Earlier this year, Netflix dropped a new original, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt starring Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, a woman that’s just been rescued from a 15 year stint in a bunker as part of a doomsday cult. After a series of interviews in which she and the other three women she used to live with are dubbed the “Mole Women,” she decides to make a life of her own in New York City. In short order, she loses all of her “Mole Women” money, gets a roommate and a job, and regains her confidence and joy.
I’m three episodes in, but I’m really enjoying the series. Ellie Kemper does a great job as Kimmy, and she and the scenarios she gets into are actually funny without going too crazy. She’s woefully out-of-touch with the world but is actively trying to get back up to speed, and her mantra “You can survive anything for 10 seconds” is nicely practical and surprisingly uplifting. Titus Andromedon, her aspiring Broadway roommate, is both funny, compassionate, and street-smart, which is a welcome change to most angry New Yorker roommates.
However, in episode three, “Kimmy Goes on a Date!” we learn that Jacqueline, Kimmy’s neurotic socialite employer, is actually a Native American woman who left her family over 20 years ago to move to New York, masquerade as a white woman, and try to get ahead in life. Jacqueline is played by Jane Krakowski, a white woman.
This episode put into stark relief the problems Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and co-creator/executive productive Tina Fey have with people of color. While it’s true that Native Americans face added discrimination and prejudice in this country and Jacqueline’s decision to leave her family and disguise herself could have been a biting social critique, it’s absolutely inappropriate that she was played by a white woman. She spends the episode criticizing white culture, privilege, and superiority but neither she nor the writers had any idea what that is. The role was stolen from a Native American woman. It’s hard enough for older women (above the age of 40, that is) to get roles, and Native Americans traditionally count for less than 1% of all film roles. This was exactly the kind of role an older Native American woman could have shined in, showing her facing off against the subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) bigoted American society and the many, often painful ways that people of color try to fit into white society.
It was at this point that I noticed how few people of color were in the series and how, other than perhaps Titus, none of them had decent roles (There is another black man who was introduced solely to say slightly crazy things and be made into a viral video.). There are two named Hispanic women, one a maid and the other a cleaning woman. Caribbean women are briefly mentioned but only as nannies (they’re never even seen). Three Hispanic men are in a mariachi band. A group of Korean people are at a funeral, but they don’t have any lines and are nothing more than props for Titus’ embarrassment. Everyone else is white. The kids are white. The Mole Women (except one) are white. The love interests are white. The landlady is white. The crazy reverend is white. This series takes place in New York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, and every major player but one is white. Why can’t the tutor be Indian? Why can’t the kids be Saudi? Why can’t the landlady be black? Why isn’t Jacqueline actually Native American? Why are all the Hispanic people racist stereotypes? Why did Titus have to come from Mississippi? Do black people only come from Mississippi? Is that what you really think, Tina Fey?
This is especially unforgiving because of how fresh and feminist the series pretends to be. Kimmy is strong and confident while still acknowledging her feelings, problems, and romantic desires. She tells people that women can be anything now and isn’t afraid to be aggressive with others. So where is the support for people of color? Feminism is about creating equality, so why are people of color still treated as stereotypes and the butt of jokes?
This is a problem I’ve seen in numerous “feminist” shows like Orange is the New Black, The Help, Agent Carter, and 30 Rock. The writers spend so much time trying to show that women can be tough and capable but somehow only focus on how white women can be tough and capable. Black men and women often get stereotypical roles or aren’t properly developed, but when people complain about it, the creators and fans fall back on the same tired excuses: “It wouldn’t be historically accurate,” “It’s funnier this way,” “They needed a big name actor,” “Stereotypes are often true,” or, “You can’t expect everything to change at once!” All of that is bullshit.
Like I said earlier, I’m only three episodes in so I’m really hoping this will change. I’m hoping other men and women of color will join the cast and the few that are actually there will have a greater role. I don’t really see this happening, but I’m going to be hopeful. This is such a funny, silly show; I’d hate to have to stop watching it.