I really do like Tina Fey. Look into my heart and you’ll find Joe Jonas circa 2009 and the Fey/Fallon “Weekend Update” era. And, I’m a fan of Fey’s joint creation with Robert Carlock, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Really, I am. It makes me laugh and it introduced the world to Tituss Burgess, whose Instagram videos I send to all of my friends because this man is just so incredibly funny and I want everyone in my life to know him. (Discloser: My friends don’t ever care, but I send them Tituss’s videos anyway.)
But Tina Fey, self-proclaimed feminist and anti-Trump activist, has always had an obviously problematic relationship with race in personal rhetoric and on-screen projects.
A lot of the jokes and plot lines in “Unbreakable” are just… weird. And I’m not talking about Titus’s claim that he ate Grammy award winner Dionne Warwick (Maya Rudolph) or that Jacqueline’s boyfriend (David Cross) was ran over by a car and emerged from surgery a beautiful man with an entirely different face and body (Billy Mangussen, aka Rapunzel’s Prince.)
I’m talking about the fact that Jane Krakowski plays Jacqueline White, a Native American woman fulfilling her dreams of being a white woman. We were first introduced to this bizarre backstory in the third episode of the first season of “Unbreakable,” and I remember staring at my laptop screen and honestly questioning whether or not I was awake, because there was absolutely no way what was happening before me was a real plot line on a Netflix original in the year 2016.
But yet, we see a flashback of Jacqueline, formerly “Jackie Lynn,” trying to help her parents understand that she just wants to be like the white girls in her Sears fashion magazine.
We see that Jane Krakowski’s skin has been brushed with bronzer, giving her a darker skin tone. And later in the episode we even see her character without her fake blue contacts, revealing Jacqueline’s true Native American brown eyes.
The idea that Jackie Lynn so desperately wants to be a gorgeous white woman dowsed in an Upper East Side lady-who-lunches lifestyle doesn’t bother me. It’s good comedy, because we know that Jacqueline’s wish came true but her new life is actually a complete mess and the fellow wealthy white New Yorkers she surrounds herself with are hilariously terrible people. So, moral of the story, white people aren’t always the greatest! Who knew?
No, but really, moral of the story is that “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has some very weird and racist plot lines. Jane Krakowski’s skin tone was literally darkened to pull her off as a Native American.
We saw Titus dress as a geisha in season two for his one-man show, “Kimono You Didn’t.” There was Kimmy’s seemingly innocent Titus-dummy she created in the season three premiere to fill his absence. Kimmy put shorts on a black trash bag and gave it eyes and arms, prompting an even less socially aware Jacqueline to say “Oh, Kimmy, that’s bad. Don’t let anyone see that.”
The acknowledgment of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” race jokes could come across to some as PC-policing (please note: I visibly cringed while writing that phrase, every inch of my body protested) but there’s something about this show and its relationship with race that doesn’t sit well, and I think that’s a fair statement.
It’s almost as if “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” tries to blanket all of its iffy race jokes in Kimmy’s extreme naivety and lack of social awareness, you know, due to living in a brainwashed bunker for 15 years of her adolescent and adult life.
Titus’s character is immediately introduced to us as ridiculous and boisterously dramatic, which might be what the writers consider his pass.
There must be a lot of comedic genius in the ‘Unbreakable’ writers room, so why do they resort to these bizarre mockeries of race? With projects like 30 Rock and her Golden Globes monologues, we’ve seen Tina Fey’s pattern of hitting-and-missing with race jokes. She’s funny, and her stuff is funny, but there’s always been a sense of “Wait…was that ok?”
And, I don’t know, did they think they were getting a pass with Daveed Diggs’s “woke” character who calls out white people for touching his hair? Just a thought.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” does have a recurring element of white ignorance though, which we see right away with the newly-independent mole women’s appearance on the Today Show. “Fifteen years living with these other women, and yet you still never learned to speak English,” said Matt Lauer, appearing as himself, to former captive Donna Maria. While the other women laugh at such a silly way of speaking, Donna Maria retaliates in her native language with “These bitches didn’t learn any, Spanish, so…”
And in what was possibly my favorite scene of season three, Jacqueline hijacks a meeting of Redskins owners in a cross-season attempt to convince them to change their team’s culturally offensive name. (It’s weird, some stuff the show does get right? I don’t know.)
We already know that the owner, Orson Snyder (Harris Yulin), is a proud money-obsessed man and also really gross. It turns out that in the ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ world, and maybe the real one, the rest of the Redskins owners are also just as gross and comically don’t care about anything other than themselves and their money.
The people in this board meeting are the funniest reflection of the stubborn, spineless, completely socially unaware Republicans that sit in Congress today and, frustratingly, interact with me personally almost every day.
Jacqueline tries to explain that outrage sells, which is why the owners should change their jerseys by changing the team name. “Nothing motivates Americans like outrage,” she said. “Just look at the election.”
“The emails!” “No stamina!” “Her hair!” cry the brilliant Chris Parnell, Sam McMurray and Paula Pell (in an American flag bra.) Jacqueline reminds them of other groups that Trump-voting America hates, including immigrants, public-breastfeeders and the Harambe assailant. She takes the light off of the small group of offended Native Americans and sheds it on other conservative targets.
This scene is magnificent, not only because of its talent, but because of the accuracy. Fans might have laughed at these ridiculous people, but I see them every day. Welcome to the south.
It’s the people who are angry at everything, the ones who claim that those on the left are the sensitive snowflakes, the people who alienate almost every group but themselves and wonder why the term “rich white male” has suddenly been given a negative connotation.
The jokes on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” are smart and many have made me laugh at loud, honestly almost everything that comes out of Titus’s mouth does, but race on this show goes so back and forth.
Sometimes I’m in awe of the jokes that expose white ignorance, and sometimes I’m left with my eyebrows raised almost into my hairline because of a plotline that is so undeniably racist. But almost every bizarre and far-fetched ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ joke leaves the same sentiment that, well, this must be Tina Fey.