Female empowerment is a big part of feminism and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a relatively recent Netflix original that packs a lot of empowerment, giving it quite the feminist edge.
The title character Kimmy, is a survivor of an abduction/hostage situation. A religious fanatic kept her in an underground bunker with three other women for several years and the series opens with her rescue. She moves to New York City to start the life she’s always wanted, meeting other characters along the way and trying to figure out life above ground.
Even though this sounds like a terrifying episode of Dateline that would keep you up for days, the show is a comedic look at a serious situation which is part of the feminist appeal. Female characters are often categorized as weak and portrayed as being very fragile, so a man can rescue them. Kimmy is different because she is rebuilding herself and does not have or want a man to rescue her. The show’s characterization has taken the “female victim” trope and turned it on its head.
Throughout the show, Kimmy engages with all kinds of people (LGBTQ+, black, white, varying socio-economic classes, etc.) which gives the show a lot of intersectional characterization. Although representation of intersectional identities is one of the show’s strong suits, it is also its biggest downfall.
One of the characters, Jacqueline Voorhees is a woman who married a very wealthy man and defined herself by that status, but throughout the show she figures out more of an independent identity. Jacqueline is Native American and she supposedly dyed her hair and got contacts to hide her original features because she was ashamed of her background. The bigger issue though, is that Jane Krakowski – a white woman – plays Jacqueline.
Proper, accurate representation of intersectional identities in media is a big problem that Hollywood has been trying and failing to remedy for years. White people have been dominating the industry and playing people of all background, donning variations of blackface , yellow face and more to white wash other races and make their portrayal more attractive and profitable. The attractive element goes back to white being the standard of beauty, and of course there are more well-known white actors in Hollywood so their appearances are more profitable.
Krakowski is a great actress who has a history with the show’s creator, Tina Fey, but that is no excuse for casting her to play a different race. The portrayal of Native Americans and Asians in the show is problematic and stereotypical. Some have argued that is more satire, but not bothering to cast someone of Native descent sort of cancels out that theory.
Although Kimmy Schmidt does a great job of empowering women and giving a female lead a compelling, victim-free storyline the show struggles with intersectionality and representation, making it guilty of white feminism. The show is on its second season, so hopefully in the future the casting is more intersectional and strategic and the writers listen to the controversy and try to better define their satire while improving their problematic portrayals.