [Voorhees’] story of reinvention mirrors the main plotline: Kimmy’s efforts to live her life after escaping the cult. Yet if that’s what’s going on, there are problematic parallels: That being born Native is like being born into a cult, that ‘escaping’ Native culture is necessary to get somewhere in life.” I would argue (as did many of that article’s commenters did) that the cult in Voorhees’ life is that of the wealthy white Manhattanite. Her life as a (and the pressure she felt to become a) Real Housewife of New York is the source of her character’s misery. The fact that that didn’t come across well is probably the tied to the other issue with this character — the actress who plays Voorhees is not actually Native American. She’s a white actress playing a Native American character who pretends to be white. In the season’s final episode, there’s a joke about Native Americans being played by non-Natives on TV. As the AV club points out “it’s a whitewashed plot about whitewashing.”
The “Mole Women:” the moniker given to Kimmy and her sisterwives by the media after they escaped from the underground bunker. They all have more than a little trauma from their experience. The show vacillates between ignoring the extent of their abuse and making jokes about how messed up they are. You can tell that the show intends to shine a spotlight on how badly society treats/exploits/ignores victims of violence.
The Theme Song: Despite the fact that it’s meant to underscore how resilient Kimmy (and all the characters) are, and spoof the popularity of the viral video form, its done in that Auto-Tune The News format that often mocks poor black people to comic effect.
Despite the ham-handedness of some of the executions, the experiences of these characters, as the show attempts to portray them, are totally legitimate. It’s HARD being a non-native English speaker; Native Americans are so incredibly marginalized that there IS intense pressure to assimilate into the majority culture; the media DOES sensationalize victims of abuse; and there IS a lot of viral internet content based on making black people look like buffoons.
While the show does demonstrate all of these concepts, it doesn’t always explicitly take issue with them. Whether or not you think the show participates in or subverts stereotypes (or does both simultaneously!), we’re all circling the same intellectual toilet bowl. The show definitely intended to create a meta-narrative about the experiences of these characters. Whether or not its “progressive” to point out racism with racism, or just racist seems to be in the eye of the beholder. If you ask me, it depended entirely on how funny the joke was.
Why does the Tituss character, who trades in the negative stereotypes of both African American (lazy, unemployed) and gay (prancing, vain) people avoid feeling like a negative stereotype, while Dong just feels like a power-point presentation of every bad Asian joke ever written?
I think it has to do with the extent to which these character are defined by cultural tropes instead of their own wacky personalities. Whether or not the show successfully lifted a character from its stereotypical mooring was a function of screen time. The first season didn’t spend as much time on Dong or Jacqueline’s background as it did on Titus, and, as a result, he feels a lot more fully realized than the other characters. Perhaps the problems that critics have with the show will be solved by virtue of the fact that season two could provide these characters and these stories with more time.
Tituss Burgess (the real life actor who plays Titus on the show) has taken to the internet to decry the criticism. He argues that all the haters have it backwards, “I just find it hilarious that people are trying to arrest us for doing the opposite of what everyone thinks we’re doing.”
This is the point where we get into the liberal think-piece death spiral. Just because a black man says it isn’t racist doesn’t mean it isn’t racist. Victims of racism can be participants in systemic racism, especially in entertainment. No one today would say that the depiction of Mamie in Gone With The Wind was especially accurate but neither would anyone fault actress Hattie McDaniel for taking the roles that were afforded to her. However, presuming to tell Burgess what his role is or should be feels an awful lot like some nefarious manifestation of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.
I think part of the reason the show has garnered the backlash that it has is because the critics feel that it’s a show that portends to be a progressive ally, but really isn’t. They feel like it’s a sort of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing. I have a more generous opinion of the show, I think it’s trying to address the very issue its being criticized for. Sometimes it does it extremely well, other times it feels like it puts racism on the screen and then just rolls its eyes at itself.
It’s fine to criticize The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and its good to be wary of how any show handles race, but let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whatever crimes of execution that Kimmy commits, at least it attempts to tell the kind of stories that NEVER get told on television. That’s not nothing. Perhaps the show bit off more than it could reasonably chew in 13 episodes, but contrast that with the meal routinely served on television; course after course of mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream, and white bread.
When was the last time that anyone criticized The Big Bang Theory for the way it portrayed African Americans? To my knowledge it hasn’t ever happened, because that show exists in a universe where there are no people of color, which is absurd for a show ostensibly set in Los Angeles.
If you think I’m exaggerating, and the only crime is one of accidental omission, then I encourage you to read this piece on Deadline, or this by the NYTimes’ Alessandra Stanely. In my opinion, Alessandra Stanley and Nellie Andreeva are basically internet trolls with full time jobs. To suggest that, as Andreeva does, that “pendulum might have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction” when it comes to non-white characters on TV is nonsense. The “pendulum” could swing so far and so hard that it broke off and was flung out of earth’s orbit and it STILL wouldn’t be “too far.” Andreeva argues that we’ve entered a new quota system-era in Hollywood and quotas are a bad thing. She might be right about quotas being bad, but they aren’t new. To complain about quotas at the exact moment when, for the first time, they might be set to a non-zero number means it isn’t the quotas that bothered you. I could rant endlessly these two articles, but the fact that these two writers’ work was published in major mainstream publications belies the notion that the whitewashing of television is purely coincidental.
For all the thoughtful criticism that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt deserve, it pales in comparison to the opprobrium that we should be slathering on the general media landscape for the way it completely and deliberately erases anyone that isn’t white or male. Perhaps its because all of television is so white and male that we rarely criticize specific shows for their participation in this phenomena. I rarely quote George W. Bush, but this is one of those cases where “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Every show that whitewashes the world is another brick in the wall keeping certain kinds of people in the margins.
I’m worried that if we complain too loudly about the mistakes that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did make, they’re going to take it away from us and make us watch eleven more years of Two and a Half Men (that’s 27.5 more men, for those of you doing the math at home), and that would be the worst outcome of all.