August 10, 2015

Racial stereotypes in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I finally watched the first three episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The third episode introduced the controversial Native subplot. Let's take a look.

First, a couple of Native responses:

Why Kimmy Schmidt's Native Subplot is Great: A Native Fan's OpinionThe new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt includes a Native American subplot that has sparked debate both within Indian country and among non-Native viewers. The protagonist, Kimmy, is hired as a nanny to the children of a wealthy Manhattan mom, and before too long the audience learns Kimmy's boss has a secret: She's American Indian. The boss, Jacqueline, is played by Jane Krakowski, a sitcom veteran who is not Native. Her parents are played by Gil Birmingham, Comanche, and Sheri Foster, Cherokee. Jacqueline is passing as white; Jane Krakowski is a white actress playing a Native character who is passing as white—is there a problem here? Last week, ICTMN ran a piece that included opinions from two non-Native TV critics who felt that yes, there was something off-putting about this plot element.

Judging by Twitter chatter, some Native viewers agree—but many others don't. Jiwere-Nutachi/Chahta journalist Johnnie Jae, co-editor of Native Max magazine, has watched the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and approves of the Native storyline. We asked her to explain.

What was your reaction to the Native subplot as you were watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?

I was waiting for a cringe-worthy moment once the Native subplot was introduced. I was thinking, "Oh no, here we go again." But that cringe-worthy moment never appeared and I found myself cracking up. The conversations that Jacqueline had with her parents reminded me of some of the conversations that I had with relatives when I took an interest in doing things that you don't normally associate with Natives. So I think they nailed the conversations between Jacqueline and her parents, especially when she told them she was no longer going to be Native because "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde and white."

That's a good line, but she could have said simply "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde." Does pulling an entire race into the conversation, and making this about race when it doesn't need to be, trivialize the issues Native people face?

No, I don't think so because talking about race is not a bad thing, and that particular line has some undeniable truth in the mainstream media. Look at most news anchors, actresses, musicians, et cetera—blonde and white. Jacqueline's story also illustrated a few other issues that rarely get discussed. There's the fact that Natives come in various shades of brown—yes, you can be Native even if you "look" white. So many Native people hear that: "You're Native American? Hmm, you don't look like it." The show is also addressing the white privilege afforded to those same white-passing Natives. It's not trivializing these issues, it's bringing them out in the open. There's a very real sentiment that to be successful in the mainstream world, we need to be less Native. Some of us deal with this feeling every day.

Should the show have cast a Native actress in the role?

Let's be honest, if they had cast an obviously Native woman in Jacqueline's role and put a blonde wig on her, the storyline wouldn't work. She'd just be a blonde Native trying to be white and her reality would be different from Jacqueline's reality. The reason Jacqueline's character has the lifestyle she does in show is because she could pass for white and was able to benefit from the white privilege that goes along with that. I'd also like to add that Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster were amazing and spot on with the Native humor. The show also has Azie Dungey ("Ask a Slave") on board and I trust her with this storyline.
A couple of comments:

That Native scene made me cringe a little. And it doesn't have to be "cringe-worthy" to be problematical. Dances with Wolves doesn't have any blatant problems that make you want to cringe. But its reigning theme of the "white savior" is problematical when you think about it.

The casting choice wasn't "an obviously Native woman" or Jane Krakowski. The show could've cast a not-obviously-Native woman who might or might not be able to pass as white. Showing someone on the borderline between Native and white, in looks as well as culture, would've been the realistic and honest choice.

What it's like to watch Netflix's 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' as a Native American

By Jacqueline KeelerMy mom named me Jacqueline because of her school-girl fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy. My grandparents did not speak English, only Navajo. My mother “arrived” in this country when, at age 18, she left the reservation to go to college in the big city. Her first morning in this strange land, she awoke frightened and disoriented, convinced the sun had risen from the west. She was a stranger in a strange land. My Native American parents were immigrants to this country from their respective Indigenous nations. And like other immigrants, they studied American film and TV carefully for cues on how to be American and how to live among Americans whose backgrounds are not Dakota or Navajo.

As a second-generation expatriate, I’ve watched 30 Rock over the years and found myself wondering: Is this acceptable? Can I laugh at this? Why do I feel this way? What is wrong and what is right about this?

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-judgemental, 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.
I'm not sure what Keeler is saying here. She seems to be saying that it's good to tackle the complex issues of mixed or mistaken identities. Okay, but she doesn't quite say how well Kimmy Schmidt tackles these issues.

Which is the key thing I'm interested in. Not whether someone has tried to tackle the issues, but whether they've succeeded.

Non-Native views

Next, a couple of nuanced, somewhat neutral takes:

Let’s Talk About Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt & Its Dealings With Race

By Alanna BennettOne thing that’s important to remember in this conversation is that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s race “issues” (quotationed because we can’t agree what is and what is not the issue) are far from black and white—within the show itself or in criticism and praise of the show.

Within the show, for example, you have Titus as a gay stereotype but you also have him as a very specific human being and a hero of the show; he rarely gets shafted in favor of Kimmy, he’s right there with her trying to make a quality life in New York. When it comes to his race, he’s constantly addressing his “place” in society as influenced by his sexuality and his race, and there’s an entire episode subplot where people pay him more respect dressed up as a werewolf than they ever did as a black man. White people yelling “that werewolf is turning into Samuel L Jackson!” and running away screaming was a pretty deft moment of racial commentary for this show or any show, and is a moment just as crucial to any racial criticism of the series as Jacqueline’s wolf-howl to the moon in the finale.

It’s all taken side-by-side, and it’s all packaged in self-mocking comedy that sets out to be ridiculous from the get go. It’s a mishmash that makes it hard to discern the “right” or “wrong” of its depictions, and I for one am enjoying the reminder of the importance of subjectivity in criticism. I have every respect for people put off by Kimmy Schmidt’s dealings with race, and I have every respect for the people who take no issue with it.

I personally have been both—I started out very uncomfortable with the Native American storyline and with aspects of the character of Dong, but the more I think about it and the more I read the perspectives of, for example, actual Native American people, the less upset I become.
I can't argue too much with someone who says every viewpoint is valid. Onward.

Racial Stereotypes Can Be Funny

The critics of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aren’t wrong. But they are missing the point.

By Arthur Chu
[T]ake Kimmy’s black, gay roommate Titus Andromedon, who has achieved instant viral status as an icon of a gay black man even though, on paper, he seems like the most offensive stereotype of a gay black man possible. The actor, Tituss Burgess, on whom Titus Andromedon is loosely based, had input in creating his character, and there’s a confidence to Titus—a sense that the writers are comfortable butting right up to “the line” and sticking a toe across it because they know where it is.

The writers play to the hilt the joke about Titus being “treated better as a werewolf than a black man.” Episode 5 has a subplot about Titus outing fellow kidnapping victim Cyndee’s boyfriend Brandon as gay, leaning heavily on gay jokes and gay stereotypes the whole time. But it never apologizes for it, and never makes it feel like the jokes reduce Titus or Brandon to two-dimensionality.

By contrast, Fey’s high-wire act loses its deftness with the revelation that Jacqueline is a Native American and the introduction of her parents. Same with the character of Dong, the Vietnamese immigrant who unexpectedly becomes Kimmy’s beau.

Unlike Titus Andromedon, Jacqueline’s parents don’t confidently dive into a stereotype to amplify it, mock it, and eventually show the humanity within it. Instead, they awkwardly go through a by-the-numbers stereotype of what people think an “Indian family” would look like only to immediately, weakly apologize for it. Jacqueline’s dad drops a random joke about flying to New York in an “iron sky eagle” only to clarify that of course he knows what a plane is, he was in the Air Force—a joke that no one would logically make to their own family, who presumably would already know that. Her parents live on a reservation (of course) and observe the Lakota Sun Dance (of course) and make a living as buffalo ranchers (of course) but throw in a diss of Kevin Smith to show they’re also modern Americans.
Chu's conclusion doesn't seem quite as positive as the headline suggests: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. Everyone who’s tried to walk an actual tightrope knows that the key is to walk confidently and calmly, to take a straight, smooth path without hesitating. Kimmy’s arc, Titus’ arc, the arc of Jacqueline’s divorce with her husband—these have that deftness of touch.

But if you lean too far to one side, and then try to lean back the other way to compensate—“Jacqueline’s dad is an Indian stereotype … but he was in the Air Force!” or “Dong is an awkward dork … but Kimmy’s into that!”—you’ll wobble, stumble and fall.
Comment:  For more on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, see Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Just a Comedy? and Jane Krakowski in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

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