March 10, 2015

Jane Krakowski in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

What’s Up With the Native American Subplot on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?

By Libby HillUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix’s new series with a 30 Rock sensibility, is the show of the moment. It premiered to glowing reviews last Friday, with critics largely agreeing: It was “winning,” "very funny,” and “daftly effervescent.” But because the show is a delight to watch on so many levels, most reviews also swept one persistent plot point under the rug: Jacqueline Voorhees’s odd, irrelevant, and ultimately offensive Native American past.

Here’s the problem: In the third episode, the audience learns that Kimmy’s boss, Voorhees, is secretly a Native American. This revelation would be one thing on its own, but Jacqueline is played by the very white, very blonde Jane Krakowski. The episode includes flashbacks to her adolescence, where Jacqueline (then called Jackie Lynn) is still played by Krakowski, with lip service played to her dyeing her hair blonde and getting blue contacts—but these are subtle details.

When addressed, the subplot is passingly called “bizarre” and “inexplicable,” but most critics decide to leave all mention of it out—good or bad. At the panel for the show at this year’s Television Critics Association press tour, Kimmy Schmidt co-creator Robert Carlock explained the story line, but his argument reads like the rough equivalent of, Well, I have Native American friends: “We have a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage […] So we felt like we had a little room to go in that direction.” He further explains: “Wouldn’t that be a crazy A-to-Z for her to deal with that, and maybe reconcile with it, and re-embrace who she really is, ultimately.” Basically, he's explaining, they wanted to give her a sympathetic background.

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 Which I Explore the Native Cameo in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Troll The Respawn Jeremy If You're Gonna Do This Story Lets Do It Right

By Cutcha Risling BaldySo yes, Jenna (sorry, she’s called Jacqueline in this show although she will always be Jenna Maroney to me…) is a secret Native American. Not like “Top Secret” where she sometimes puts on her Pendleton jacket and heads out to fight colonization or to try and push secret government agencies for more money for language revitalization… but a secret Native American because she thinks the path to prosperity is to become an upper east side wife and upper east side wives are white… and blonde so she decides not to be Native American anymore, at least not in the “I have brown hair and brown eyes and respect my parents” kind of way.The biggest problem with this:CON: Jacqueline is played by a white actress pretending to be a Native person who is pretending to be white.

WHAT THE WRITERS NEED TO KNOW: Lots of white people have played Indian people in movies… on TV… on the radio… at sporting events… and even if you don’t want it to, it adds a layer of disingenuousness to your story. When white actresses are given the leeway to play Native it hearkens back to these days where any actor could play native by slapping a headband on or crying for the spoiling of the earth on TV commercials (stop littering. You are making the Natives sad). It might not be “fair” or “what you intended” but this is the way that it is when white people play Natives… and it will be this way until we get more positive representations of Native people, by Native people, with Native people. That’s what you’re signing up for with this story writers, deal with it.
Her conclusion:I know people are (understandably) somewhat upset about this tongue in cheek portrayal of Nativeness on this very white show in a very white universe. I sometimes think that it’s just reflective of how exhausting modern, privileged, white centered comedy is. It’s always outside looking in. It’s always “look at my privilege, be awash in my privilege, watch my privilege allow me to make whatever jokes I want or to write whatever I want because I want to oh and by the way here's where i say sorry if you were offended.” It’s so tongue in cheek that it can be exhausting–especially when that’s all there is. (It's the reason why those pointed lines that make fun of this privilege are so exciting for people. It's also why people think they can get away with the other problematic portrayals of race on the show "but we made a joke about privilege, so we can now make this problematic character speak in a funny accent...).”

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—Tina Fey's Racist New Show

By Ijeoma OluoI've never seen a show with such a diverse cast that was written so obviously and exclusively for privileged white people.

I was (and still am) a huge fan of 30 Rock. The show about a fictional late night TV show with a hilarious crew of neurotic misfits skyrocketed Tina Fey to stardom as one of the best comedic writers of our day. So when I heard that Tina Fey had a new show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and it was available for binge-watching on Netflix, I was beyond excited. I settled in with my laptop, snacks on hand, prepared to laugh.

I was not prepared for how incredibly tired, hack, and downright offensive this show would be when it comes to race. I've never seen a show with such a diverse cast that was written so obviously and exclusively for privileged white people. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the story of a young woman who was abducted as a teenager into a religious cult and forced to live underground with three other women for 15 years. After she is freed, she moves to New York to start a new life. Hilarity ensues. Or, racism ensues. I guess it depends on what you find funny.
Is Jane Krakowski Native American? As A Mixed Race Woman, I Question Her 'Kimmy Schmidt' Character's Past

By Mallory CarraAll that being said, I appreciate more diversity on TV in any form and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is certainly doing its part—Kimmy’s roommate Titus is African American and her love interest Dong is Vietnamese. But I’m not sure the Krakowski-as-a-Native-American storyline should be included in that. It’s a joke that gets old quickly and is unnecessary—Jacqueline could’ve been Russian or have any other ethnic background. She didn’t have to be Native American. Co-creator Robert Carlock tried to justify Jacqueline’s Native American backstory at the Television Critics Association press tour, saying, “We have a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage. So we felt like we had a little room to go in that direction.” But that doesn’t quite work for me.

It’s also not the best timing for a joke like this, coming after #OscarsSoWhite and the big push for Hollywood to embrace diversity on-screen and off. I mean, already we’ve seen white British actor Adam Rayner being cast as an Arab in Tyrant and David Schwimmer land the role of famous Armenian Robert Kardashian in the upcoming American Crime Story. For all of Kimmy Schmidt’s contributions to inclusiveness, casting white actors in ethnic roles is not the path to diversity.
'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Has Two Native American Actors. It Needed ThreeUpadhyaya sees the Native storyline as a troubling way to make a simple point: "'Why does it matter where I’m from? It’s where I’m going that counts,' Jacqueline asks. Sure, yes. That seems to be the character’s central philosophy. But we probably could have gotten there in a different, less whitewashy way."

Here's another way we could have gotten there: Keep the Native American character, and hire a Native American actress, one who looks like she might share a single gene with pappy Gil Birmingham, to play her. Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris Guerrero are contemporaries of Krakowski, either of them with dyed-blonde hair would be funny—funnier than a white woman playing a Native who is passing as white. When a character is passing as another race, the comedic question is Who does she think she's fooling? But instead of a joke within the narrative, any moderately intelligent viewer is more likely to feel like the show's creators are trying to pull a fast one: Do they really expect us to believe she's Native American?

Krakowski, though, is a selling-point of the show; she comes with the fairy dust of 30 Rock and Ally McBeal on her. Tina Fey and company would sooner rewrite the character than replace her with a Native actress. So perhaps they should have rewritten the character. As much as we like—correction: we love—seeing Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster in a sitcom, watching them pretend to be Jacqueline's biological family is unsettling, on more than one level.

As Libby Hill says in the conclusion of her Vulture article, "What's most disheartening about this isn't that it exists, it's that apparently, nobody thought it would raise alarms at all."
Comment:  For more on the subject, see White Males Still Dominate Hollywood and Race at the 2015 Oscars.

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