This week, Netflix released Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an extremely funny sitcom chronicling the adventures of a young woman (Kimmy Schmidt, naturally) recently freed from an underground bunker, where she was held captive for fifteen years by a charismatic preacher. Believe it or not, the show is even more fanciful and bizarre than you might expect from this decidedly unconventional premise. Because we live in a humorless age, the series has been attacked for its supposed lack of racial sensitivity. Not surprisingly, it is the show’s critics who are revealing their cluelessness.
In The Daily Beast, Gabe Bergado celebrates a minor subplot in which Kimmy’s roommate, the theatrically-inclined Titus Andromedon, finds that he is treated better by passersby when dressed as a werewolf than when he appears to be an ordinary African-American man. This, to his mind, illustrates an important truth about race in America. But Bergado resents the portrayal of Dong, a recent Vietnamese immigrant and one of Kimmy’s love interests. Specifically, Bergado objects to the fact that Dong speaks “broken English,” that he is portrayed as being “damn good at math,” and, more broadly, that he isn’t fleshed out in greater detail. As it happens, Titus explicitly says that it is racist of Kimmy to observe that Dong is so good at math, despite the fact that he is in fact good at math (“I don’t make the rules, Kimmy”), which is to say the show’s writers anticipated this absurd line of critique. It’s true that Dong isn’t a major character. But there are only so many characters who can be fleshed out in 13 episodes, each of which is well under a half hour in length. My guess is that we’ll be seeing more of him if the series continues.
And it’s actually true that many recent immigrants have an imperfect command of English. Do I even need to point this out? Dong’s character is no less admirable and no less charming for not being able to speak English as fluently as a native. He just happens to be new to the United States, just as Kimmy is new to New York, and to the world outside the bunker. What I find troubling is not Dong’s broken English. Rather, it is that the drive to airbrush out all people who speak heavily-accented English from the stories we tell is considered enlightened and not retrograde. It’s rare for recent immigrants with less than a high school education (Kimmy and Dong meet in a GED class) to form strong social ties with middle-class natives, which could be why some critics are so shocked and appalled by Dong’s “broken English” — perhaps these critics don’t realize that many of their neighbors, servers, and caregivers aren’t fluent English speakers. One study finds that LEP (limited English proficiency) individuals represent 9 percent of the U.S. population. This number is considerably higher in cities like New York, where Unbreakable takes place. So no, I don’t think that the creators of Unbreakable have committed a grave crime for daring to portray an LEP individual, and to make him as much an object of mirth as the show’s white protagonist.
Libby Hill, writing for Vulture, is even more troubled by a subplot in which Kimmy’s wealthy white employer, Jacqueline, is revealed to be an American Indian, raised by parents who are baffled and hurt by her rejection of all things indigenous. Hill seems genuinely perplexed by why anyone would find these sequences funny. Part of it is that the show’s creators are playing with a familiar trope: in recent decades, many people who might have once disowned their indigenous roots have come to embrace them. There is something about young Jacqueline’s rejection of her roots that seems comic, and very much in keeping with her general obtuseness as the pampered wife of an extremely rich (Republican) philanderer. Meanwhile, her parents are portrayed as kind, intelligent, and completely confused by how they could’ve raised such an oblivious child. Then, of course, there is the intrinsic comedy in seeing the middle-aged actor who portrays Jacqueline, Jane Krakowski, dressed as a late ’80s teenager, bopping her head as she snottily whines, “I want my MTV!” I laughed at these Jacqueline sequences, and I suspect most viewers with some experience of generational conflict will do the same.
The funny thing about the racial policing of Unbreakable is that the series really does traffic in offensive stereotypes, most of which are directed at working- and lower-middle-class white people residing in small towns. Virtually every white person from Kimmy’s Indiana hometown is portrayed as a hapless yokel. Why have there been no complaints about this outrageous classism, you ask? I suppose critics assume that white Hoosiers are capable of taking a joke. What exactly do they assume about everyone else?