In Which I Explore the Native Cameo In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2 or Lets Band Together And Take Down The Washington Racial Slur Team Name
Confession, I heard that the writers of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have actually read my blog about season 1. I also heard that they read pretty much everything that people write, not because they are a glutton for punishment (NEVER READ THE COMMENTS) but because they want to make more informed decisions in the future. This may have (probably did) unduly influence me as I was watching Season 2. Like, “hey they are sincere people doing work that they want to be well received.” So with my rose colored glasses on I sat down with some corn chips and salsa and vowed to give the show a chance.
After a few episodes it became kind of obvious that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is trolling me. There’s this one episode (which plenty of people are talking about) where Titus wants to do a one person show telling the story of his past life as a Geisha. The Internet commentators are out in full force and even come in person to his show to be offended and yell at him for all his appropriation. He is a black man pretending to be a Japanese Geisha who feels like he really was a Japanese Geisha in a past life. (Why, WHY WAS THERE NO RACHEL DOLEZAL JOKES?) In the end, however, he stands up to his worst and most offended Internet critics, does the show and wins them over. And the internet commentators wonder “what will we be offended over now?” and then one of them reaches enlightenment (or the aliens suck her up to study her?) when she realizes she offended herself. The point of that episode was “stop making fun of Titus” I guess. Also, the Internet needs to calm down about being offended because nice shows like Kimmy Schmidt are just trying to underdog it in a world that is always trying to take down the underdogs (even if they are participating in problematic stereotypic portrayals).
Touché Kimmy Schmidt.
All that being said, thanks for trolling me, and also I’m about to write about Jacqueline and her Native character arc on your show, not because I’m offended, but because I am intrigued. You have intrigued me Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’m not ready to shed a tear and let you have your award for best performance as a Geisha, but I am ready to put my hands up and say “alright, alright. Since you’re listening, here’s some real feedback.”
In Which I Explore the Native Cameo In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2 or Lets Band Together And Take Down The Washington Racial Slur Team Nam
It’s Season 2 of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (now on Netflix) and I’m back investigating the Native Cameo. What’s the Native cameo?
“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.
Jacqueline (played by Jane Krakowski) is back, still being Lakota, and now living with her parents. I don’t know if she’s actually living on a reservation because that isn’t made clear, and it’s not like she is surrounded by community or attends any community events. Her parents’ house is obviously located near corn fields, although this could be on the rez, or it could be on their own piece of land that their family pried from Custer’s cold, dead, hands. Jacqueline spends the majority of her time annoying her parents with stupid questions about things she doesn’t know or understand about her own culture. Her parents never look at each other and go “What went wrong here? Must we blame ourselves? Can we blame the school system? CAN WE BLAME CUSTER? Cause he always deserves it.” At one point they send her to the corn field to do a special corn dance ceremony because they just want to get rid of her, and she just wants to feel useful (or really, feel like she’s being a “real” Indian). The corn ceremony is actually the electric slide. The corn is probably like “that’s cool; we also like doing line dances. You should watch us when the winds change!” but nobody really asks them. Instead some little kid makes fun of her for being so stupid, she comes back home upset and her parents tell her that she should go back to New York because “you belong to another tribe now…”
No she doesn’t. But I digress.
Jacqueline throws a big fit, tries to curse her parents with a dreamcatcher and then ends up locked in the back of a police car where she has a pseudo sweat, comes to a vision, and then realizes she needs to do something bigger with her life. Like go back to New York and take money from rich people to give to the Indians. (We’d rather have the land back. Heck, I’m sure her people would rather have the Black Hills, which is already theirs but they have to fight for it cause… CUSTER.)
It sounds bad right? Writing it out I have to pause and think “man, that sounds bad. It sounds like the show is portraying Native stereotypes like they are funny without commentary on how they are not funny, but just sad, which makes it funny if you think they are funny because you haven’t realized they are not funny.” And that is what I wrote down after the episode that re-introduced Jacqueline and her Native family. Well that and “uh oh…”
*The only thing that saved this entire arc for me was that when Jacqueline is having her “vision” the Washington Racial Slur team logo comes up and says “HOW AM I STILL A THING???” #BlameCuster *
But guess what – it’s not all bad. And that’s where my fully invested Friday night binge watching made a difference because by the end of it I was actually excited for Jaqueline and her next season. I was surprised how her character grew more confident in her Native identity, and also how she started to realize that even if she ignores or pretends like it is not there, she is Native, and it is a part of her. Also if you’re going to make fun of Washington Racial Slur team owners… I’m on board.
Was it all perfect? NO. Is there room for improvement – ALWAYS. What now? – More Custer jokes. Also, more Natives.
More Native actors, more Native activists, more Natives.
So let’s get to our pros and cons shall we?
PRO: Mascots are bad
Yeah they are! Jacqueline’s big story line throughout the season is that she is searching for a husband (more on that later) but really it becomes about the ever present “how is this still a thing” Native mascot issue that she must finally (and firmly) confront. When it turns out *GIANT SPOILER* that Jacqueline is dating one of the Washington Racial Slur team owners she has to decide, does she want to be the rich wife she kept trying to be all season, or does her Native heritage matter? She picks her Native heritage. She confronts her paramour. They decide to band together and take down the team name.
Con: There is no con to this storyline in my opinion. This was the part where I saw a more nuanced portrayal of Jacqueline. While at the start of the season she was working from a collection of stereotypes, by the end she is able to see that her Nativeness is in her, dark hair or light hair, blue eye contacts or brown eyes, New York or on the rez. So deciding that what she can dedicate herself to is using her (now) insider status to take down the Washington Racial Slur – go girl.
What the writers should know: Jacqueline doesn’t have to do this by herself! In fact, there are lots of Native activists that would help her out. It might be fun to actually bring them on the show. I say invite the 1491s to come on the show next season as informed Native people to tell Jacqueline about #NotYourMascot and to bring her into the super-secret meetings we have (shhh).
Suggestion: I really, really, really hope that you have a pseudo Dan Snyder character on the show next season. Someone who keeps speaking the hype of “Our Reds*ins Nation” and “we are honoring you” but behind the scenes is just a very whiny, spoiled child who doesn’t understand why EVERYONE DOESN’T LOVE THE DARK SIDE! WAH!” #KyloRen
PRO: Jacqueline is Native, whether she is at home with her parents or in NYC
Even though Jacqueline spent the entire first season denying her Nativeness and it seemed to come out of nowhere, it becomes more obvious throughout this season that she cannot deny who she is. She goes about it in her own crazy Jacqueline ways, like when she starts a “First Americans for Turtle Island” foundation and tries to raise money by getting old rich white dudes to come to a fundraiser, but it stays with her even after she decides that she failed at taking all the money back from the rich white people to give to Natives (ahem, work on getting the land also…thanks). I see all of this as part of her journey to realize that her rich, white world is actually just fake, and that all those needless things she values, are not what is really going to matter to her. So okay, that’s important.
Con: And then Jacqueline’s parents are all SEE YA WOULDN’T WANNA BE YA. Which is the same that happened last season. Look, are Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster (the actors who play her parents) on such tight schedules that they are only available for a few days? Is that why we have to constantly experience Jacqueline’s rejection by her parents? In the first season I wondered how they would be able to let her go, to accept her rejection of her culture and to not call or bug her on occasion? And then at the start of this season, they are actively annoyed with her because she has very little knowledge of true Native culture, but they do not have any moments of reflection of (1) how this could very well reflect a school system that she was forced in to which teaches THIS about Native people even to Native children and (2) how this plays in to continuing identity politics about what a “real” Native is really like and (3) how it’s ultimately Custer’s fault (if not Custer then Andrew Jackson and if not Andrew Jackson then take your pick of founding fathers and if not that then blame Kevin Costner). But because Jacqueline’s parents (who are the only other Native characters on the show thus far) are treated more like props to advance her storyline, it becomes painfully obvious that the humor relies on stereotypes to help people access that Jacqueline is, in fact, Native. She’s not Native because her parents have dreamcatchers and her parents should want more for her than to leave their house thinking that.
What the writers should know: Did you know that NYC currently has the largest population of Native people in the United States? For a long time it was Los Angeles. This is for a number of reasons, but one of them was the policy of the federal government to relocate Indian people to cities in the hopes that they would reject their culture and become white. This didn’t happen. In fact, many Indian people founded Urban Indian Centers and groups. They came together across tribes to laugh, sing, dance and eat. They created what Native scholar Renya Ramirez calls “Native Hubs.” So rather than degrade Native culture, Native people came together and did things like – started movements to found tribal colleges… Jacqueline doesn’t have to be alone in NYC, which has a huge pow wow each year BTW. Also, I would think this would mean something to her parents so that instead of saying “You belong to another tribe now” in NYC, they would say “you will always be Native and you will always be Lakota. If NYC is calling you back, then go there. You always have home to ground and center you.”
Suggestion: MORE NATIVE SCREEN TIME.
PRO: Jacqueline has storylines that don’t just revolve around her Native identity yet are still informed by her Native identity, because we are also people who fall in love, question our futures, want to play dress up with snooty designer’s clothes
Jacqueline’s other story lines intersect with who she becomes by the end of the season. She thinks she can continue to play the role of an upper class white woman who cares only about taking down other white women and flaunting her money around. Her biggest storyline is her consistent pull back into the life that Kimmy helped her to get out of, one where she is just a trophy wife, and where the wealth accumulated by her husband keeps her tied to him so long as she wants to continue her lifestyle. Kimmy calls her out on this throughout the show. Which brings me to my con...
Con: Where are her aunties? Her cousins? Her mother? Kimmy is always her voice of reason, but wouldn’t her mother value her enough to teach her about the very long, rich heritage of strong Native women that built our nations?
What the writers should know: Again, here’s another opportunity to include some important information about Native cultures, where many of them valued women, where women were leaders, doctors, and maintained their own wealth. So while in many European cultures women were forced to marry in order to secure their futures, in many Native cultures women came into marriage with their own property and their own wealth. Marriage was very different in this sense. Now here is Jacqueline participating in this very European approach to marriage and you start to wonder, where are her grandmothers? Her aunties? I hope as she gets more involved with giving back to Native people next season that you can round out this Native universe to include all different types of characters that can support and educate her.
PRO: Jacqueline’s last name is “White” which was “given to us in the 1920s by a sarcastic census taker.
Anyway. If you want to have Jacqueline take a Native American Studies class in the hopes of learning more about Native peoples, histories, futures and feminisms and then she gets a mad crush on her bad ass Native woman professor who also happens to be a big fan of 30 Rock and constantly mistakenly calls her Jenna, call Irene Bedard.
If you want some more suggestions, feel free to email me.
I’m looking forward to next season actually. No more electric slide corn dances.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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