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‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’ ‘Parks & Recreation,’ ’30 Rock’ & The Triumph Of Feminism In TV Comedy

'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,' 'Parks & Recreation,' '30 Rock' & The Triumph Of Feminism In TV Comedy

Sony, who are soon to go into production on Paul Feig’s all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot, aren’t just stopping at that movie — a cinematic universe of characters who ain’t afraid of no ghosts is planned, including a Russo Brothers-directed project starring the potentially bro-tastic pairing of Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt. Taken out of context, it’s a tantalizing line-up, but it also suggests that just as women are finally getting a foothold in the franchise world (outside of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight,” it’s tough to think of many other female-driven tentpole series), the boy’s club decided that they wanted to play with the toys after all.

We’re hopeful that the new movie won’t be a total dinosaur, given the talented folks involved, but the apparent need for a “guy-centric” “Ghostbusters” is a reminder of how far behind cinematic comedy is in terms of providing showcases for women (aside from one-off successes like “Bridesmaids”), especially in a week that’s seen the arrival of the latest feminist sitcom triumph, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Why has TV proven so much better at providing a showcase for funny, female, proudly feminist voices than the movies, and how can that change?

Early sitcoms were driven by the idea of the nuclear family, and women as homemakers, often irrational, emotional types who needed a man to fix their mistakes, with “I Love Lucy” being the best-known example of something like this. But as the sexual revolution came in the 1960s, a more varied collection of women could be seen on screen, not simply reduced to mothers, homemakers or sexual objects  think “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a key influence on Fey & Carlock’s previous show, “30 Rock,” or “Laverne & Shirley”). There were flaws and caveats, but progress was certainly being made (the 1970s could arguably be seen as a peak in terms of interesting roles for women in the movies too, but TV’s always been a step ahead, perhaps a happy by-product of the medium being seen as having a larger female audience by executives).

Indeed, there were shows and characters in 1970s sitcom land who were more progressive than most of those who’d follow in the decades after: the long-running “Maude,” starring Bea Arthur, and the shorter-lived cult soap parody, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Both landed at a time when women’s lib was on the tip of everyone’s tongues (Time Magazine named “American Women” as their Person Of The Year in 1975), but both came from the stable of the progressive, but male super-producer Norman Lear (though ‘Mary Hartman’ was co-created by a woman, Ann Marcus).

Further strides were made in the 1980s and 1990s  “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Ally McBeal,” “Roseanne,” even Lisa Simpson  but on shows invariably created and written by men, and where feminists, or characters with feminist beliefs, tended to be used as punchlines rather than inspirational figures. Shows like “Married With Children,” “The Cosby Show,” “Home Improvement,” “Friends,” and “Veronica Mars,” mostly huge hits at the time, would hold up feminists as figures of mockery, relying on the old stereotypes of humorless man-haters even when they might otherwise featured well-rounded female characters and not traffic in outright misogyny.
It’s in the last decade or so that things have really started to change for the better, though, probably dating back to Fey and Amy Poehler’s time at “Saturday Night Live.” These days, the long-running late-night stalwart’s most impressive talents are almost exclusively women  Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong (all, not coincidentally, starring in Feig’s “Ghostbusters”), Sasheer Zamata, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer  but before Fey and Poehler (and their pals Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Kristen Wiig), the show had been a predominately male game. Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Julia Sweeney, Molly Shannon, and co. were huge talents, but none got the career breakouts from the show that Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers et al were gifted.

But when Fey was made the show’s first female head writer in 1999, she was determined to open up opportunities for women both in front of and behind camera, as she writes in her memoir, “Bossypants.” By the time she and Poehler were united on the Weekend Update desk in 2004, it felt like a much more female-friendly environment, and with something of a feminist streak, though not as pronounced as it would later become  it wasn’t until 2008, when Fey returned to the desk for a guest appearance, that her seminal “bitch is the new black” segment aired, a reclaiming of the word that echoed Elizabeth Wurtzel’s seminal third-wave feminist text “Bitch: In Praise Of Difficult Women

It’s probably fair to say that Fey, Poehler, Rudolph, Wiig. and company were the first wave of female comics who’d come up alongside third-wave feminism, and this became a little more clear once they left ‘SNL’ and embarked on solo projects. On “30 Rock,” Fey’s character Liz Lemon was an outspoken feminist (there are some pretty big caveats, but we’ll get to these in a second), while Poehler’s lead on the late, lamented “Parks & Recreation” was even more so, a character whose heroes included Madeline Albright, and who invented the lady-centric holiday Galentine’s Day, an event that’s escaped the fictional world and started to gather steam as an actual thing, thanks to Buzzfeed and the like.

“Parks & Recreation” was an overtly feminist show, “30 Rock” wasn’t really  an equal-opportunity offender, it mostly held up Lemon and her beliefs as a figure of fun closer to earlier sitcom tropes. But both shows put women front-and-center as powerful figures, and more importantly, put the voices of their stars front-and-center too. Fey was always clearly the creative driving voice of her show, and while Poehler didn’t create or showrun ‘Parks & Rec,’ it was built around her, she was a producer throughout, as well as writing and directing multilple episodes, and had crucial creative input from day one.

As NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out, both the acclaim for “30 Rock,” and Fey’s presence, helped open more doors for other women comedy creators. Sarah Silverman’s “The Sarah Silverman Program,Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” Liz Meriwether’s “New Girl,” Whitney Cumming’s “2 Broke Girls,” Dana Fox’s “Ben & Kate,” are all evidence of this, and while not all these shows lasted, or were even necessarily good, they helped to further chip away at that glass ceiling.

The situation for women has improved even more in recent years, thanks to younger writer-performers like Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and “Broad City” duo Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The young comics are all of the millennial generation who (partly inspired by people like Fey or British author Caitlin Moran and her book “How To Be A Woman”) have re-embraced the term “feminist,” themselves inspiring megastars like Taylor Swift to become more outspoken in its use.

They’ve been able to go a little further than Fey and Poehler, in part because they’re not constrained by the standards and practices of traditional network TV: Dunham can include eye-bulgingly graphic sex scenes in “Girls,” Schumer talks frankly about sex and taboo-busting issues in sketch show “Inside Amy Schumer” (her sketches about rape in the military, or the one about fedora-tipping Nice Guys, are ones for the ages), and Jacobson and Glazer’s “Broad City” (produced, notably, by Poehler) is wrapped in a kind of goofiness that few associate with female-fronted comedy. The shows have little in common, but they all share a willingness to portray female characters who are flawed, unsympathetic even, but are always interesting (and again, crucially all showcase their creators in front of camera, making female writers and producers as visible as possible).

Fey’s latest show (as a producer and writer), “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which debuted on Netflix last week and has already won rave reviews (quite rightly), is a different kettle of fish. Focusing on “The Office” and “Bridesmaids” star Ellie Kemper as the survivor of a doomsday cult trying to build a new life in New York, it still abides mostly by the rules of network TV, with no profanity or nudity, and a reasonably traditional sitcom structure.

But as the insanely catchy instant-classic theme tune makes clear almost immediately (“Females are strong as hell!”), there’ll be, in contrast to “30 Rock,” no poking fun at feminism in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” None of the show’s women (of which there are many) go as far as to refer to themselves as feminist, but the show’s message is very much in that camp: the antagonists, from the philandering husband of Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline, to the appearance-obsessed plastic surgeon (Martin Short), to the suave spin class teacher (Nick Kroll) exposed as a disgusting creep, are exclusively men, and the women, though all flawed and funny, are the ones you root for, overcoming obstacles and building new lives.

Krakowski’s character is a particularly important indicator of how the show differs from “30 Rock,” in which the actress also starred. The characters, and the jokes, are essentially very similar: vain, egotistical, oblivious. But whereas Jenna Maroney on “30 Rock” was an unrepentant monster with occasional moments of minor redemption, Jacqueline of ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ is an essentially sympathetic character despite her blind privilege and materialism, especially once *SPOILER* she divorces her husband, after encouragement from Kimmy. The show’s universe, as cartoonish as it is, is one where women will always support each other, even if they might fall out first.

But the show has its name for a reason, and the treatment of Kemper’s title character proves to be groundbreaking. Making comedy out of a central figure who’s survived some combination of Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, and Josef Fritzl‘s nightmare feels like a dare on Fey and Carlock’s behalf, but they somehow walk the tiny tightrope they’ve set up for themselves faultlessly. It’s a light, funny show, but one with a dark undercurrent, but it doesn’t trivialize its premise.

Kemper’s brilliant, awards-worthy central performance is a perfect microcosm for the show itself: upbeat and cheery, but with a vulnerability and darkness underneath that stops her from becoming a Pollyanna type — there’s a real anger to her simmering below the surface. Short’s plastic surgeon offering to get rid of her “scream lines,” and Kimmy acknowledging early on to experiencing “weird sex stuff” in the bunker that was her home for over a decade are two examples of the show getting jokes out of a grim situation without feeling tasteless. And it becomes increasingly clear as the show progresses that at its heart, it is about a woman trying to rebuild her life after suffering a terrible trauma.

“The worst thing that can happen has already happened,” Kimmy says at one point. Later on, she also says “I just wanna be a normal person.” She doesn’t just represent actual cult veterans (one real one has already given the show the thumbs up), but women who are survivors of rape, or physical or emotional abuse, and who are trying to reclaim their lives afterwards. It’s at its most powerful in the final episodes, as *SPOILER* Kimmy, having refused the call, finally sets out to make sure her captor (Jon Hamm) goes to prison for his crimes. The show doesn’t suggest that it’s easy (these final episodes, featuring Fey herself as an incompetent prosecutor, are essentially satirizing the justice system’s imbalance and ineptitude at securing rape convictions), but Kimmy eventually triumphs with the help of the women she was imprisoned with, giving some hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. Because, after all, females are strong as hell.

It’s a stunningly ambitious idea for an essentially mainstream sitcom (an admittedly weird one), and it’s sort of staggering that it’s as effective as it is. It also feels likely that it could only have come from a female, feminist creator, and could only have been built on the foundations of the other brilliant work that’s emerged from people like Fey in recent years.

We’re not all the way there yet. Almost all of the shows above are cult successes rather than mainstream ones (ratings for “30 Rock” and “Parks & Recreation” were never especially high, for instance), and they mostly deal with the issues facing white women — we’re still waiting for the first great intersectional feminism comedy, though “Orange Is The New Black” might qualify depending on whether or not you categorize that as a drama. But we’re getting there, and it does feel that ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ and its fellow shows like “Girls” and “Broad City” is just the start of what’s to come. Let’s just hope that the movies cotton on too.

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