Ok I’ll just admit it. I didn’t plan on binge-watching an entire season of the new comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in a single evening but last Friday, having no other activities planned, I sat down to just watch a few episodes. And anyone who’s watched any TV on Netflix knows how easy it is to watch “just one more.” Unbreakable is Netflix’s latest original comedy from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, two of the major forces behind 30 Rock (one of my favorite shows.) The show portrays Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who was recently rescued from a doomsday cult and is adjusting to normal life for the first time. I’m a huge fan of 30 Rock (like seen-every-episode-at-least-three-times huge) so I expected some solid comedy out of the show and it certainly delivered. But what I wasn’t expecting was such a strong portrayal of women. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Fey once claimed that it was a “triumph of feminism” that she never portrayed her character, Liz Lemon, in a sexual scene and 30 Rock is filled with feminist undertones. But this show, more than 30 Rock, had moments explicitly proclaiming the strength of women, especially in the face of religious figures who would try to take away their power. And while the Unbreakable oscillates from overt feminism to scenes that simply center around women, the show’s main thesis comes up within the first two minutes of the show. A man being interviewed for the local news about the women’s release proclaims “females are strong as hell.”
Ellie Kemper (The Office, Bridesmaids) plays the titular Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who was abducted at the age of fifteen by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) and forced to live in a bunker with three other women for fifteen years. Reverend Wayne had convinced the women that the world has ended, every other living thing had died and that they all needed to stay inside or they’d be killed by a lake of fire. After being freed from the cult and an appearance with other “Mole Women” on the Today Show Kimmy decides to stay in New York City instead of returning to Durnsville, Indiana where the bunker is. She tells the other women “I have to get my life back. Everyone in Durnsville is going to look at me like a victim and that’s not what I am.” She quickly finds an apartment to live in and a job as a rich family’s nanny and begins encouraging people around her.
Kimmy’s roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess) is a talented singer but has given up on his dream of performing on Broadway (having unsuccessfully auditioned for The Lion King twenty times) and now works as a knock-off Iron Man-impersonator in Times Square. At the end of the first episode, Kimmy finds Titus in Times Square and tells him “Life beats you up, Titus, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been tooken [sic] by a cult or you get rejected over and over again at auditions. You can either curl up in a ball and die…or you can stand up and say ‘We’re different, we’re the strong ones and you can’t break us.’” She then encourages Titus to sing, and they break into a rendition of “The Circle of Life” as the din of the streets around them becomes almost overpowering. This is who Kimmy is, she sings goofily in the midst of all of life’s adversity and supports the people around her at almost any cost. Kimmy shows us that we can be ourselves and love the people in our lives without sacrificing power or personality. She doesn’t feel pressured to fit into any preconceived notions. She just does what she’s good at, and that’s loving other people. She functions as a sort of Christ figure, suffering for years at the hands of others but taking back what’s hers through kindness and self-sacrificial love.
Make no mistake, this show is not a dramatic, realistic portrait of what recovering from years of psychological and spiritual abuse is like. It’s a comedy and as a result it walks the line between being a satirical take on the idiocy of men using religion to devalue women and diminishing the weight and pain that would accompany an experience like Kimmy’s in actuality. Kimmy shows hardly any symptoms of post-traumatic stress and aside from a few jokes about how the only cultural references Kimmy knows are from the 1990s, she really has no real trouble adapting to life outside of the bunker. As a result, Unbreakable probably will not function well in helping survivors of abuse cope with and heal from the horrible things they’ve experienced. But, for the rest of us, it’s a funny portrait of a resilient, positive young woman who refused to be controlled by men and whose narrative serves as an attack on the perversion of religion to give one sex more power than another.
In some ways the show is a series of assaults on men who use religion to control, demean and devalue women. In the beginning of the first episode the women are rescued from the bunker in the midst of singing a modified version of “O Christmas Tree” that they had been taught by the reverend: “Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it with our dumbness.” We also learn that though she stayed in the bunker, Kimmy openly questioned what the Reverend said. At one point we flash back to the bunker as Reverend Wayne gives a sermon of sorts, proclaiming that the whole world died “except for all you dum-dums here.” Suddenly, Kimmy reveals that she found a rat in an air duct and aggressively asks him how it could have lived if everything else died. He shouts at her “Kimmy Schmidt, I will break you,” to which she replies defiantly “No you won’t.” Later in the season after Kimmy unwittingly becomes part of a cult-like exercise fad called “SpiritCycle” led by a mysterious man named Tristafé, she is the only one who eventually realizes the silliness of what she’s involved in. After interrupting a class she addresses the group of women: “Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Replacing one stupid male authority figure with another…Is he different than any guy who tells you he’ll make you richer or prettier or safer if you just let him make all the decisions?”
Later, when Kimmy testifies at the trial of Reverend Wayne (who has elected to represent himself in the case) he asks her to state her name and place of residence. When she says she lives in New York City, Reverend Wayne replies “Oh, the Big Apple, just like the one Eve gave Adam. And that’s when all of our earthly suffering began. Mortality, shame in our nakedness, burning your tongue on cocoa, junk mail, Mondays.” When she states that she didn’t want to return to Durnsville because bad things happened to her there, the reverend proceeds to shame her for leaving and accuses her of insinuating that Durnsville is a bad place. Despite the humor in the scene, in some ways it hits close to home, because real women have had similar accusations leveled at them and not in a comedic light. But the show’s humorous take on this has the value of pointing out the absurdity of these sorts of statements and allowing us to laugh at the people like Reverend Wayne who make them. The reverend is portrayed as foolish and manipulative, despite the charisma he exudes with other people. He seems to have imprisoned the women, not because of some perverse sexual desire, but simply because he enjoys having control over women. In the end Kimmy outsmarts him and the jury finds him guilty.
Throughout the show we’re meant to be rooting for Kimmy, and she’s certainly worth it. She’s a model of what unconditional love looks like, and she doesn’t sacrifice who she is to fit into any boxes that other people expect her to. Maybe most important of all, her narrative pokes fun at the absurd notion that women deserve to be subjugated by men or are somehow less intelligent. Kimmy Schmidt demonstrates that women can truly be Unbreakable and we could all learn a lesson from her.