In the third episode of this season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the Internet gets outraged. This is mostly expressed by other people expressing in-real-life outrage at the digital outrage—Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) goes through a “face journey” at the public library to process what they’re saying about him—but later in the episode, the Internet appears, in the guise of a self-appointed Asian-American anti-defamation league. (Their name is “Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment,” which boils down to a poorly chosen acronym.)
You see, Titus is putting on a one-man show about his life, and he believes himself to be the reincarnation of a geisha named Murasaki. In the posters for “Kimono You Didn’t!”, because he is dressed as her, he is in what we might call, under some circumstances, yellowface. The “advocacy group” hasn’t seen his show yet, but they object all the same, in poorly defined principle; when Titus explains that he is a reincarnation of Murasaki, one member scoffs at the idea of multiple lives. His colleague—a Hindu Asian-American—is, understandably, rather miffed. Titus makes the list of their “top five Hitlers of all time—real Hitler’s not even on the list!”—and later, a member of the group dissolves in a blinding light, having managed to mortally offend herself. The Internet, far from being that special place where “Beyoncé and the president live,” becomes, briefly, “just anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses.”
This is all rather pointed. Season one of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” ruffled quite a few feathers with a storyline—continued, without appearing to even slow down, in season two—in which the very white Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) turned out to be “secretly” Native American. It’s an uncomfortable Matryoshka of assumptions—about passing, about privilege, about white-person assumptions of the disposability of racial identity—and naturally, it caused some consternation. To quote Libby Hill, at Vulture:
The fact is, no matter what Krakowski looks like, we are asked to believe the character is Native American, a device that only serves to add color to the backstory of a character played by a very white actress. If we take the show at its word, we are laughing at a Native American woman who felt so uncomfortable in her skin and in not being a member of the dominant culture, she sold her soul to look the way she thought she should. That’s not funny; it’s disturbing.
Of course, the fact that critics like Hill took umbrage with this representation produced other reactions, which mostly scolded the first responders for being frustrated and/or not understanding comedy. Kevin O’Keeffe snipped a response to Hill’s Vulture piece, over at Mic: “What Hill calls ‘lip service’ and ‘subtle details’ someone else might call ‘background’ and ‘character development.’"
The ecosystem of outrage would not be complete without returning to the source for more take-fodder; and indeed, that’s exactly what happened last year. Even though Tina Fey refused to discuss or explain the Native-American plotline on the show, her approach became a headline of its own. “Why Tina Fey Doesn’t Care if You Think ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Is Offensive,” reads Cinemablend, while the Huffington Post observes that “After ‘Kimmy Schmidt,’ Tina Fey Is Done Explaining Her Jokes to You People.”
In this day and age, what we find problematic sparks a predictable media cycle—perhaps because “problematic,” an overused, nonspecific term, doesn’t satisfy anyone, but mostly because “problematic” sells. An item of pop culture—often a comedy—creates a provocative moment. People are provoked, and talk about it on the Internet. People hear about said provocation, and are provoked either to agree or to disagree. Somewhere along the way, a few people might write something really insightful or brilliant on the topic—my favorite essay on Jacqueline Voorhees’ Secret Sioux identity is this one, by Jacqueline Keeler. Somewhere else along the way, someone might apologize. And in general, a lot of the major parties express a lot of disgust with the process, one way or another. Some viewers criticize Fey; Fey criticizes the Internet; journalists ask Fey and Carlock, at their next press conferences, how they are incorporating the critiques into future work; and then season two comes out, and the cycle begins all over again.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is more than a little facile in its depiction of snotty Internet know-it-alls—speaking as an Asian-American snotty know-it-all, myself. If Asian-Americans worried about misrepresentation were to picket every single piece of pop culture that flattened, stereotyped, whitewashed, or otherwise erased their entire existence, they would have their hands full picketing classics like “Madame Butterfly” and “The Mikado,” when not highlighting every time a fashion designer or perfume advertisement drops the word “exotic.” They—we—have our hands full with Coldplay in China and Beyoncé in India, with Chris Rock seemingly pitting black people against Asian-Americans, with casting news that seemingly daily seems to erase the Asian experience from American cinema, whether that is Natalie Portman in “Annihilation” or Scarlett Johansson in “The Ghost In the Shell.” It’s difficult to imagine, with all of these other issues weighing on us, that any Asian-American activist would find the time to make an example of Titus’ one-man show in a dingy Greenpoint theater.
At the same time, though, the episode is aware of the fact that Titus in geisha drag raises some red flags—many red flags, in fact. Titus has trouble selling his premise in the posters, and has even more trouble explaining his belief that he once was Murasaki to the disbelieving picketers. Even an average viewer of the show, who in all likelihood adores Titus, would have to acknowledge that the flamboyant and narcissistic Mr. Andromedon is more than capable of hurting people’s feelings, especially if it were to stand in the way of his own theatrical self-expression. (To make that extra-clear, the season premiere, “Kimmy Goes Roller Skating!” is about how Titus jilted his ex-wife—and stole her bridal cape!—which led to, naturally, some injured emotions all around.)
To be sure, Titus’ musical allows “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to pack in some self-pitying meta-commentary. The uniquely creator-driven sulkiness of misunderstood or underappreciated art turns out to be the “correct” opinion, when midway through the performance of “Kimono You Didn’t!” the Asian-American activists find themselves truly moved.
But more than political commentary, Fey and Carlock seem to be musing on the specific travails of creation and conversation. The problem with Titus’ art isn’t that it is offensive, but that it must be advertised and packaged somehow; the problem with the activists isn’t that they can’t understand it, but that they logistically just haven’t seen it yet. Buried within some snark about creators’ relationship to their largely anonymous online critics is a much sweeter ideal—one of performance art’s ability to communicate, include and transform. Ideally, Titus’ art would not need the packaging of advertisement or stated intentions—his performance would just flow to his audience, without any need to entice viewers or turn a profit. Ideally, no one would ever misunderstand a good intention.
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Whether or not “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is well-intentioned is open to argument, of course. But as I only realized when Emily Nussbaum wrote about Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) as a resilient rape victim, the Netflix comedy has hidden depths; a complex structure whose brilliance is partly conveyed in how simple it all seems. In season one, Kimmy’s journey outside the bunker was about reclaiming a snatched-away life by embracing the Technicolor world she’d been denied for 15 years. The show’s theme song—one of my favorites currently on television—is an anthem of empathy for some of the most victimized people on the planet.
In season two, Kimmy’s attention must turn from survival to that other, subtler and more complicated goal of post-victimhood: contentment. Which means that season two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a smorgasbord of identities, and the people who uncomfortably choose to inhabit them. It’s not all just gay black men who are the reincarnation of Japanese geishas, either—Titus goes on a date with a construction worker (Mikey, played by Mike Carlsen) who isn’t out to his coworkers, hipsters infiltrate the neighborhood and get on Lillian (Carol Kane)’s nerves, Jacqueline navigates life as a single woman with a renewed passion for giving back to the tribe she left behind. Every character picks up and toys around with new modes of being, whether that is in a relationship status, a life mission, or an economic class. It’s a giddy and slightly terrifying amusement park of possibilities, and episode by episode, we’re offered the chance to watch each character choose to be a certain kind of person, with the stereotypes and perks that each entails.
In some ways, this is part of Fey’s lifelong affection for New York City as a monument to perpetual self-reinvention. In other ways, this focus on creating identity is a sharp assessment of the stages of post-traumatic recovery. And more politically, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”’s interest in identities, in season two comes from having destroyed its own power structure in season one. On CBC’s “Q,” panelist Stephen Marche observed: “Straight white men have no presence on this show… [season one] was anti-patriarchal comedy. This is post-patriarchal.” It’s a brilliant observation. The entitled white men of season one, be it the Reverend (Jon Hamm) or Jacqueline’s manipulative husband Julian (Mark Harelik), have been expelled from the show’s universe. And because those men are the ones who would enforce racial, gender, or sexual hierarchies on the other characters—on the rest of the world—season two of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is infused with a special kind of utopian liberation, one where the great experiment of being is all anyone is concerned with.
To me, this clarifies much of “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” and, indeed, some of the more tangled elements of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Robert Carlock and Tituss Burgess about the episode. Burgess says that when he first read the script, his response was “Oh no,” but he was then reassured by the authenticity of Titus’ investment in the role. Co-showrunner Carlock adds a bit more insight.
But is it offensive? Carlock is wondering, too.
“We wanted to play with those ideas of perception and appropriation and it seemed like a funny double bind that he really believes he was that person, so is it offensive for him to portray that person? Maybe,” Carlock adds. “In a world of racial identification, it seems like, let's put our oar in and see what happens when our African-American character believes that he was once an Asian woman.”
It’s not said enough, perhaps, that creators like Fey and Carlock create provocation simply to take the temperature of the (very large and mostly online) room. To some degree, there’s a bit of sly self-congratulation involved with tossing a grenade like gay-black-man-geisha-drag at the Internet—deconstruct this, Twitter!—but there’s some earnest exploration there, too. Neither Fey or Carlock are so naïve as to claim that they “don’t see race.” But I think they also both hope for a world where we can embrace and even be amused by differences in identity, without marginalizing someone; as humorists, they almost have to believe that comedy derived from difference is a good thing for the world.
In that sense, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is a kind of test balloon for that idealism. From what I’ve seen of season two, it’s funnier and sweeter and snarkier than ever, and partly that’s because it continues to walk a high-wire between stereotype and bland uniformity, between “colorblindness” and racial discrimination. It feels very much like a totemic show for New York City, the American capital of cosmopolitanism and reinvention, where the main thing we ask of each other is to stay out of our way as we are walking down the street—or to help us up, if we happen to topple off of our six-inch platform heels, not that I’m speaking from experience.
“Kimmy Goes to a Play!” hurls a challenge at the Internet, yes—and at writers like me, the opinion-having, judgy-types. But the challenge is not to erase our sense of offendedness; it’s to think about what happens past line-by-line injustices and intolerances, past micro-aggression and macro-oppression. It challenges us to believe in a better world, where anyone can reinvent themselves. I, for one, am all in.