Culture

What Social-Justice Warriors Could Learn from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper and Jane Krakowski in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a biting and successful satire of modern culture, follows Kimmy, a blissful do-gooder thrown into the middle of New York City and contemporary society after being rescued from a doomsday cult and 15 years’ captivity in an underground bunker.

The show is the brainchild of Tina Fey (her follow-up project after wrapping 30 Rock), and it recently caused her to take a stand against what she called a “culture of demanding apologies,” after it drew fire from PC critics. Fey was responding to an Internet controversy that “rose up,” as a Vox explainer put it, last year when a storyline in the show dealing with race appropriation saw Kimmy Schmidt on the receiving end of criticism from the usual suspects. “I’m opting out” of responding to those attacks, Fey said in a December 18 interview—a response that only brought on more denunciations from the social-justice mob.

Kimmy Schmidt asks the question of how a modern heroine would act if she had simply sat out the last 15 years of culture rot, as we became more obsessed with the Kardashians and less obsessed with tolerating each other. It deftly skewers our current pop-culture obsessions: One of her fellow doomsday-cult survivors is fascinated at how popular things like matching tattoos, taking pictures of food, and being bi-racial have become.

Kimmy (played enthusiastically by The Office’s Ellie Kemper) deals with everyday annoyances with a charming naiveté that makes most feminists simultaneously cringe and cheer. They really, really want to be her, except for the fact that she’s just so damn nice. When a construction worker cat-calls her by telling her he wishes he were her jeans, she compliments him back by saying she wishes she were his bright yellow hat, instantly confusing him into melting down and admitting the error of his chauvinist sexism. She kills her enemies and just about anything else with a kindness rarely seen in any show on air today.

It’s a lesson the scolds on the left could learn from. If the social-justice warriors had Kimmy’s disposition, all the little problematics in life would be so much easier for them to bear.

If the social-justice warriors had Kimmy’s disposition, all the little problematics in life would be so much easier for them to bear.

The furor Fey responded to last month was over the turn a particular plotline took in the third episode of the opening season. One of the show’s supporting characters is an upscale Manhattanite named Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski, formerly of Fey’s 30 Rock cast), who hires Kimmy as a housekeeper and nanny. Jacqueline’s maiden name is White, a fact which comes into play when she has a flash back to her teenage life in Bear Creek, S.D., where she was, as it turns out, the daughter of two Native American parents. We learn that young Jacqueline dyed her hair blonde and began to wear colored contacts in order to pass as white.

We see Krakowski, in the flashbacks, decked out in stereotypical Native American garb and butchering the language. The writers are aware that Krakowski is in reality a blonde, white woman who does not authentically portray Native culture—it’s part of the joke.

But casting a white woman to play someone of another race is supposed to be offensive no matter what, so this storyline was deemed by social-justice critics to be racially insensitive and “marginalizing” to Native Americans.

#share#Fey’s critics who find this plotline shockingly outside the pale seem not to have been paying attention to actual events in the recent past. While a professor at Harvard, Elizabeth Warren claimed to be a Cherokee Indian, therefore qualifying for minority status which may have given her an advantage over other, “whiter” faculty (and most notably over other minority faculty). When confronted with this on the Senate campaign trial, Warren claimed she was relying on family lore about her Cherokee heritage, as confirmed by her high cheekbones. And yet the media and those who politically agreed with her remained mostly silent, and still do to this day.

For the very reasons they appeal to audiences, these shows land in the crosshairs of the online mob, ever-vigilant for insufficient racial sensitivity.

Last year, the Internet and E! culture sat back and witnessed the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, an African-American civil-rights activist and NAACP branch president who identified as black and by all appearances lived as a black woman, deceiving those even closest to her. When she was revealed to be biologically born to white parents, it was a situation tailor-made for our times and our junk-food social-media culture simply could not resist.

Fey and many other filmmaking stars and writers have turned to online streaming services like Netflix (or Amazon and Hulu) in an attempt to flex more of their creative muscles and escape the confines of standard network scripting. These shows tend to be edgier, and TV audiences turn to them for content beyond the standard half-hour sitcom or hour-long drama on network TV that features jokes with laugh tracks that are crowd-tested to be just generic enough to not offend anyone. But, for the very reasons they appeal to audiences, these shows land in the crosshairs of the online mob, ever-vigilant for insufficient racial sensitivity.

#related#Fey is right to say that it’s not her job to explain jokes to people. If a segment of society doesn’t get a particular joke in a show, then we should all be able to move on with our lives. But the explicit goal of the social-justice warriors is always to provoke the exact opposite response, whether it’s by blocking traffic, interrupting our meals, storming our department stores, or torching our businesses. We can’t move on until the appropriate amount of penance has been paid, even though we rarely are informed how much is enough.

Where Fey errs is in not identifying the source of the scourge of the apology culture we find ourselves in. That would require looking into a mirror and evaluating the political side of the aisle she herself has usually come down on. Thankfully Kimmy is here to help show her the way.

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