Strong as Hell: The Radical Empathy and Irony of ‘ Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

“Unbreakable! They alive, dammit! It’s a miracle! Unbreakable! They alive, dammit! Females are strong as hell!”

As the opening credits, an Auto-Tuned parody interview with a neighbor who witnesses the rescue of the Indiana mole women, faded into a few harmonized “ooohhs” and its prescient concluding words “That’s gonna be, uh… you know, a fascinating transition,” I already knew two things. First of all, this song would probably be in my head until the day I die: an ear-worm that would re-surface at 4 am in library cubicles to be loudly shouted at unsuspecting study buddies, a soaring anthem that I would softly chant to propel myself through the final mile of my run. No doubt, the theme song of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was going to claim it’s rightful place alongside its notable motivational predecessors, “Live every week like it’s Shark Week!” and “Hollaback Girl (This Shit is Bananas).”

Secondly, as footage of little girls posing in tutus and swinging from monkey bars juxtaposed with that of four women emerging from their fifteen year imprisonment in an underground bunker  flashed across the screen, I knew that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt  was going to be an entirely different version of female survival and strength than any I had previously seen on television. Kimmy Schmidt  was not going to be Arya Stark triumphantly slitting Polliver’s throat with Needle, reveling in his spurting blood and her revenge, and lulling herself to sleep with a chorus of Valar morghulis. Nor was it going to depict another Leslie Knope optimistically dreaming her most insurmountable obstacle, a unfilled pit, into a community park and confidently speaking out against sexist microaggressions with passion and wit.

Don’t get me wrong- I love both these fictional women with all my heart, and willingly confess that have often imagined us all staying up late into the night, sharing the secrets of our lives and braiding each other’s hair over half-devoured pizzas. But apart from this slumber party in the sky scenario, there aren’t many other spaces, fictional or otherwise, for the reconciling overlap of the unabashed anger that reels against endured injustice  and the impenetrable optimism that creates change through its stubborn refusal to accept any other outcome. These ways of existing in the world  often seem mutually exclusive, and if so, as Sylvia Plath rather succinctly put it, “I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days” (for a more concrete, contemporaneous articulation of this sentiment, see any question and discussion ever regarding “women having it all” as either an exceptional or impossible feat).  Although women’s lives often emerge from a long tradition of navigating and embodying contradictions, of floating in the liminal space between mutually exclusive categories, the women presented by popular culture often fall short of portraying this reconciliation as a source of both struggle and strength.

But then along came Kimmy Schmidt, a bizarre and yet inevitable combination of the violent darkness of survival dramas  and the good-natured buoyancy of satirical comedy that enacts the co-existence of the bleak residue of trauma with Kimmy’s unmitigated enthusiasm for life and her unaffectedly  generous love for her fellow human beings. In the course of a single episode, sometimes in the same breath,  Kimmy jokes about her recurrent nightmares and PTSD attacks, then offers bright, aphoristic declarations of resilience. She unconsciously chokes her roommate Titus in his sleep, nonchalantly describes waking up in her shower cleaning a knife, physically attacks Charles when he flirtatiously covers her eyes with his hands from behind, attempts to “take things to the next level” with Logan by covering his mouth with her hand and trying to overpower him, and is inexplicably triggered by Velcro. She also proves the human embodiment  of a fluorescent exclamation mark, effusively blurting out “We’re different! We’re the strong ones!,” “Smile until you feel better! I call it Kimmy-ing,” and “I still believe the world is good. That bunnies are nice and snakes are mean. And that someday Sandra Bullock will find someone who deserves her!” When handled with less finesse, these moments might ring hollow,  insincere, prescriptive, or belittling. But Ellie Kemper  manages to convey a slight edge of occasional sarcasm and underlying tension that transforms  Kimmy’s brightness into an act of defiance rather than an act of ease.  Let me remind you, this show is predominantly hilarious.

Any comedy attempting to elicit laughter from an individualized darkness teeters precariously on the verge of trivializing it, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remains gracefully poised at the edge of the abyss, careful to aim its’ satirical focus at the absurdity of the script that surrounds trauma instead of the experience of surviving it.  Like Kimmy herself, fleeing for New York City and a future not wholly defined by perceptions of her past, the show manages to escape the traditional narratives of victimhood and in doing so, somewhat radically acknowledges that a narrative exists which necessitates escape. Finally freed from her imprisonment in the bunker,  Kimmy emerges into the confinement of a defining social script which exploits her story for entertainment and sends her off into the sunlight with cries of “Thank you victims! Thank you victims!”  The show itself however writes a different script for Kimmy, and therein lies its central radical act: it finds entertainment in her journey of healing rather than in the grisly, opaquely referenced details of her ordeal.  It locates her unbreakability in her brokenness, and yet still somehow manages not to glorify its horrible source.

But beneath this obvious disruption lies a much more subtle and, for me, personally resonant subversion: the show’s quiet usage of empathy as a means of transmuting the survival of suffering into the life that comes afterwards. I have known many remarkable and resilient women in my life who have endured a wide range of the unimaginable, and I qualify this because everyone finds their own particular answers for the unanswerable, their own methods for generating meaning from inexplicable pain. But my recourse,  in my own search to reconcile anger and forgiveness, has been, to put it bluntly and rather ineloquently, to ask myself  “If  I can’t use my own painful experiences to better understand and at least partially alleviate the pain of others, then what’s the fucking point of it all?” I found it strange and inexpressibly moving to find an answering echo to that question here of all places, a largely ludicrous sitcom that pulled me in with the words “I’m pretty, but tough like a diamond. Or beef jerky in a ballgown.”

But here it was, as Kimmy comforted a (faintly monstrous) little boy who could not wait to open his birthday presents with the words “Just take it ten seconds at a time. I’ve found that anything is bearable for ten seconds at a time.” The situational irony becomes the audience’s oblique knowledge of the weight behind her anything. But Kimmy refuses these distinctions and tiers of experiences, instead distilling the horrific into small hopeful drops of encouragement which she indiscriminately dispenses. In one of my favorite scenes of all time, Kimmy mistakes her Upper East Side future employer, Jacqueline, who cannot venture outside due to a face peel, for the victim of another cult. The satirical truth of this association resonates in the laughter it provokes but to Kimmy, who points to the portrait of  Jacqueline’s husband and stage whispers “Is that your Reverend? Did he peel your face? Do you need help?, ” it becomes a moment of pure empathy that verges on terror.  Much later on in the season, as Jacqueline navigates her divorce proceedings, Kimmy says “You know, when I used to get really sad in the place where I used to live, I would smile and jump up and down and say, “I’m not really here. I’m not really here.” The two then proceed to jump up and down exuberantly chanting  “I’m not really here!” as if the words possessed the transportational powers of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

These moments, although endearingly funny, prove more than just punchlines. They are the milestones which summon up rare flashbacks to her life in the bunker and the markers  by which she manufactures meaning in her present life. Kimmy only ever consciously looks back to salvage compassion and insight in order to assuage someone else’s present. But lest we forget and idealize too much, Kimmy still screams in her sleep and bites other people’s nails. Them females are strong as hell indeed, but their strength does not diminish that of the hell from which they emerged. But from this darkness, Tina Fey makes us laugh uncontrollably because that’s what Tina Fey does, and dammit, it’s a miracle!

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5 responses to “Strong as Hell: The Radical Empathy and Irony of ‘ Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

  1. Fantastic review. I binge-watched all 13 episodes nonstop and have been trying to write something that expresses the subversive brilliance of this show. You’ve done it for me. Would you mind if I reblogged this?

    • Thank you so much! The show is so marvelous it took me a few weeks to even attempt to do it justice. Feel free to re-blog- I’d consider it an honor 🙂

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