Jane Krakowski plays a Native woman passing as white on 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt;' Sheri Foster and Gil Birmingham play her parents.

'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Has Two Native American Actors. It Needed Three

ICTMN Staff
3/11/15

In The Jerk, protagonist Navin Johnson, played by Steve Martin, introduces himself with the line "I was born a poor black child." And it's funny, because it's not true. A new TV sitcom is trying to play a Native-character-who's-obviously-not-Native for laughs, and is catching some heat for it.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix original series, debuted on Friday, March 6, to critical acclaim. Created by Tina Fey, the show is about a young woman (Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper) who has escaped an apocalyptic religious cult and is starting her life anew in New York City.

The show has a Native American subplot (most seem to, these days), and  this is where it runs into some trouble. Kimmy gets a job as a nanny, working for Jacqueline Voorhees, played by Jane Krakowski (last seen on Tina Fey's successful 30 Rock). And Jacqueline has a secret: She's American Indian.

Oh, right—spoiler alert.

Jacqueline, so the back-story goes, left her people, culture, and parents—played by Comanche actor Gil Birmingham and Cherokee actress Sheri Foster—behind to become a white woman (she dyes her hair and begins wearing blue contacts) and pursue her dreams of being a well-off Manhattanite. To an extent, her story of reinvention mirrors the main plotline: Kimmy's efforts to live her life after escaping the cult. Yet if that's what's going on, there are problematic parallels: That being born Native is like being born into a cult, that "escaping" Native culture is necessary to get somewhere in life. Admittedly, that is an emotional reaction, but it's there.

Writing for AV Club, Kalya Kumari Upadhyaya grants that the subplot isn't an inherently terrible idea—it's just terribly executed. "As a mixed race and often white-passing person myself, pretending to be white is a reality I’m all too familiar with," Upadhyaya writes. "But Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t seem like the right show to tackle that. Or, more accurately, the very white Jane Krakowski doesn’t seem like the right actor to tell this story. It’s a whitewashed plot about whitewashing. And it just feels off. Krakowski should not be playing a Native American character, even one who has decided to pretend to be white."

At one point, a character (not Jacqueline) laments that one of the indignities thrust upon Native Americans is being played by Mexicans on TV. So... what does that line mean when the "Indian" in the room is played by Krakowski? Is the show's casting of Krakowski meant to be a joke in itself—and is this the show making a joke about its own joke?

Libby Hill, writing for New York magazine's Vulture.com, is also baffled by Jacqueline's origins, musing that "There must be more compelling (and funnier!) ways to give Jacqueline a backstory that don’t require sloppily marginalizing a group of people who are already as marginalized as you can get."

"Think of it this way," Hill continues. "Is there any other race Krakowski could have played without raising a substantial uproar? ... If we take the show at its word, we are laughing at a Native American woman who felt so uncomfortable in her skin and in not being a member of the dominant culture, she sold her soul to look the way she thought she should. That’s not funny; it’s disturbing. Not just because the pressure to Anglicize exists for so many cultures in America today, but because of how this very country systematically stripped the Native American people not only of their culture, but of their lands, too, not so very long ago."

Upadhyaya sees the Native storyline as a troubling way to make a simple point: "'Why does it matter where I’m from? It’s where I’m going that counts,' Jacqueline asks. Sure, yes. That seems to be the character’s central philosophy. But we probably could have gotten there in a different, less whitewashy way." 

Here's another way we could have gotten there: Keep the Native American character, and hire a Native American actress, one who looks like she might share a single gene with pappy Gil Birmingham, to play her. Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris Guerrero are contemporaries of Krakowski, either of them with dyed-blonde hair would be funny—funnier than a white woman playing a Native who is passing as white. When a character is passing as another race, the comedic question is Who does she think she's fooling? But instead of a joke within the narrative, any moderately intelligent viewer is more likely to feel like the show's creators are trying to pull a fast one: Do they really expect us to believe she's Native American?

Krakowski, though, is a selling-point of the show; she comes with the fairy dust of 30 Rock and Ally McBeal on her. Tina Fey and company would sooner rewrite the character than replace her with a Native actress. So perhaps they should have rewritten the character. As much as we like—correction: we love—seeing Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster in a sitcom, watching them pretend to be Jacqueline's biological family is unsettling, on more than one level.

As Libby Hill says in the conclusion of her Vulture article, "What's most disheartening about this isn't that it exists, it's that apparently, nobody thought it would raise alarms at all."

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Comments

Janna Raye Syverson
Janna Raye Syverson
Submitted by Janna Raye Syverson on
What other TV shows have a Native American sub-plot? Also, I can't get behind what the writer is trying to say in this article. The whole part of why she is disappointed is becuase her parents don't support her dreams. It's funny because nobody would expect her to be native american. I find this hilarious. I am an enrolled tribal member, who grew up on the reservation, and I think this show is HILARIOUS!!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Somehow this isn't as comical as it was with Steve Martin's portrayal. There is an obvious WIDE difference between Steve Martin's character and his on-screen family, whereas there ARE many Natives (even on Tribal Rolls) who appear White (Ryan Redcorn of the 1491s comes to mind) and I think the joke will just be audience.

Drea's picture
Drea
Submitted by Drea on
This show is hilarious and I think the author of this article got it all wrong. Jacqueline is not someone who made herself white and succeeded, she is someone who abandoned her culture sold out and ended up a ridiculous out of touch, lonely, empty, albeit rich housewife. In a show filled with outlandish often cartoonish characters, Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster are the only two that appear to be anything that resembles normal, sane, people and are the only voice of reason in the ridiculous world of Kimmy Schmidt. I do not understand how any comparison of a Reservation and a cult could be made from this show. Honestly this article is just making up a reason to be pissed offed about a silly sitcom.

Len Adams
Len Adams
Submitted by Len Adams on
I think the sub-plot feels more odd than funny. At the same time, this is something native people struggle with all the time. Who decides when we are Indian enough? Is it how I look, what language I speak, what food I eat, my blood quanta? I don't think that's where they're going with it, but I think it would be great if they did.

WovokaWinyan's picture
WovokaWinyan
Submitted by WovokaWinyan on
The only other show I can think of currently on television is Cinemaxs Banshee, which consists of a made up tribe. I also believe this author has found a lot of things to be mad about that aren't all that maddening. As an urban Indian, I know a lot of Native who are still ashamed of being Native, they pretend they're white or mexican, black, islander, some other ethnicity. Its a reality. If you take the character as face value that she is ashamed of being an Indian, well isn't it god to those in that same position that she decided to go back to her roots in the last episode. I feel that she really just left her home to follow a dream that she could only figure one way to get: lie and be selfish. Come on, a Native can't be selfish. You can't be a well put together Native if you are denying your history. Was she a well put together person? No, she is lonely, sad, lost... and thats what happens when you deny your past. This is a fun show, with fun characters, fun actors. Though cults and Native America are hard and pret

WovokaWinyan's picture
WovokaWinyan
Submitted by WovokaWinyan on
The only other show I can think of currently on television is Cinemaxs Banshee, which consists of a made up tribe. I also believe this author has found a lot of things to be mad about that aren't all that maddening. As an urban Indian, I know a lot of Native who are still ashamed of being Native, they pretend they're white or mexican, black, islander, some other ethnicity. Its a reality. If you take the character as face value that she is ashamed of being an Indian, well isn't it god to those in that same position that she decided to go back to her roots in the last episode. I feel that she really just left her home to follow a dream that she could only figure one way to get: lie and be selfish. Come on, a Native can't be selfish. You can't be a well put together Native if you are denying your history. Was she a well put together person? No, she is lonely, sad, lost... and thats what happens when you deny your past. This is a fun show, with fun characters, fun actors. Though cults and Native America are hard and pret

WovokaWinyan's picture
WovokaWinyan
Submitted by WovokaWinyan on
...and very touchy subjects, an actors timing and the writers knowledge of the material are what count. I think that both, as well as the producers are amazing at what they are doing.
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