Last week’s revelation: After ruthlessly defending it, I’ve since come to the uncomfortable conclusion that”Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is much more fragile than I’d like.
I believed in Santa Claus even longer than my little sister, though for years I’d suspected there was something odd about a magical man coming into your home (through a chimney no less) and eating your cookies. Even when she started to question his existence, I defended it. I loved Santa Claus, wanted to believe in him, and did so until that awkward conversation around the dinner table when my parents confirmed my sister’s suspicions to be true. “He lives in your heart,” they consoled me.
Now, as an adult, I get it. Nobody’s perfect, and the people we idolize, we idolize for what we hope they represent at their best.
This is the relationship I presently hold with Tina Fey. I look up to her as a mighty goddess who has made it as a woman in comedy, writing, and entertainment, but also recognize her as a human with flaws, which sometimes include what seems to be either tone deafness or ambivalence, even hypocrisy. But maybe I’ll never know for sure because Tina Fey says she’s not here to explain or apologize for her work:
“Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever. We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
So we may not know what her artistic choices mean, but we can discuss why they matter in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
First off, let me say I generally love the show. At the time of the Season 1 premier last year, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger fan than me. When people who met me said, “You remind me of Kimmy Schmidt!” I felt much more complimented than when my friend’s six-year-old sister said I reminded her of Snape from Harry Potter. I was also going through a period in my life when if I needed to feel particularly powerful in body and spirit, I’d hop on an exercise bike at my local YMCA and read “Bossypants” (which I still keep close), so these compliments were particularly dear. As much as I love Kimmy Schmidt, it’s not perfect.
Thoughtful “Kimmy Schmidt” critiques have been offered up since the show premiered last year, including discussions on the characters of Jacqueline (this one references a few) and Dong (this one relates it to the problematic character by the same name in 16 Candles, this one talks about how it wasn’t deftly executed — I’ll also write a more in-depth post on the portrayal of Asian American masculinity soon).
I just watched Season 2 Episode 3, Kimmy Goes to a Play! It turns out it’s a disturbing play. If I had been a writer on the show I would have substituted the excited “!” for a “:(“.
The play features the character of Titus Andromedon in yellowface as he plays the role of a geisha, insisting that he was a Japanese geisha in a past life. This made me roll my eyes. (Must we go all Mikado again? Are we really having this conversation? Again?!)
What disturbs me most however is the unbelievable portrayal of the response of the Asian American characters who were audience to the play. I use “unbelievable” in the sense that I couldn’t believe that what unfolds is actually what would happen. I just can’t buy into this: They laud Titus’s geisha play.
What I so often love about Fey’s writing is that it feels brash and irreverent, making serious issues laughable without making light of them. The greatest art is made when it’s in constant dialogue with those who consume it. Fey’s writing achieves this often, but sometimes falls short. As an artist, sure, you’re entitled to your artistic license, but for it to be the best it can be, it shouldn’t completely brush off the realities of the characters you’re writing for, which is what happens when one of the characters says, “What do we do now that we’re not offended? I feel weird.” I feel weird that they’re not offended, especially given the other Asian characters Fey has written as stereotypes in her other works.
This line is inappropriate because there’s a disconnect between how many instances Asian Americans have had just cause to feel offended for how they’re portrayed on stage and screen, but little has been done to address those concerns. Judging by Hollywood’s continued practice of whitewashing and, yes, how this episode of Kimmy Schmidt was written, these concerns aren’t even being taken seriously.
I still believe in Tina Fey, even more so than Santa Claus. If anyone is to write snappy characters with witty dialogue and thought-provoking commentary, she’s a great candidate. At its best, Kimmy Schmidt exhibits this where females are strong as hell, they’re multidimensional and push boundaries. But what will it take to portray Asian Americans doing the same? Fey to come back to the internet? More writers of color? Both?
In the mean time, I’m waiting and watching.
*Speaking of females who are strong as hell, I’m super jazzed a woman has finally made it to the face of a contemporary U.S. bill!