Optimistic Darkness and Counter-Cultural Real Talk in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

tiny kemper

I know that you and I (probably) don’t know each other, hell we might have shared a moment about veganism and Hannibal Lecter in the comments section a few articles ago or maybe even clashed heads over whether Lena Dunham needs to check herself before she wrecks herself over on Reddit (for the record: if you think she’s doing a flawless job, you are absolutely, completely wrong), but I think it’s okay to assume that you might be going through a bit of a tough time right now. Because: Life.

Unless you’re currently reading this from a luxury yacht surrounded by unopened bottles of champagne and stacks of tax free hard money (in which case, get off the internet and go Scrooge McDuck the fuck out of your life, you loser), then life is currently presenting itself as pretty rough for everyone. We need catharsis, all of us. And since money is so tight and we keep getting bludgeoned by surprise bills bigger than a Lena Dunham book contract deal (I’m sorry, sir, but will you accept part payment in Boots Advantage Card Points?), then it’s even tricky to head down the good old fashioned route of a few bottles of wine and dancing on a table to Katy Perry power ballads without making everything worse for yourself.

Guest writer Laura Tansley recently wrote a wonderful piece for us on Broad City – a sublimely cathartic show which I recently binge watched over the space of two days with the worst flu I’ve ever had in my life – and which I urge you to watch immediately if you need some silly, life affirming feminist comedy, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Broad City and then some. Whilst Broad City is perfect for it’s celebration of the BFF love affair and it’s ability to present comedy – usually reserved for twenty something young men with a penchant for drugs and dick and shit jokes – from a ‘real talk’ female perspective, UKS instead draws all of it’s power from the harrowing and the grotesque. It’s a hyper-realised collection of all those moments in our life, however big or small, which build up into monumental cataclysms of despair.

hulk hoganKimmy Goes to Hell!

Whilst lead character Kimmy Schmidt obviously has the darkest arc – her narrative and comedy drawing from imprisonment, isolation, implied sexual abuse and the ensuing PTSD and trauma following being held captive – nearly every character is explored through their own personal hells, with writers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock plucking away at tragedy and the harrowing tortures of everyday life with the most absurd apparatus they can find.

Joining Kimmy on this clownish stage of torment are Titus (desperate not to become a failed actor or a ‘black, gay and old’ single man – ‘I won’t even know what box to check on the hate crime form!’), Jacqueline (desperate not to be divorced, alone and poor) and Lillian (desperate not to own an apartment building in a gentrified neighbourhood. Which, as someone who currently lives in the bleak and continually gentrified mess of Liverpool, UK, I can attest is a very real fear. They take paradise and put up a luxury apartment block, five chicken restaurants where food is served on slabs and two ironic dive bars where you can buy ‘poor people beverages’ for rich people prices).

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It’s comedy at it’s purest, performing a continuous balancing act between the bleak and the bright, it pushes the boundaries against both of these plains and pulls itself back when it’s hits the outer limits of either, giving a cartoonish hyper-reality with the one hand and excruciating realness with the other.

It’s also a show which understands the importance of coping mechanisms (and in a way, is it’s own coping mechanism – watch this show going through something terrible and you’ll feel understood): of laughing through pain, dancing through it, singing through it, eating through it, smiling through it and wearing impossibly bright, cheerful colours through it. That in order to be a survivor you have to refuse to be a victim. And what more inspirational message of resilience is there than that? Do what you want to me – I’ll bounce back.

The show very much exists as an extension of Kimmy Schmidt’s own experience and perspective: her robbed adolescence and years trapped within a grey, closed off bunker creates an over compensation for the juvenile, the bright and the silly, the frivolous and the naïve. We have a continuous motif of inner worlds versus outer worlds: the bunker versus the outside world, Kimmy’s inner anguish and trauma versus her cheerful exterior, Jaqcueline’s luxurious, limitless lifestyle immunising her from the struggles of the real world, Dr. Franff’s cosmetic ‘cure all’ which can remove the ‘scream lines’ but not the inner feeling right down to Dong’s desire to integrate into America – to be welcomed into it, part of it and not kicked out and held outside of it.

It’s a show, ultimately, about outsiders and whilst UKS can show the hardship that can become of being a misfit of some sort, it also allows characters to embrace this facet of their character and celebrates it, empowering the viewer who also feels stood behind whatever wall society has constructed in an attempt to manage ‘normality’.

beef jerky in a ball gown

Kimmy Challenges Normality!

UKS also questions normality. Every character strives for it in some way, the comedy of each scenario butting heads with aspects of ‘normality’ – what it means to be hetero, what it means to be a ‘fully functioning grown up’, what it means to be happy, healthy and beautiful as well as questioning modes of whiteness, success in western culture and the chasm between rich and poor.

We explore social ‘normality’ through the extension of Kimmy’s perspective with characters impacted by her simplified World view – every character becomes a stereotype of their ‘kind’ (a common comedic device, albeit usually a lazy one, in this case skewed for irony) which if UKS was less dark and more sitcom would fall foul to the sort of sickly ignorance of your standard Western sitcom such as ‘Six White Complainers’ (aka. Friends – the continuing popularity of which, with generations old enough to have experienced it the first time round on TV and with new generations who you would hope might know better, is completely unfathomable to me. Let’s howl at the constant ‘dyke’ jokes slewn at Ross’s ex-wife, the confused, transphobic nonsense aimed at Chandlers father – played by Kathleen Turner – and the foul classist drivel used for Joey Tribbini’s family of uneducated, working class grotesques. Long live white, hetero, middle class humour.).

Having said this, the high risk of humour of UKS doesn’t always hit it’s mark making it easy to understand the criticisms that the show has faced regarding race, but I also don’t expect absolute perfection from the first season of any show (so fingers crossed Fey and Carlock take such criticisms on board and tighten that good ship up as a response). Even as far as deliberate Vietnamese and / or immigrant stereotypes go, Dong truly is a dangerously underdeveloped character which leaves much of the comedy surrounding his identity, race and circumstances sketchy at best with the weak foundations of his character making his associated comedy feel ham fisted and just wedged in there for ‘risk’ value. It’s easy to see what they were trying to achieve with Dong, and they almost get it, but it’s also let down by poor writing with gags such as Kimmy’s name meaning penis in Vietnamese feeling more like a way to legitimise risky race humour rather than used as a commentary on it.

white nonsense

Kimmy Versus Hetero, White, Yuppie Culture!

Still, the show should be applauded for it’s lampooning of hetero, white, western, middle (and upper) class culture and the way in which people who live outside of these ‘norms’ are alienated into feeling they live a completely separate, incongruous reality to theirs. Jacqueline Voorhees, for example, is the epitome of the ‘American Dream’ – even shunning her Native American roots to become the stereotypical vacuous, blonde replete with a past career of being an air hostess and marrying into money to live out the rest of her days. When Jacqueline first sees the tiny apartment Kimmy shares with Titus, she’s horrified – in fact it’s so completely beyond her understanding that she attempts to walk up a set up imagined ‘stairs’ to check out the upstairs. Of course, there are no stairs (just some furniture and a desk) and there is nothing beyond the room.

Kimmy, meanwhile, is just as confused by Jacqueline’s living arrangements – the grounds of her enormous house, replete with gate and security, feel like a version of a prison to Kimmy who even mistakes Jacqueline’s husband for her very own ‘captor’.

Meanwhile, ‘straight’ culture and the performance of heterosexuality to fit into ‘normal’ society and work within standard consumerist culture is explored though the very obviously homosexual boyfriend of fellow ‘mole woman’ Cydnee (“I’m just a regular guy. I like NASCAR and fishing. You know, quoting Borat, setting up universal remotes. And of course, Vegas, baby!”), Titus missing out on a coveted role at Professor Dracula’s Spooky Laboratory Bar and Grill (I seriously wanna go there) where he works because the role demands he ‘play it straight’ – something a gay man is obviously incapable of, although John Travolta seems to have been doing a fine enough job of it for decades – and the straight class he eventually undertakes in order to unlearn his ‘queerness’ in order to get hired for straight roles.

In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the outsiders aren’t outcast, they’re the stars. The pieces of their identities which mark them out as different are the things we’re made to love about them. It’s refreshing to watch a show in which the struggling, poor, queer and marginalised aren’t for once laughed at but laughed with and on a relatively equal playing field to boot.

unbreakable kimmy schmidt media

Kimmy Takes on the Media!

Perhaps one of the most satisfying commentaries of the show comes in the way in which it deals with media representations of ‘otherness’ (i.e. non white, non hetero, non gender conformist, non able bodied etc.), so as we watch these characters attempt assimilation into ‘normal society’ from the position of an ‘outsider’ mentality, we also see it from the way in which the various media on the show attempts to assimilate that characters persona, removing their personal agency and defining them by whatever terms fit a successful news narrative.

It’s easy to forget since we see it happening everyday, but the media has a habit (and has always had it) for defining individuals by an overarching label which suits their bias. Usually it’s an identifiable term used to provide ease with which to sneer at people from a pedestal (I.e, ‘Wacko Jacko’) or to imply guilt in a court case (i.e. Foxy Knoxy – who whilst under trial for the murder or Meredith Kercher underwent a sort of public heckling wherein her sexual attractiveness was winked at as being directly indicative to being a violently manipulative murderess) or simply as shortened nicknames used by tabloid media to separate the human from the ‘star’ and repackage them into some sort of cartoon character worthy of our constant judgement and disrespect (K-Stew, R-Pattz and the ever vile Brangelina in which two very famous, very beautiful people get fused together to become a tabloid sideshow freak. Roll up! Roll up! Come hurl rotten fruit at the monstrously beautiful, human circus of the Brangelina!).

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In UKS, Kimmy and her fellow survivors are given the overarching epiphet ‘Mole Women’ by tabloid and daytime media. Kimmy hates the name – after all, it defines her by the trauma she’s eager to escape. She calls characters out for using the term throughout the show – she can use it all she wants to define herself because it’s her word and her experience but that’s also why nobody else can use it to define her, because it isn’t their experience. It doesn’t belong to them. And as such it becomes an oppressive term rather than the sort of ‘endearment’ the media imagines it to be.

This is a terrific commentary on how the media is very good at being ‘politically correct’ from a purely superficial level. It has an awareness that certain language can’t be used but little understanding as to why it shouldn’t be used and what loads such language with the kind of offensive bile that requires some kind of moderation or censorship. The issue of the ‘Mole Women’ tag in UKS is the perfect illustration of this – the media is capable of avoiding standard derogatory language but is also constantly undermining itself and it’s audience by creating new derogatory terms and labels, hiding their true political bias behind language and terminologies that they think of as ‘safe’.

females are strong as hell

Kimmy and the Viral Celebrity!

Which brings us to that spectacular theme tune. Whilst the media as a whole is careful with what language it uses to define people and circumstances, overall media output tells an altogether different story. The rise of the ‘viral’ celebrity – and particularly, in this instance, of the ‘viral’ celebrity re-uploaded and re-edited onto youtube from news clips – is a prime example of our cultural obsession with failure. Whilst we love to collectively worship ‘celebrity’ who fit the standard indicators of success – rich, beautiful, cool job, friends with Taylor Swift – we also love collectively celebrating individuals and moments that are as distant to those indicators of success as possible. So, we laugh at poor people who speak in odd local dialects and in colloquialisms, we laugh at people with bad teeth, we laugh at those who lack media awareness or training and plunge head first in interview faux pas after faux pas and we laugh at Madonna hurling herself off stage in all of her expensive finery in the middle of a live televised performance. We love to mock anything which exists outside the standard parameters of ‘success’, as well as flat out ‘Madonna tripping on her overpriced cape’ failure.


The viral news video – as parodied by UKS – usually takes the same form. An incident takes place, the news reports it and they interview a local ‘witness’ for the piece who goes against the kind of well spoken, well educated, stuffy white people you’re used to seeing on the news. I recommend reading this article by Aisha Harris in which she talks about the ‘Troubling Trend of the ‘Hilarious’ Black Neighbour’, highlighting that nearly all of these viral news videos feature individuals clearly recognisable as poor or working class and that the majority of those who garnered the most attention were also black people. You’ll easily remember Sweet Brown, Antoine Dodgson, Charles Ramsey and Michelle Clarke, and there’s been plenty more before these and since, in which those with less than the ‘acceptable’ standard of education, living or speaking are held before us for ridicule.

white dudes hold the record for creepy crimes

Harris makes the observation: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform”, which is an uncomfortable opinion that I’m sure a lot of people would prefer to argue against rather than address. Whilst UKS doesn’t address this idea head on, it does identify the negativity implied with these viral videos wherein the video is re-edited and auto tuned just to exaggerate the individuals ‘blackness’ and class with the videos, in a sense, acting as a lazy affirmation of what white people regard as the ‘ghetto’: rough, poor and uneducated.

So UKS takes these videos and makes something positive out of it. Whilst the mainstream newscasters and presenters of the show are eager to present the ‘Mole Women’ as victims to be pitied rather than survivors to be admired, the interviewee who forms the basis of the theme tune / viral piece (Walter Bankston) is instead in awe of them. ‘Females are strong as hell!’ he yells, stunned and whilst the casual banalities of these news items still remains – ‘I just found these sunglasses…Unbreakable!’, the banality is combined with his awed sentiment to create a feminist anthem rather than to emphasise the elements that our culture considers to be ‘spectacle’.
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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, ultimately, finds optimism through darkness. It’s a story about acknowledging your self-worth, owning it and never letting anyone think that’s something which can be degraded for any reason – be it through a traumatic incident, class, sexuality, race or gender. As Kimmy Schmidt herself once put it, ‘We’re not garbage, we’re human beings!’. Praise be, sister.

we're different and you can't break us

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3 thoughts on “Optimistic Darkness and Counter-Cultural Real Talk in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

  1. I watched the first 2 episodes but am not really sure how I feel about the half-satirical, half-slapsticky comedy. I do like a lot about the show though. The plot lines are good and the message is good from what I saw. I really liked when Kimmy said that they shouldn’t let fear rule their lives because the worst thing that ever happened to her happened right in her front yard. We so often shy away from doing things because of fear… but we fear the wrong things.

  2. Pingback: 2015 Was Amaze And Shit: Clarissa’s Year In Review! | A Feminist Trash TV & Pop Culture Blog

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