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The Unraceable ‘Kimmy Schmidt’: Does Tina Fey’s New Show Have a Race Problem?

The Unraceable 'Kimmy Schmidt': Does Tina Fey's New Show Have a Race Problem?

Tiny Fey isn’t a creator you naturally associate with provocation — a Shonda Rhimes, a Lena Dunham, heck, a Lars Von Trier. But “Unbreakable Kimmy Schidmt,” the 13-episode series she created with Robert Carlock for Netflix, has been slapped with a scarlet P for “problematic,” especially for its treatment of race.

On Vulture, Libby Hill took issue with the “Kimmy Schmidt” subplot involving Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline, a stressed-out Manhattan trophy wife who it’s eventually revealed is Lakota, a refugee from a Native American reservation who’s been passing for white for decades. Jacqueline’s parents are played by Native actors Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster and, within the context of “Kimmy’s” generally farcical tone, the show works to ground the character in something resembling respect for Lakota culture. But for Vulture’s Libby Hill, that doesn’t offset an initial decision that seems arbitrary and ill thought-out:

Carlock positions the decision as a narrative choice. But this specific backstory is most frustrating because it doesn’t serve a purpose, either narratively or comedically. There must be more compelling (and funnier!) ways to give Jacqueline a backstory that don’t require sloppily marginalizing a group of people who are already as marginalized as you can get. It’s especially disappointing because “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt so deftly integrates race in other instances, mainly in the latter half of its first season. The most prominent example comes when Kimmy’s African-American roommate, Titus, gets a job that requires him to dress as a werewolf. The punch line: He discovers he gets better treatment from strangers while in a monster costume than he does as a black man. The point is sharp, and it works largely because Titus is the one pointing out the discrepancies. This is precisely what isn’t happening when it comes to the dynamic between Jackie Lynn and her parents.

In the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg countered that the show is careful to make sure the joke is always about Jacqueline’s own discomfort, and the contempt for her Native American she’s internalized from the culture at large: She changed her name from Jackie Lynn, she explains, because it’s “a cheap stripper name. Jacqueline is an expensive stripper name.”

Going beyond Jacqueline, a BuzzFeed roundtable between Anne Helen Petersen, Ira Madison III and Alex Alvarez concluded that “Kimmy Schmidt” has “a major race problem.” On the one hand, Madison says, “Kimmy Schmidt” has already developed Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s gay, black roommate, more in one season than “30 Rock” developed Tracy Jordan in six. But at the same time, there’s “Kimmy’s” Dong (Ki Hong Lee), a Vietnamese immigrant who seems like a deliberate callback to “Sixteen Candles'” notoriously racist caricature, Long Duk Dong. 

IM3: I know next to nothing about the intricacies of Native American culture and even I was like, um, this doesn’t seem…right? And just like Dong, it was a bunch of jokes that we’ve heard before but said in a winking, “isn’t it funny, we get it’s racist!” kinda way. Like, OK, cool. But in the real world, if a white person says those things to me, it’s a microaggression and I’m most certainly not here for that. So why is it OK when the white person puts those words into an actor’s mouth and just has them say it on TV? What’s the difference?

AA: Right. I hate couching racism under the term “hipster racism,” because, like, it’s the same thing. You’re saying the same thing. The result is the same. It’s racism whether or not you “mean” to be racist.

Slate’s Arthur Chu hewed a middle way, arguing that “Tina Fey’s high-wire act is all about the alchemy of making it OK to laugh at big, heavy issues — like kidnapped women, the experience of undocumented Vietnamese immigrants, and people with Native American ancestry passing as white — by skimming over them with a light touch.” In the case of more developed characters and plotlines, like the suggestion that Kimmy and her fellow “mole woman” abductees were sexually abused during their 15 years underground, that alchemy works. But when it comes to minor characters like Dong and Jacqueline’s dad, the attempt to establish stereotypes and then undermine them feels like veering from one side of the road to the other.

An ubylined article for the Indian Country Today Media Network argued that if “Kimmy Schmidt” wanted to take on a Native American character, they should have hired a Native American actress — or, conversely, that if Fey wanted to work with her old friend Jane Krakowski, she should have written a different character. But at the Daily Dot, Jacqueline Keeler offers an intriguing (partial) rebuttal, drawing on her own experience as a Native American woman (named Jacqueline!) passing for white in New York City, and comparing it to Fey’s experience as the daughter of a Greek immigrant:

When I hear Fey is writing a character who is a “secret” Native American, I read into it her own critique of her hidden Greek identity, just like I read my own experiences into her Greek American experience. This is what people in this country do when they are not well-represented in American culture.While her Greek identity is not immediately apparent in her productions, Fey routinely parses out the experience of being an outsider, living outside the bubble. In her show, “30 Rock,” “the bubble is exemplified by Jon Hamm’s character, Dr. Drew: Bumbling and incompetent, Hamm plays a doctor who doesn’t even know the Heimlich maneuver and makes salmon bourguison with Gatorade. However, due to the privilege of his extreme good looks, those around him routinely coddle him and lie to him, taking another bite of whatever he cooks with a reassuring smile. Living in the bubble he has not had to learn anything about the world outside himself, a reality outsiders know too well….

Reflecting on my own experiences with these characters, I realize Fey’s writing pushes me to a place where I am not comfortable. Her work forces me to think about race and status in a way I am not asked to do day-to-day. I live in a bubble of sorts, a privilege constructed of class, education, and some level of misunderstanding due to my ethnic identity being both unclear (no one expects to meet a Native American) and mistaken for and embraced by a large swath of the population (I’ve been mistaken for Latina, Vietnamese, Italian, and Iranian).

So when I see the opening of the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” with the auto-tuned “funny black neighbor” turned into a YouTube meme, my feelings are literally on hold because I still don’t know how to parse them. I can’t relax and simplistically enjoy it because I am grappling with my own feelings of entitlement, of class, a desire to be non-judgmental, and a subsequent protective reaction to put them in a drawer and forget about those feelings. I am ashamed and I am moved, but I am left changed. What Fey does is really a form of genius.

Keeler’s ancestry doesn’t give her the last word on the “Kimmy Schmidt” controversy, any more than the show having a couple of writers with Native American roots gives it a free pass. But it’s worth noting that, for her, “problematic” is not a de facto deal-breaker. Art, even silly sitcoms, is sometimes meant to make us uncomfortable, and that discomfort can be productive. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything that strikes a nerve does so for a good reason; sometimes artists are insensitive or cavalier or just plain blow it. But it’s probably worth rereading Wesley Morris’ great essay on the racial subversions of “30 Rock,” and how its apparent glibness was part of its strength:

“30 Rock” was always going deeper. It understood the phony limitations of race even as it grasped how much a part of American life it is. This is what separated it from “Chappelle’s Show,” which grasped how racism was a fact of life — its glass-half-empty gleaning of race in America was the source of its nuclear power. But “30 Rock’s” characters’ ability to live alongside each other is an acceptance that institutional and incidental racism and sexism and homophobia are part of how we live. We can survive by laughing at them. That’s an attitude that might not have been possible before an Obama presidency. Tracy’s right that Obama’s election resurrected old-school racism. But where Chappelle’s satire might have self-destructed over the birthers and Donald Trump, “30 Rock” looked the other way and laughed. In the 21st century, old-school racism doesn’t die. It just seems more glib.

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