not in our stars, but in ourselves
Last week, I watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and thought it was hilarious, and enjoyed the hell out of it, and hoped for a second season ASAP. Whatever distant alarm bells went off during the Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) storyline (spoiler alert: she’s Lakota, but “passing” as white), I was able to ignore them – or, at least, not to examine them very closely.
Well, nuts to me. Earlier this week, I read “The Unbearable Whiteness of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“, a piece by Ijeoma Oluo. If you don’t know Oluo, you should. She’s incredibly sharp, smart, observant, and still funny as hell. For someone who fends off as much Twitter abuse as she does, she seems extremely well-adjusted. (I would be a wreck in her shoes.) Anyway, where I – privileged rich white girl – was able to laugh and have a grand old time, Oluo was not. She writes, “I’ve never seen a show with such a diverse cast that was written so obviously and exclusively for privileged white people.” She runs through each of the “minority” cast members: Donna Maria (Sol Miranda), a Mexican woman who was one of the four wives locked up in the underground bunker with Kimmy (Ellie Kemper); Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s gay black roommate; Jacqueline Vorhees, formerly Jackie Lynn, who dyed her hair blonde and wears blue contacts to look like the wealthy socialite she wants to be; and Dong (Ki Hong Lee), Kimmy’s Vietnamese study buddy in her GED class, who ends up falling in love with her. Basically, Uluo writes, these characters are all either the broadest of broad stereotypes: Donna Maria went into the bunker because she thought it was a cleaning job, because Mexican women are ALWAYS maids; Titus is a struggling actor who can’t figure out how to make it in New York – until Kimmy comes into his life; in a big moment of remembering her roots, Jacqueline feels the spirit of her ancestors flow through her as she figures out how to navigate using the sun as a guide; and Dong is good at math and lives in his family’s Chinese restaurant.
I mean, it sounds pretty bad when you lay it all out like that.
At this point, I bet a lot of white fans of the show would say, “So what?” Well…
Yeah. Yeah, pretty much.
It would be easy – as a white person – to dismiss all of this. “Well, obviously Titus’s storylines will revolve entirely around Kimmy. She’s the main character, and he’s the sidekick. That’s how sidekicks work!” True, but that doesn’t – and can’t – excuse lazy characterization and writing. It’s one thing for a diverse cast of characters to enter the picture only when the heroine needs them; it’s quite another for them to be one-note stereotypes. (I don’t think Titus is one-note – but the other characters-of-color certainly are.) It seems that Tina Fey et al. wanted to avoid being accused of whitewashing the cast, so they devised supporting characters that were explicitly written as Minorities – but then forgot to make them human beings. (Male authors often experience the same problem when they try to write female characters.)
I don’t think the show is doomed, but I think Fey would do quite well to listen to this kind of criticism, and to improve accordingly. She could certainly learn something from her friend Amy Poehler’s recently departed, sorely missed sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Without making much fuss out of it, without ever forgetting that these were all supposed to be human beings, Parks and Rec had one of the more diverse TV casts in recent memory. There was Donna Meagle, a black woman; Tom Haverford, an Indian man; Ann Perkins, a biracial woman; April Ludgate, a Puerto Rican; Ken Hotate, leader of the Wamapoke tribe; and assorted other guest stars and background characters. In all cases – whether the character was a POC or white – they were fully drawn and understood. They were round characters, not flat. And in the case of the POC characters, while race wasn’t the only thing that defined them, it also wasn’t treated as if it didn’t exist. It was a part of the character, not the entirety of the character. For a show as absurdist and off-the-wall as Parks could be, it was pretty realistic in its depiction of how people of different ethnic backgrounds work together: they just do it, and don’t make a big deal out of it.
So Tina, if you’re reading, please talk to Amy about how to write a diverse cast – which is a good thing! – without sacrificing acutely observed individuals for stock characters – which is a bad thing. Representation matters, but so does understanding and listening and not reducing a culture to a cheap joke for (only) white people to laugh at.
P.S. Oluo just wrote another piece, this one in The Guardian, about Starbucks’s ludicrous #RaceTogether campaign. Well worth a read. The crux:
Starbucks is a very diverse company, and reports that 40% of their employees as minorities – a commendable number. But when a company has a high percentage of low-wage minority employees serving people privileged enough to spend $5 a day on their coffee, it is not in any way appropriate to even suggest that those employees engage in racial public relations on your behalf. Unless Starbucks is planning on only having their white employees starting these conversations – which is not an effective way to have a dialogue about race – there is no way that asking a barista of color to bring the racial oppression that they live with everyday into the workplace is worth $9 an hour.
The race and class dynamics that put a comfortable white person in the same room with person of color whose employment relies on serving that white person fancy beverages makes these conversations inherently exploitative. You can’t have an honest conversation about race when it’s a conversation imposed or strongly encouraged by a wealthy white man who happens to be your boss. You can’t have an honest conversation about race with people whom you also have to make happy in order to pay your rent. And if you are a barista of color, and you choose to opt out of these conversations, you still have to continue to work in a place in which your experiences as a person of color are being discussed and debated.
Mmmmm hmm. This is not only a terrible idea from a clueless white businessman, it’s a terrible idea that will appeal only to the kind of over-privileged white dude who wears dreadlocks and pretends to be a hardcore feminist in order to score lots of confused, not-exactly-consented-to sex. Thankfully, my usual Starbucks is full of baristas who are entirely too busy to make chitchat, so I doubt I’ll have to witness much of this nonsense. I’m all for discussing race – but not at the behest of someone who literally cannot understand what it’s like to experience disadvantage on the basis of your very biology and skin color.