Racial Stereotypes Can Be Funny

The critics of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aren’t wrong. But they are missing the point.

Jane Krakowski as Jacqueline.

Screenshot via Netflix

Before I binge-watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I was very aware of the criticisms swirling around Tina Fey’s new show: about race, gender, and the politics of being an Asian dude who’s into redheads. I came into it having read this, and this, and this, prepared to have thoughts about whether the elements of Jacqueline’s Native American parents were offensive. I knew that as an Asian man married to a white woman I am contractually obligated to have thoughts about the character of Dong, Kimmy’s Asian suitor. My verdict? They weren’t offensive enough.

In general, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was awesome. It’s everything I loved about 30 Rock, with an added dose of something totally unexpected with Ellie Kemper’s performance as the titular 13-going-on-30 ’90s refugee.

An on-paper description of what Kimmy Schmidt is like—outdated teenage slang, using grotesquely exaggerated facial expressions as nonverbal punctuation, absurd overconfidence combined with childish naiveté—sounds obnoxious and unbearable. And indeed Kimmy is obnoxious and is unbearable and is also, at least for me and for most of the viewing audience, utterly lovable. And it’s all because of Kemper’s commitment to Kimmy being real. This is the kind of high-wire act that made 30 Rock great.

Clearly the premise, in which Schmidt and her three co-prisoners emerge from a doomsday cult after 15 years, is pretty dark. It’s darker if you remember the Ariel Castro case and realize that the most salient aspects of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s premise are clearly ripped from that particular headline—women being abducted one after another somewhere in the Midwest, those women being found a decade later, the media taking an unhealthy interest in their transition back to “real life,” and a black neighbor’s reaction becoming an autotuned viral video.

I’m a Clevelander. I’m incredibly disturbed that Ariel Castro lived a short drive away from where I live. I was one of the people incredibly creeped out by the Charles Ramsey viral video and by the impulse to make jokes about Castro. Making a sitcom about a fictionalized version of Gina DeJesus’ story of being kidnapped at 14 and having to learn to be an adult for the first time after 10 years? That shouldn’t be funny. And yet, somehow, it is.

Fey pulls this off partly by mixing enough elements from other headlines to soften the story and not make it 100 percent a commentary on the Castro case—it’s Ariel Castro plus one part doomsday cults like the Children of God. And in part it’s Fey’s deftness with a rapidly-paced script paired with total commitment from her actors that lets Kimmy’s trauma—details like the way she was forced to spend hours turning a “mystery crank” and hold up the missing legs of a table with her feet—be cartoonish and funny while also seeming real.

Or take Kimmy’s black, gay roommate Titus Andromedon, who has achieved instant viral status as an icon of a gay black man even though, on paper, he seems like the most offensive stereotype of a gay black man possible. The actor, Tituss Burgess, on whom Titus Andromedon is loosely based, had input in creating his character, and there’s a confidence to Titus—a sense that the writers are comfortable butting right up to “the line” and sticking a toe across it because they know where it is.

The writers play to the hilt the joke about Titus being “treated better as a werewolf than a black man.” Episode 5 has a subplot about Titus outing fellow kidnapping victim Cyndee’s boyfriend Brandon as gay, leaning heavily on gay jokes and gay stereotypes the whole time. But it never apologizes for it, and never makes it feel like the jokes reduce Titus or Brandon to two-dimensionality.

By contrast, Fey’s high-wire act loses its deftness with the revelation that Jacqueline is a Native American and the introduction of her parents. Same with the character of Dong, the Vietnamese immigrant who unexpectedly becomes Kimmy’s beau.

Unlike Titus Andromedon, Jacqueline’s parents don’t confidently dive into a stereotype to amplify it, mock it, and eventually show the humanity within it. Instead, they awkwardly go through a by-the-numbers stereotype of what people think an “Indian family” would look like only to immediately, weakly apologize for it. Jacqueline’s dad drops a random joke about flying to New York in an “iron sky eagle” only to clarify that of course he knows what a plane is, he was in the Air Force—a joke that no one would logically make to their own family, who presumably would already know that. Her parents live on a reservation (of course) and observe the Lakota Sun Dance (of course) and make a living as buffalo ranchers (of course) but throw in a diss of Kevin Smith to show they’re also modern Americans.

I also wish Dong had confidently grabbed the model minority stereotype by the horns to play with and mock it—maybe I’ve been spoiled by Fresh Off the Boat. Or I’d have liked Dong’s negative reaction to racism to become the source of some over-the-top humor—I see Sr. Chang’s explosive reaction to people questioning his ability to be a Spanish teacher in Community as a perfect gag, its own version of Titus trying to wear the werewolf costume 24/7 because being a werewolf improves his life.

Instead we get weaksauce stuff like Dong actually being good at math but Kimmy being chided for racism for saying so. Limp stuff like people making dick jokes about his name only for him to briefly comment that Kimmy also means penis in Vietnamese.

It’s now a stock joke that every white person who wants to spice up the family tree can claim having “Indian blood.” This is a stereotype that, oddly, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt never invokes or addresses, even though that stereotype was almost certainly the inspiration for the show writing Jacqueline as a passing Native American woman. And the fact that you can write Jacqueline as a passing Native American woman and not have people instantly see this as explosive, high-stakes material is exactly what rankles Native American cultural critics.

Compare the possible plotline of Tobias being a passing black man on Arrested Development. It’s a plotline the Arrested writers still haven’t addressed aside from dropping hints about it in dialogue and alluding to it interviews, because it’s so high-stakes and charged. There’s a very good chance that if they tried to do it they would fail horrifically, so perhaps that’s wise. But at least it wouldn’t feel as perfunctory and boring as Jacqueline’s parents do.

Similarly, Dong would’ve been groundbreaking 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago. But in a post-Selfie, post-Fresh Off the Boat world I just don’t care about him. Kimmy’s landlady Lillian gets a great line about how white women “swimming upstream” against negative stereotypes about Asian men can “clean up,” but Dong is, from top to bottom, a stereotype. He’s positively portrayed, but everything about that positive portrayal is straight-up model minority stuff—hardworking, smart, earnestly naive about sex and romance, unimpeachably innocent and well-intentioned.

Every single other important character on the show—Lillian, her boss Jacqueline, her roommate Titus, her fellow captives, her teenage frenemy Xanthippe, Kimmy herself—is a grotesque cartoon who is lovable despite the fact that in real life they’d be intolerable for all kinds of reasons. This only makes Dong, who would be a bland character on a “normal” sitcom, even more of a misstep.

Which is probably why even though Ki Hong Lee is a really good looking guy, there was zero chemistry or heat between Dong and Kimmy on-screen, whereas the previous show with a redhead white chick with an Asian dude love interest, Selfie, has this scene. It’s not a fair comparison. Selfie was built around Henry and Eliza’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance while Dong is a late introduction to the show. But that’s the point.

Tina Fey’s high-wire act is all about the alchemy of making it OK to laugh at big, heavy issues—like kidnapped women, the experience of undocumented Vietnamese immigrants, and people with Native American ancestry passing as white—by skimming over them with a light touch. Everyone who’s tried to walk an actual tightrope knows that the key is to walk confidently and calmly, to take a straight, smooth path without hesitating. Kimmy’s arc, Titus’ arc, the arc of Jacqueline’s divorce with her husband—these have that deftness of touch.

But if you lean too far to one side, and then try to lean back the other way to compensate—“Jacqueline’s dad is an Indian stereotype … but he was in the Air Force!” or “Dong is an awkward dork … but Kimmy’s into that!”—you’ll wobble, stumble and fall.