‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ makes violence against women a joke, and despite a few ‘we are strong!’ monologues, the joke is still mostly at the expense of the victim.
As I cringed through Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I was certain I’d soon be reading snarky feminist backlash articles exploring the reasons why I was cringing. While I’ve read a few thoughtful articles discussing race issues, the show is being hailed as a feminist victory across the board—a quick Google search brings up reviews celebrating Kimmy as “the show feminists have been waiting for” and a “feminist and comedic triumph.” This has confused me enough that I am now writing the snarky feminist backlash article I’ve been waiting for! You’re welcome.
It’s completely valid to find this show entertaining. But since this is being celebrated as a feminist show, I believe it’s worth examining that a bit:
Dark Premise, Light Jokes
The jokes often boil down to Kimmy being naive about adulthood and/or the modern world. But why is she that way?
The “why” is that a preacher abducted Kimmy and three other women and kept them in an underground bunker for 15 years. There are clear allusions to the horrifying kidnappings in Cleveland, which you might recall as a strikingly disturbing and unfunny story in a world of very unfunny stories. In real life, those women were repeatedly starved, tortured, and raped over a 10-year period while imprisoned by Ariel Castro.
Though we don’t learn details of what occurred in the Kimmy version, we do know that a preacher told them the apocalypse was coming, kidnapped them as children, and kept them in a bunker. Kimmy does say that “weird sex stuff” happened (it is ambiguous if this was perpetrated by the preacher or was their own experimentation born out of isolation, either of which is pretty sad), and that he’d use them for his amusement (braiding their hair, the mystery crank, etc.). It’s pretty heavy, right?
As a stand up comedian, I think you can tell a good joke about any subject. But when you bring up a dark premise, you raise the stakes for your jokes and the comedy better really pay off. And jokes shouldn’t be at the victim’s expense—making fun of someone who has suffered is usually cruel, not funny.
In Kimmy, the jokes are usually too light for the premise. Jokes are usually something like “Kimmy doesn’t know what a selfie is!” or “Kimmy still uses phrases popular in the ’90s, like ‘word up!” But the reason she’s like that is because she was kidnapped and kept in a bunker for 15 years and possibly sexually abused. When I consider the premise, it’s pretty uncomfortable to laugh at the fluffy readjustment jokes that comprise much of the comedy of the show.
Sometimes, her (understandable) naivete actually revictimizes her, which is also played for laughs—like when Kimmy tells Titus “I like helping people…this morning, I helped an old man at the supermarket who needed me to get all that stuff out of his pockets!” and Titus looks off awkwardly. The joke here is that Kimmy did not understand she was helping an old man masturbate because she is in a state of arrested development. Um…hilarious?
The episodes about the trial seem to be attempting to lampoon the way our justice system disbelieves women, but with the extremely high burden of proof for rape victims and only 3% of rapists spending even one day in prison, this farce is not clever or biting enough to make any real or strong point.
The viewer is very clearly not supposed to take the premise seriously or think too much about it. This is a problematic ask when the premise is violence against women, an issue we already fail to give the appropriate weight in our society. If writers wanted to create a comedy about a young woman’s adjustment to the modern world after a period of isolation, there were endless other ways to tell that story; what if she time-traveled? Or the women formed their own isolating cult? Or her family had genuinely thought an explosion was coming and had gone into a bunker, only to find they were wrong? Or probably another funnier idea? There are so many ways that the same jokes could be told without trivializing the Cleveland case and/or violence against women.
Faux Feminist Moments
I can tell this show desperately wants me to think Kimmy is a strong female character. She has her moments, but usually acts like a child (understandably), so the warmth we feel for her is mostly paternal. The episode titles re-enforce the idea that we’re watching a little girl in a big world (“Kimmy Kisses a Boy!” “Kimmy is Bad at Math!”). She’s cute! She’s perky! She loves candy and light-up shoes! What an adorably plucky survivor of a severe traumatic experience! I found this to undermine her even in her more serious moments; her resilience is a child’s resilience and she’s too naïve to also be wise.
In the oft-aired clip where a construction worker tells Kimmy “you’re making me wish I was those jeans,” she responds that she wants to be his hat—because she likes hats and yellow is her favorite color. She’s not coming from a place of savvy or strength, she just fails to be offended because she’s oblivious and basically a child. Not understanding that sexism is happening is not the same as confronting sexism, and her naivete is the joke.
While optimism and strength in the face of adversity are admirable qualities, my concern is that Kimmy represents how society thinks women survivors “should” act: pleasant, kind, cute, and immediately ready to face the day. She never complains, cries or feels loss, and she isn’t angry, bitter, or sad—she gets out of that bunker and is totally ready to move on with her life with unfailing optimism and spirit.
Women’s experiences are constantly belittled, as survivors are told to “get over it” and that it “couldn’t have been that bad”; rape is the most underreported crime in America partially because women internalize these messages and severely minimize their own experiences. Besides a few glimpses into some superficial issues played for laughs (i.e., her unexplained fear of Velcro), she is at least pretending to be fine. This re-enforces the message that women should put on a happy face and go on helping everyone else with their problems no matter what they’ve experienced. Thousands of women are survivors who find incredible strength and rebuild their lives, and they do so in different ways—but Kimmy’s model of suppression and smiles is unrealistic and problematic.
Titus is a caricature of a sassy gay black friend. I cannot believe “look how gay this gay guy is! He is literally singing about penises while dressed like a handyman!” still counts as comedy in 2015. When the joke is that someone is not being gender conforming, this is a feminist issue as well.
The race issues are relevant, too. The “isms” relate to each other and intersect. The title sequence is basically a modern minstrel song, which is racist and dehumanizing; it’s part of a society that ranks peoples’ value and humanity on their sex, gender, and race. These are feminist issues.
A female protagonist does not a feminist show make. A real feminist show portrays women as complex humans and takes their stories seriously, even in a comedy. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes violence against women a joke, and despite a few “we are strong!” monologues, the joke is still mostly at the expense of the victim.
Dana Fleitman is the Senior Manager of Prevention and Training Programs at JWI, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence against all women and girls. She is also a stand up comedian. Not usually at the same time. She is based in Washington, D.C.