Here’s an interesting wrinkle about streaming TV: before I’d even gotten to one episode of Tina Fey’s new comedy show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (and had its theme song stuck in my head for the last week) there were already plenty of articles about its representations (plural; as you’ll see from my last line of this post, some are more successful than others) of race, and as part of that it’s Native American subplot. By the time I had watched the entire season, spread over several weeks like a sane person, the think piece cycle was on its second or third revolution: “It’s racist,” “It’s not racist,” “It’s subversive,” “maybe it’s kind of racist?” The Netflix model had given us a seasons’ worth of hot takes and think pieces in only a few days.
You’d think that would mean I was off the hook, that I didn’t have to write an article since so many existed, so first off, thank you worried internet think piece writers; it’s nice to know that you actually thought about us. It’s nice to know what people know consider our opinions. That’s progress. Though, part of me was a bit suspicious about how much of that hand-wringing was also driven by the need for content and since very few of those were written by Native people and since my academic area is Native Americans in film I figured I was kind of required by some unwritten blog code to write something about the show.
My first response to finding out there was a Native American subplot was like it always is when I find out there are Native American characters in something made by Non-Native filmmakers:
Not that it’s bad thing. It’s great to see Native characters in stuff as well as seeing Native actors getting work. But it’s means that I feel like I have to take off my casual viewer hat and put on my Indians on TV Helmet, which is a combination of bracing for disappointment and/or disgust (informed by decades of experience), as well as my invisible academic lab coat for possible future paper writing topics. In short, it’s a different, active viewership.
The plot of the show, for those of you who aren’t aware or have managed to avoid the ubiquitous articles about it, concerns Kimmy Schmidt a somewhat naive but plucky and incredibly optimistic 30 year old (the perfectly cast Ellie Kemper; this show finally gives her the right role that allows her to mix her sweet and intense sides of her humor) who is suddenly released from the underground bunker she was trapped in by a crazy preacher for 15 years (now, a show with her and Daniel from Rectify, that would be something). She decides to move to New York, as one is wont to do in sitcoms, and gets a job working for the mega-wealthy and out of touch Jacqueline Voorhees (played by Jane Krakowksi who is just playing Jenna from 30 Rock, but we don’t mind at all). How do Indians fit in? Well, it turns out Jacqueline (formerly Jackie Lynn) is Lakota and left South Dakota to pursue her dreams of having a lifestyle of the rich and famous. In flashbacks we see her disagree with her parents, Fern and Virgil, played by Sherri Foster (Shouting Secrets) and Gil Birmingham (The Twilight Series), about the value of tradition and we realize that part of her pursuit meant suppressing her Native heritage.
Disclaimer: I’m not in a position to give you permission to laugh or not, and that would be the end of comedy if people had to give permission for others to laugh at things. And I am not in a position to say if something is acceptable for everyone in a community. With those disclaimers out of the way, here were my observations which ended up taking the form of a 10 point list:
1) First, it’s cool to be included. It feels like a minor victory when Native Americans even make a list of minorities, so it’s nice that Native Americans were on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s cultural radar and included in their new show. One of my great fears is that a concern about Native representation could possibly result in people being so worried about it that they will just not include us in anything at all.
2) It’s a comedy, but what’s more it’s a Tina Fey comedy. Like 30 Rock, it’s not very realistic. None of the characters have any sort of verisimilitude and are stuck in a similar, somewhat surreal, pop-culture infused arrested development. Jacqueline’s parents get to be goofy and silly like everyone else, which is nice. Especially because one of the most annoying myths is that Native Americans are stoic, overly serious people, and that can’t be further from my own experience. Humor has been a key to survival, and Fern and Virgil are funny, which is the most important requirement in comedy.
3) Another major myth, and an especially dangerous one that media has helped perpetuate is that Native Americans exist in the past. Either physically, as in we all died out, or intellectually, as in we’re not caught up with modern society. The most important, progressive aspect of Fern and Virgil is that they know their pop culture. In one of my favorite moments, Virgil mentions Gizmo’s Barbie car from Gremlins. Not only do these characters exist in the contemporary world, but they are aware of it, and know about it enough to joke about it. Yes, they do run a Buffalo ranch which feels kind of stereotypical but I’m sure some Native Americans might have that job, but Virgil was also a pilot in the Air Force, which not only further demonstrates a presentness, but also points to the important aspect that military service plays in many Native American lives and communities.
Also, Virgil and Fern are spot on names for older Native American characters.
4) Jacqueline is part of a specific tribe. Sure, the Lakota specifically and plains Indians in general have largely become the iconic pop-culture image of Indians, but one of the problems with Hollywood has been the idea of a generalized “Native America.” We make up over 500 nations with vastly different religions, languages, culture, economic and social structures, etc, so it’s nice that Jacqueline is identified as a specific tribe and we have references to specific parts of that culture, including the language. And that’s a big deal, I think.
5) Not all of the Indian-based jokes worked for me. Some felt a bit, how do I say this…like they were obviously written by White people for Indian characters. But if anything, those jokes that didn’t work felt like they were trying to subvert stereotypes, and there were still moments of actual Indian humor. Indian humor is tough to describe; it’s deadpan, playful yet detached, and has multiple levels of irony. A good example that’s been able to be presented in mainstream culture is Jonathan Joss and his work on Parks & Rec or King of the Hill (the King of the Hill episode “Redcorn Gambles With his Future,” might be the most successful example of Indian humor making its way into mainstream media).
6)My favorite joke of the entire series was “Indian Sears.” It’s an Airplane-esque visual gag but there’s a lot going on in it.
7) I mentioned that there isn’t verisimilitude in the show, but Jacqueline’s experience speaks to a real Native American experience. In fact, her character arc might be the more interesting one of any of the characters (bonus points for letting a Native character grow and change). Some Native Americans have been taught or had instilled upon them an idea that they have to give up their Native cultures or identities to succeed in the world. And Jacqueline appears to have bought into this idea, in large part because of media and pop-culture influences, so it’s interesting to see this at work in a work of pop-culture.
Also, one of the unique and annoying parts of Native life is that it sometimes feels like you have to continually prove to other people that you’re Indian. That goes back to Government policy: African Americans had the one drop rule to perpetuate segregation, and we had blood quantum to prove we have enough blood to count as Indian to perpetuate a narrative of disappearance. This sets up really absurd and awkward situations where culture is measured in arbitrary, complex fractions and it also seems to mean that EuroAmerican culture wants its Indians to be authentic, not just in culture but in genetics. If you don’t look Indian (ie. like a plains Indian from an Edward Curtis photograph) you are viewed with suspicion. And that’s a real, and painful experience of some people. There are lots of blonde Indians here in Oklahoma, and I say that not for all of those who claim a Cherokee Princess on some distant branch of their family tree, but that genetics are a weird thing. 500 years of mixing has gone on with a number of other cultures and races so there are Indian families where one sibling will look like an Indian from a truck-stop romance novel cover and another might have blonde hair. I don’t say this to justify having a non-Native actress in the role, but in the show’s context the casting and the conversation around it can be used to talk about something constructive.
9) Jacqueline’s arc also values the contemporary vitality of tradition. Her rich, Manhattanite culture is the one that’s shown as out of touch and ridiculous; her Lakota upbringing is what helps her navigate through an emotional crisis, as well as out of Brooklyn with its hipsters on penny-farthings.
10) Sure, a Native Actress would have been awesome. Though as I said earlier, Jacqueline is Jenna Maroney; it would be difficult to think of her being played by anyone else than Jane Krakowski. It does make for an initially awkward visual, but because her arc is about her passing as a white person, having a non-Native actress seems somewhat understandable in this situation. Whitewashing is done to erase or silence non-White characters and cultures, to reinforce the dominant Euro-American norms, and that doesn’t’ seem to be the intent here (see previous points).
As you’ve probably been able to tell, my reaction has been largely positive (then again, with anything related to Native Americans in film or TV the harmful examples are so numerous, and set the bar so terribly low that any positive representation is well-received). In the end, the important thing about media representations of Native Americans characters is that they are allowed to be real, complex people with agency; not scenery, not cultural props, not metaphors, not New Age signifiers, not plot devices. Once again, nobody in the show is particularly complex, but Virgil and Fern are given comedic agency within the show’s universe at the same level of its other non-Native characters. Stereotypes may be employed, though usually to upend them. A significant measure of comedic ethics, if such a thing exists, is related to structures of power, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt places its Native characters on largely equal comedic footing with the rest of its characters. It appears that Jackie Lynn’s homecoming will be a significant part of the show’s second season, so we’ll have to see how the show does giving its Native characters more significant screen time and presents Indian Country.
Now, Dong might be a whole other story but I’ll leave that to Asian-American writers…