In Which I Explore the Native Cameo in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Troll The Respawn Jeremy If You're Gonna Do This Story Lets Do It Right
A little while ago on the blog I wrote about the “Native Cameo” where I said (look at me quoting me!)
“Native Cameos” are those 1-2 episode, sometimes intermittent appearances by Native characters on television shows. What I have found *spoiler alert* is that these Native Cameos resettle settler colonial claims to legitimacy, meaning, they justify, and normalize colonization and settler colonial occupation of Indigenous spaces and Indigenous histories.
You can read more here about the Native Cameo and why NBC hates Adam Beach if you want to.
Anyway this past weekend I sat down to watch every episode of the newly released “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (they alive dammit!) and to my surprise there was a Native cameo! Of course the scenario was the same as it always is - me, half-watching the television and then suddenly I start yelling at my husband “there’s an Indian on TV! There’s an Indian on TV!” and then my daughter comes running and says “where? Where?” And I point excitedly at the TV and she goes:
“But that’s just that blonde lady from that other show you watch.”
Ya burnt “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Ya burnt.
So yes, Jenna (sorry, she’s called Jacqueline in this show although she will always be Jenna Maroney to me…) is a secret Native American. Not like “Top Secret” where she sometimes puts on her Pendleton jacket and heads out to fight colonization or to try and push secret government agencies for more money for language revitalization… but a secret Native American because she thinks the path to prosperity is to become an upper east side wife and upper east side wives are white… and blonde so she decides not to be Native American anymore, at least not in the “I have brown hair and brown eyes and respect my parents” kind of way.
Jenna (sorry, Jacqueline) has rejected her Native heritage by bleaching her hair blonde, wearing blue contacts, and adopting the accent of a rich white person. She has also taken to... ignoring her children, wasting water, hiring a tutor to do her sons work, going to spin class, having a tiny dog (that doesn’t poop) and not knowing how to drive (all white people things I guess... That’s right – white people tropes. Or at least- rich, white people tropes.)
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” like “30 Rock” (both the brain child of Tina Fey) before it invites the audience into a world of caricatures, slowly breaks down the walls of those caricatures, but never apologizing for their existence as tropes, modern, tongue-in-cheek tropes that ask us to laugh with them (but mostly people probably laugh at them). It’s a miniscule distinction to some people, but to others, like anyone except for white people, it’s important because we don’t get much screen time, so the screen time we got says a lot. And if the minority representation on the show is to make fun of their... minority-ness well that also says a lot.
Since this past weekend people have started writing to me asking “what do you think” or “how am I supposed to feel about this?” I could see it being a bit jarring when it first comes up, suddenly this very blonde white lady is not so blonde, not so white. Both of her parents are Native in the show, they are the Native cameos as one cannot exactly count Jenna (sorry Jacqueline) as a cameo because she’s a non-Native actress playing a Native who is pretending to be white.
I didn't exactly know what to say because my initial instinct was to be all "It wasn't the worst, it wasn't the best. There were pros and cons." So I made a list.
Here are the pros and cons of the "Jenna (sorry Jacqueline) is a Native American" story... (according to me, and I know everything).
PRO: Mascots are bad.
Yeah they are. When Jacqueline sees an Indian mascot climbing off a bus she gets upset. Lillian (who is the landlady for Kimmy) says “After everything Native Americans have been through… now still with this nonsense” and Jacqueline decides it’s time to do something about it. Yeah it is.
CON: After she beats the crap out of the Indian mascot she howls at the sky like a wolf. I don’t know why. The implication to me was “when Natives go primitive you best watch out, cause they are going all the way back to when they were like animals.” And if that was the message you wanted to send writers – fuck you.
WHAT THE WRITERS SHOULD KNOW: We weren’t “animalistic” nor are we “animalistic.” Not that it is bad to be compared to or in balance with animals, but this idea that Natives were "lesser than human" because they were so identified with animals (a very western idea of hierarchy BTDubbs) is an ingrained stereotype built from colonization to excuse the mass murder of Indian people and the taking of the land. You don’t feel bad about shooting the wolf when he comes too close to town… now do you.
SUGGESTION: No more howling. Period.
PRO: White people may be doing everything they can to claim Native heritage because they think it somehow gives them street cred to be 1/16th something but there are some Native people who can “pass” as white and choose to.
Because they may look more phenotypically “white” than what is considered Native some Natives can (and do) pass as white. It's an interesting choice. Some Native people aren't actively hiding their Native-ness so much as avoiding it. Some people treat it like "that thing" but do nothing to be a part of their native culture. Like my elders have said to me before "being a Native is expensive and tiring" and it's true. There are many Native people who don't just think about how "cute" it is to have Native ancestry, they would rather not worry so much about what it means. Again, a lot of this is probably informed by a long history of having to hide Nativeness in order to survive but also exercising the autonomy to decide how or what it means to live as a "Native" is a fascinating subject. These issues of identity should be talked about. If you want to join this conversation, it's a WHOLE conversation not just a subplot.
CON: Jacqueline is played by a white actress pretending to be a Native person who is pretending to be white.
WHAT THE WRITERS NEED TO KNOW: Lots of white people have played Indian people in movies… on tv… on the radio… at sporting events… and even if you don’t want it to, it adds a layer of disingenuousness to your story. When white actresses are given the leeway to play Native it hearkens back to these days where any actor could play native by slapping a headband on or crying for the spoiling of the earth on TV commercials (stop littering. You are making the Natives sad). It might not be “fair” or “what you intended” but this is the way that it is when white people play Natives… and it will be this way until we get more positive representations of Native people, by Native people, with Native people. That’s what you’re signing up for with this story writers, deal with it.
SUGGESTION: Hire more Native people, actors, writers, producers to work with you on this. Cause dang, that would be fun. Also-- Jacqueline needs a bunch of real Native cousins, played by Native actors. They need to call her out on her B.S. and maybe educate the audience a little bit. They can say things like “you know just dying your hair blonde doesn't make you white, like putting on a beaded necklace doesn't make you Indian. So really… you need to get it together.”
PRO: Not all Native people are super spiritual and in tune with nature. Not all of them own casinos and enjoy the "Free stuff." There are many many complex and diverse ways that Native people experience being Native. Sometimes Native people even reject their heritage. Why this happens is a story worth telling.
For a long time the rejection of Native heritage was the story of many generations of Native people who were forcibly taken from their families in an effort to assimilate them. It’s not just a rejection of the heritage that is interesting, it’s that Jaqueline ties this to “success” and the implications of what it means that a Native person has internalized "success" with a rejection of Nativeness is a very complex story to include as part of a television show. Perhaps this is setting up an opportunity for a conversation about the many varied experiences of Nativeness in this world (let's hope). We are a diverse group of people so our experiences are very diverse. Our cultures are living… how we choose to live with those cultures has many different outcomes.
CON: And when she rejects her Native culture her parents are all “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.”
WHAT THE WRITERS SHOULD KNOW: Native parents, especially Jacqueline's parent's generation, are probably readily familiar with the impacts of boarding schools and the assimilation policies that attempted to erase Native culture from Native people. I am surprised that they did not lecture her more, or at least try and tell her that she is following down a lonely path for a Native person in this world. Just because you, lovely writers, didn't learn about it in history class, doesn't mean that Native people haven’t lived this history. Her parents (who are the actual two Native actors on the show) should be fleshed out to include how Native people are not just here carrying on their culture, but are here actively resisting the continued degradation of their culture, especially when it comes to the success of the future generations. And if it wouldn't, in your opinion, be them who would call Jacqueline on her BS and question her very (colonized, westernized) view of the world, at least, at least allow one of her mean Native aunties to show up and throw some shiz down when she decides to leave.
SUGGESTION: Just give Jacqueline’s parents their own show already.
I know people are (understandably) somewhat upset about this tongue in cheek portrayal of Nativeness on this very white show in a very white universe. I sometimes think that it’s just reflective of how exhausting modern, privileged, white centered comedy is. It’s always outside looking in. It’s always “look at my privilege, be awash in my privilege, watch my privilege allow me to make whatever jokes I want or to write whatever I want because I want to oh and by the way here's where i say sorry if you were offended.” It’s so tongue in cheek that it can be exhausting – especially when that’s all there is. (It's the reason why those pointed lines that make fun of this privilege are so exciting for people. It's also why people think they can get away with the other problematic portrayals of race on the show "but we made a joke about privilege, so we can now make this problematic character speak in a funny accent...)
As an avid TV watcher I know most of these universes are basically “white universes.” They are reflections of how white people see their world. Maybe they try to say they are “diverse” universes, but at the end of the day with all the decision making really in the hands of a bunch of very wealthy white people we all know it’s true. I heart Tina Fey (I do) but I don’t expect her to be adept at telling a Native American story. This is why who sits in the writing room really matters, because those multitude of voices (if they aren’t just a bunch o’ white people) can shape a story to be what it could be, and not just the brain child of people that haven’t… oh I don’t know… taken a Native American studies class, hung out with a Native family, gone to the Cheesecake Factory with a bunch of hilarious Native students…because those stories have yet to be told, the complex yet hilarious story of what it means to be this #BusyCuteAndNative
So that’s all I really want to say about it. If you’re gonna do a Native story (which hey, why not?)… do it right. Set higher standards. You can’t access the Native experience just because you have some people who are Native descendants possibly working on your staff. How much pressure is that for those people to “speak for the Native experience.”
Do it right. Hire some Native writers, producers, editors...
It’ll be way funnier that way. I promise.
Troll the respawn, Jeremy.
PS. Yes, Tina Fey, there are Native people in Hollywood (and outside of Hollywood) who can help you out. Need help to find them, email me and I'll point you in the right direction.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, volunteer Executive Director for the Native Women's Collective and is currently re-watching My Name is Earl...
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