Image source: facebook.com/therealgilbirmingham
All smiles: Jane Krakowski and Comanche actor Gil Birmingham on the set of 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.' Image source: facebook.com/therealgilbirmingham

Why Kimmy Schmidt's Native Subplot is Great: A Native Fan's Opinion

ICTMN Staff
3/18/15

The new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt includes a Native American subplot that has sparked debate both within Indian country and among non-Native viewers. The protagonist, Kimmy, is hired as a nanny to the children of a wealthy Manhattan mom, and before too long the audience learns Kimmy's boss has a secret: She's American Indian. The boss, Jacqueline, is played by Jane Krakowski, a sitcom veteran who is not Native. Her parents are played by Gil Birmingham, Comanche, and Sheri Foster, Cherokee. Jacqueline is passing as white; Jane Krakowski is a white actress playing a Native character who is passing as white—is there a problem here? Last week, ICTMN ran a piece that included opinions from two non-Native TV critics who felt that yes, there was something off-putting about this plot element. 

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

Judging by Twitter chatter, some Native viewers agree—but many others don't. Jiwere-Nutachi/Chahta journalist Johnnie Jae, co-editor of Native Max magazine, has watched the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and approves of the Native storyline. We asked her to explain.

What was your reaction to the Native subplot as you were watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?

I was waiting for a cringe-worthy moment once the Native subplot was introduced. I was thinking, "Oh no, here we go again". But that cringe-worthy moment never appeared and I found myself cracking up. The conversations that Jacqueline had with her parents reminded me of some of the conversations that I had with relatives when I took an interest in doing things that you don't normally associate with Natives. So I think they nailed the conversations between Jacqueline and her parents, especially when she told them she was no longer going to be Native because "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde and white."

That's a good line, but she could have said simply "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde." Does pulling an entire race into the conversation, and making this about race when it doesn't need to be, trivialize the issues Native people face?

No, I don't think so because talking about race is not a bad thing, and that particular line has some undeniable truth in the mainstream media. Look at most news anchors, actresses, musicians, et cetera—blonde and white. Jacqueline's story also illustrated a few other issues that rarely get discussed. There's the fact that Natives come in various shades of brown—yes, you can be Native even if you "look" white. So many Native people hear that: "You're Native American? Hmm, you don't look like it." The show is also addressing the white privilege afforded to those same white-passing Natives. It's not trivializing these issues, it's bringing them out in the open. There's a very real sentiment that to be successful in the mainstream world, we need to be less Native. Some of us deal with this feeling every day.

Should the show have cast a Native actress in the role?

Let's be honest, if they had cast an obviously Native woman in Jacqueline's role and put a blonde wig on her, the storyline wouldn't work. She'd just be a blonde Native trying to be white and her reality would be different from Jacqueline's reality.  The reason Jacqueline's character has the lifestyle she does in show is because she could pass for white and was able to benefit from the white privilege that goes along with that. I'd also like to add that Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster were amazing and spot on with the Native humor. The show also has Azie Dungey ("Ask a Slave") on board and I trust her with this storyline.
 

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alexjacobs's picture
alexjacobs
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Tina Fey, Jane Krakowski, "30 Rock"...what do you expect...but absurdity and craziness...while right in the belly of the beast...there is potential here, starting with a Native family...

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I'm not automatically offended by the premise of this show, but I honestly think it would have been worse had Krakowski's character been Native. I live in New Mexico. If I want to see White women who want to be Native all I have to do is go to Santa Fe. There are women running all over Santa Fe with $5,000 squash blossums, $2,000 earrings, $10,000 dresses and smelling of safe or sweetgrass. I can't say I've EVER seen a Native women don a blonde wig, a Romney t-shirt and blue contact lenses. ____________________________________________________________ I'm am, however, infinitely more interested in those "half-breed, ethnic Indians" who have trouble fitting in where ever they go. From what I've heard and read so far this program doesn't sound disrespectful towards Natives. We'll just have to continue watching to see.

Gerwalk's picture
Gerwalk
Submitted by Gerwalk on
Interesting that you reference Ask a Slave; a Dine' woman worked on that production. I thought Ask a Slave was interesting concerning some historic points and facts, but a bit constrained in its overall criticisms. As a non-native I'm offended by Jacqueline's story and aspects of her portrayal. I think that actress portraying her is funny and deserving to be on TV; in this case with potentially (I have a feeling that her story will continue to develop) a different back-story. She is great on the show, but her backstory and that aspect of her character is very underdeveloped. Given the current reality of not many native actors appearing on TV, I think that if you are not native and taking a native role than you have somewhat a responsibility to who you are claiming to represent. Regarding the role and who should play it. It's partly about economics. Plenty of actors who happen to be people of color, of many different shades, are looking for work. I've even met some with white skin and dirty blonde hair. I'm not privy but I suspect their might be actors who could pass if they wanted. Having seen the season finale I do not think many of the character's cultural revelations were respectful of her parent cultural traditions. I found the depiction of violence, comedic, but completely off the mark and culturally inappropriate in terms of message and execution-I doubt her parents would have raised her to act in such a manner. And many people I know would have acted differently. I think the comedy of that event could have been handled differently. But even for comedic effect I found the attack a cheap attempt for a laugh at the expense of a Native woman's poor attempt to get in touch with her sense of self. I do not think that people were laughing much at the band, but at the Native woman attacking them. And Jacqueline's stereo typing of White folks is off also... Any way, thanks for the article.
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