What’s the line between racist stereotypes and social commentary? To what extent can discrimination be a source of comedy? Is it OK to use exaggerated racial stereotypes when all the characters are exaggerated stereotypes? Are some things too serious for quirky comedy?
These are the questions that ran through my head as I finished watching Tina Fey’s new Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt over the weekend. Because while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is adorable and hilarious and has some really cutting commentary mixed in, it’s also got a big problem with race. Or a little problem with race. Or… no problem with race. Everyone seems to disagree.
For my part, I’m pretty sure Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt stumbled over the line of send-up vs racism and faceplanted straight into offensiveness, no matter how pointed and deliberate it seemed to be. It is, as the Daily Dot said, “hipster racism,” using self-awareness and “irony” to excuse the perpetuation of offensive stereotypes without really challenging them at all.
Although many characters make jokes about race, there are two characters whose race often is the joke: Kimmy’s love interest Dong and her boss, Jacqueline.
In Dong, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt clearly means to create a ridiculous stereotypical character (like many characters on the show) and to derive comedy from how ridiculous and unrealistic that stereotype is. But any attempt at commentary fell short. Sure, we had one weak joke about how it’s racist to say he’s good at math, even though he is, and another joke where he laughed at Kimmy’s name because it means “penis” in Vietnamese, but they’re not enough to subvert Dong’s portrayal in the show. Dong’s name is still a joke that people laugh about over and over again. He still speaks in a generic stereotypical “Asian” accent and is utterly defined by a cartoon imaginary “Asianness.” He works as a delivery guy and worries about immigration to the point that he marries an elderly stranger to stop himself from being deported, and he often feels like the butt of these jokes.
And why is this a problem, when characters like Xanthippe Lannister Voorhes are similarly ridiculous? For some people, it isn’t. It’s in the spirit of the rest of the show, where everything is exaggerated and ridiculous and swimming in biting social commentary, and so is not offensive. But it made me uncomfortable, constantly wondering how racist it was — the age-old “am I being too sensitive, or is this actually offensive?” that drove me to google other people’s opinions the moment I finished the series.
The problem, I think, is that Dong’s exaggerated characterization is so familiar to us. We see a character called “Xanthippe Lannister,” and she’s obviously a send-up of ridiculous rich names. Jacqueline is a parody of rich, self-absorbed entitlism, and we know that, because everything she says and does at the beginning of the series is over-exaggerated, unfamiliar from more serious shows, clearly a joke. But Dong is made up of stereotypes that are often presented as realistic and truthful. He has an accent that many Asian characters in shows and movies actually have. He might be a send-up of Asian stereotypes, but his characterization is so close to what other shows do that it feels like it’s being played straight.
And the joke is always pointed inward, toward Dong. When Titus decides to go about as a werewolf because everyone treats him better that way, the butt of the joke is society and discrimination. When he says that he won’t know which box to check on the hate crime form, the joke, again, is about other people, that nameless, faceless concept of racist, homophobic society. But although Dong gets some good jokes in about American TV, the joke is often Dong himself, and he never gets to turn that joke back at the society that perceives him in that stereotyped way.
And then there’s Jacqueline, a spoiled rich white woman who turns out to be a Native American woman passing as white. Again, the show dances on the line between stereotype and commentary, and its success depends on who you ask.
Notably, the Native American reveal is used to add more depth and sympathy to the previously exaggerated and ridiculous Jacqueline, and that raises the question of whether the self-obsessed rich white woman stereotype is the one being challenged, rather than stereotypes of Native Americans. If the show intended to mock Jacqueline for pretending to be white and gaining the privileges inherent in that, as Variety suggests, then that’s offensive, again making the marginalized person the butt of the joke, rather than the society that marginalizes her. When Jacqueline howls like a wolf or uses the Four Winds to replace a broken GPS, it appears less a send-up of stereotypes and more a point of Jacqueline embracing her “true self.”
Then there’s the fact that she’s played by a 100% white actress. Again, is it a commentary on passing as white, a necessary choice for the “twist reveal,” or is it erasure, a white actor donning the costume of Native American-ness to add supposed depth? To me, it feels like the second. But I know many viewers disagree.
And the fact that people can’t agree on whether it’s racism or social commentary is important. Comedy, and especially satiric comedy, makes discrimination hard to define. Is the subject of the stereotype the joke, or is it the stereotype itself? Can familiar stereotypes be used in comedy to send-up that kind of discriminatory thinking, and what’s the line before that portrayal becomes racist itself? Sometimes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt nails its social commentary. Sometimes it trips over the line. Sometimes it made me cringe with its offensiveness, while other viewers saw the same moment as wonderful comedic criticism. If nothing else, it’s sparked a conversation about how race should be approached in comedy, and that’s a valuable thing. But I hope, if there’s a next season, the show figures out this balance and focuses more on attacking stereotypes and assumptions, rather than on using stereotypes to mock the characters themselves.