As someone who never really got into 30 Rock the way many of my peers did (that show was at its height during my evangelical days, and the cultural overlap was minimal at the time; I’ve considered revisiting it, but I’m not sure how well it would hold up in the present), I walked into The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with minimal expectations last year when the first season went up on Netflix. I was intrigued because it stars an Office alumna, Ellie Kemper, but seeing that Tina Fey was one of the creators suggested that it would probably be more in the madcap style of 30 Rock. Rachael and I gave the show a chance because the premise–a woman has to reintegrate into society after fifteen years stuck in a cult–resonated with us as somewhat recent expatriates from the white evangelical subculture.
We ended up loving it.
Now, the second season has been released, and we’re slowly making our way through it (we’re about halfway through the season at the time of writing). On the whole it’s still a very good show, but one thing that was more of an annoyance in the first season is on full display in the second. The show is full to the brim with examples of white feminism.
What I mean when I refer to “white feminism” is relatively straightforward; it’s a mode of feminist ideology that privileges the experiences and concerns of white women over other marginalized groups. The recent popular push towards intersectional feminism in the last decade or so has been a direct response to the problems of white feminism, which tends to overlook how axes of privilege can lead to one marginalized group oppressing another marginalized group. The intersectional model is why it’s so important to me as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian man (I win the privilege jackpot on at least five axes!) to be careful about what I say and to recognize that I’m going to miss stuff that other people with more lived experience of oppression will see easily.
Going back to Kimmy Schmidt, we have to acknowledge upfront that for all the interesting stuff the show’s doing in relation to issues of trauma and class relationships, it’s remarkably off when discussing race. The first season had a couple weird bits, like making penis jokes about the name of Kimmy’s Vietnamese love interest Dong and revealing that Jaqueline Vorhees, the embodiment of rich white privilege on the show, is a member of the Sioux nation who ran away to New York to try to pass as white (and who is played by the very white actress Jane Krakowski), but these were passing moments of insanity in an otherwise very good season.
With Season Two… well. The first episode involves a subplot where Jaqueline returns to her parents’ home and tries to reconnect with her heritage but fails so badly that her parents, at a loss for what to do, suggest she return to New York and continue living as a white woman. The third episode revolves around Titus putting on a one man show about one of his previous lives, Murasaki the geisha (within the universe of the show, I think we’re supposed to accept as given that Titus really has had past lives), which he performs in costume as a geisha. In that episode an internet community of Asian people show up to protest Titus’s show, and it’s expected that we’re supposed to side against the people who are upset about cultural appropriation.
On a side note, I watched that episode the same day all the recent news was breaking about how Dreamworks had been exploring CGI technology to make the white actors in their upcoming adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (a thoroughly Japanese story if there ever was one) look Asian instead of, y’know, just casting Asian actors in the first place. This coincidence did not help warm me to the episode.
Beyond that, you also have the ongoing subplot of Lillian the landlady’s rebellion against the tide of gentrification in her poor neighborhood. This subplot does have some poignancy to it (the episode where she explains that she doesn’t want hipsters moving in and repurposing the local greasy spoon because that place holds a lot of memories of her and her dead husband is honestly touching), but the beats that Lillian hits, like her dismay at the removal of a graffiti mural of Notorious BIG and her attempts to stir up notoriety for a fictional Latino gang in order to make the neighborhood seem less appealing to white outsiders, seem misplaced. As far as I can tell, Lillian doesn’t have a specific ethnic identity that could tie her to one of the burroughs of New York City, so her protests come across as one kooky white lady getting upset about the invasion of affluent white people without addressing any of the complexities of ethnic and racial identity that are often intertwined with less wealthy neighborhoods in big cities (go read this essay by Osvaldo Oyola examining this precise issue through the lens of Ben Grimm and his fictional neighborhood of Yancy Street in the Marvel Comics universe). It’s somewhat more subtle, but no less problematic, than Titus’s outfit and makeup designed to make him look like a Japanese geisha.
I’m not sure what’s left to see in the second half of the season (I’ll probably know by the time this post goes up), but I’m really hoping that the show backs off of its weird racial appropriation schtick.