“Kimmy Makes a Joke!”
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows the conventions of the sitcom genre. In the show, disruptions between what is expected of a sitcom and what is delivered create a moment of laughter. This moment also carries the show’s critique, in which the disconnect between what is happening and the reaction it receives causes the audience to laugh. This is often found when the characters are circumventing societies expectations of them. This is done through the show’s use of satirical comedy, to create a disconnect between what is said and what is meant. In this space between the two, the show’s critique lies. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creates a different narrative that in turn creates a commentary of societywhile still working within the structure of a sitcom. The satire used in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creates references to real-world subjects such as stay-at-home moms, post-feminism, and masculinity, as well as the large systems that keep these structures intact. The show does this by making satirical comments about society and works to go above and beyond. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is working to make a commentary on post-feminism while working within the structure of a situational comedy. The show makes use of scripted dialogue to create a thematic situation, which is commonly found in comedy television series. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt works within this structure but uses the structure to break down the dominant ideologies. First, this section will establish what is meant by the sitcom and its conventions. Then, it will move through the show’s use of satire and irony to create doubly coded messages. Through this section, the use of discussing Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s use of comedy will be helpful in order to understand how the show subverts viewer expectations with its use of comedy and through this how it drives home a critique of hegemonic American ideals.
Comedy is one of the oldest and most used forms of television in American programming (Dalton and Linder, 2005, p.1). Today’s sitcoms have developed from radio, with sitcoms on radio broadcasting being the first of their kind (Dalton and Linder, 2005, p.15). The term itself, as stated by David Marc in “Origins of the Genre”, first gained popularity as a way to define comedies that appeared on broadcast television in the 1950s. He notes the terms clear ties to radio, as many of the first sitcoms were created as adaptions from radio shows (the Goldbergs [ABC, 1926-46]; Amos ‘n’ Andy [WMAQ AM, 1928-60]) (Marc, 2005, p.16). Sitcoms have roots that pre-date radio, such as vaudeville and music-hall sketches, which were mixed with repeatable narrative to create the sitcom as we now know it (Spigel, 1997, p.226). The modern sitcom is typically a weekly 30-minute show with a single comic situation, guest stars, and musical items (Spigel, 1997, p.218). These shows (specifically American sitcoms) find their humour in multiple-characters, an ensemble format and the use of running gags, recurring characters, and catchphrases (Spigel, 1997, p.221). Sitcoms are often described to have a predictable format with set principles of continuity (Spigel, 1997, p.221). Sitcoms, fully “situational comedies”, are known for creating a depiction of everyday life. For instance, I Love Lucy (Desilu Studios, 1951-57) which sought to address and structure a conception of the everyday (Spigel, 1997, p. 226). The sit-com offers a short narrative-series comedy where each episode stands alone, but has a continuing serial as well, which allows for repetition in the narrative (Freur, 1997, p.232). The episodic series, with continuing serial, a mode of repeatable narrative (Freur, 1997, p.232). In the serial mode, there is a different sense of time, history and continuity from other genres, where the sit-com hinges around the repetition of transgression and disruption (Freur, 1997, p.234). There is a classic narrative structure where the entire episode moves towards restructuring stability, but the end of the episode represents a return to the original situation in order to recreate stability (Freur, 1997, 234). The sitcom has continued to grow and shift in representation and connection to socio-cultural context while maintaining its stable episodic structure.
The genre of situational comedy formed out of US Networks use of vaudeville actors in regular formats and times as noted by Brett Mills in his piece “Comedy Verite” (2004, p.62). The genre formed as a compromise between its theatrical origins and the structure of television and radio broadcasting (Mills, 2004, p.62). Neale and Krutnik (1990) cite the Jack Benny Show (1950-65) as one of the first instances in which these negotiations were successfully worked through (1990, p.227). Sitcom’s offered regular characters and setting, but unlike vaudeville, used a repeatable format (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.227). According to John Hartley in “Situational Comedy Part 1” the sitcom has seen very few fundamental changes, and due to its stable nature, the sitcom is one of the most established genres (2001, p.65). The genre is criticized for its simple use of stereotypes, outdated representations and a failure to engage with social or political developments (Mills, 2004, p.65). As well as many for their central focus on families, which reinforce ideas of domestic normality, and in turn creating unquestioned heteronormativity (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.239). However, there are also sitcoms that are praised for their transgressive characters such as Roseanne (ABC, 1988-97) which has been analyzed for its portrayal of the unruly women (i.e., Rowe, 1990; Mill, 2004, p.64). Mills notes an overwhelming discourse in sitcoms to fail to place representation within a large social context, whether the representation is progressive or not. This was also found by David Grote (1983), who believes that sitcoms have overturned more than 2,000 years of comic tradition in which sitcoms replace comedy’s “anarchic social role with a repressive commercial one” (p.12). Following this argument, he argues that development within the sitcom is irrelevant, as the genre is fundamentally conservative (Grote, 1983, p.12) The conservative nature that Grote notes can be seen to go with the stable form of the genre. However, Mills focuses on the difference between stability and a conservative nature by looking at the distinction in modern examples such as the Office (BBC Two, 2001-03). He focuses on examples that deliberately use characteristics of other television forms to create new ground for the sitcom and also results in a programme which complicates traditional genre divisions (Mills, 2004, p.65). In contemporary research, there is more focus on examples of situational comedy that focus on stereotypes, and how comedy is inherently subversive (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.2). There is a truth in sitcom’s adherence to socio-cultural norms in which the characters are portrayed, in which the actions they depict can be considered probable (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.2). The genre also offers adherence to aesthetic norms and conventions as the condition in which representation can be generically recognizable and aesthetically appropriate. But Neale and Krutnik state that “comedy necessarily trades upon the surprising, the improper, the unlikely, and the transgressive in order to make us laugh” (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.2). In this, the genre plays on the difference in representation of socio-cultural norms and the rules that keep them in place, which positions the sitcom as inherently subversive, at least in a modern context (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.2).
Neale and Krutik offer a happy medium between Hartley’s “stability” and their previously mentioned “subversiveness” by setting up a simple structure for the sitcom, which explains the formal and ideological conventions of the genre (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.4). In this, they define dependence on repetition by outlining how each episode offers an encounter between a stable inside (comprising regular characters in an established situation), and an enticing or intrusive outside (which tends to threaten the formers stability) (Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p.4). Therefore, the inside can function as a place of negotiation. Jane Freur notes in “Feminist Television Production” (1997) that the sitcom uses the outside (which is potentially threatening) to create the conflict necessary to drive each episode forward. (p.235). Therefore, the sitcom works to reaffirm cultural identity by mixing the inside (an already established set of values and interests) with the oppositional values of the outside (which can be accepted) (Freur, 1997, p.241). In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, interactions between each character follow the simple structure of the sitcom but seek to show moral growth in each episode as the character helps each other in places that they lack. Which, in some ways crosses boundaries of multiple episodes, such as Lillian’s wish to keep her neighbourhood from gentrification, it crosses many episodes, and each character is asked to help her.
Sitcoms feature a range of characters either following, circumventing or struggling with dominant social codes. In his piece “Modern Comedy of Manners”, David Pierson writes about Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-89) and the way that it uses the structure of the sitcom to play with socio-cultural context (2005, p.63). He argues that Seinfeld is different from other sitcoms because the main characters are aware that they are part of “a contrived social game of witty dialogue”, unlike characters of other sitcoms (Pierson, 2005, p.42). Pierson argues that Seinfeld features a typical sitcom group but they are not focused on personal growth, and instead are focused on following, ignoring and changing complicated social matters both inside and outside their group (Pierson, 2005, p.42). He notes this as one of the main reasons for the show’s popularity, its address of serious cultural ambivalence and anxiety over changing social codes in American society (Pierson, 2005, p.43). Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows Seinfeld, with transgressive humour that deals with social codes and American society with characters who directly engage with these issues. Kimmy’s naivety offers a disruption in the narrative in which, through her interactions with other characters in the show, raises questions about things that the people around her (and the audience) are invited to question. For instance, through Kimmy’s interactions and disruption in Titus’s life, we are led to question the struggles of minorities in modern society, as well as wider systems that keep these struggles in place. Titus is always seeking to become famous, but among others, his storyline also maneuvers through issues of his age and his sexuality. But Titus does not struggle alone; it is through his interactions with Lillian, Kimmy and Jacqueline that he begins to deal with his age, the quest for love, and issues of racism. Within the show, changing landscape in American society are reflected, as Titus reflects issues of other racial and sexual minorities, his character circumvents societies expectations for him and through this, critiques dominant social codes.
This research draws together the concept of comedy and feminism, in order to look at comedy and satire as the vehicle that delivers a self-reflexive tone to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and its commentary on society. This commentary can be observed through the show’s use of Kimmy’s unruliness and disruption. Satire is used in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to cite conventions in society as a way of making fun of them. Linda Hutcheon argues in “the Politics of Postmodernism” (1986) that by installing and ironizing, satire works to show how representations come from past representations and what consequences derive from continuity and difference (p.93). Therefore, satire functions to show how an ironic stance on representation, genre, and ideology serve to politicize representation. This gives way to the argument that interpretation is ideological, and that parodies unsettle all accepted beliefs and ideologies (Hutcheon, 1986, p.93). By applying Hutcheon’s definition of satire to a critical analysis of the comedy in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it can be easier to understand how the show employs comedy to challenge dominant gender roles and the patriarchal systems surrounding them with characters that both embody those roles and challenge them. This is shown in the show’s use of unruliness. Kimmy’s character is shown as a disruptor in her interactions with other characters; she perfectly fits with other comediennes. These new comedic women are a far cry from “perfect”. They are exhibiting their individuality and are free to address issues that they want to see on screen. In the present day, women are continually pushing the boundaries of their position in a male-dominated field. Unruly women go against what society tells them is the proper way to be a woman. The concept of the unruly woman is a trope that describes a woman in comedy who defies societal gender roles and expectations (Rowe, 2011, p.5). Kimmy is not perfect; she is childish and naïve, she raises questions and is not afraid to vocalize her confusion with the things happening around her and through this, Kimmy makes subtle critiques about her fellow characters’ actions and choices through her questions and refusal to accept things as they are.
In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the show plays with serious concepts of being held in bunkers, kidnapping, as well as lighter topics like internet fame and small-town life by both confirming they are real and joking about them in the same sentence. We see a touch of humour in Kimmy’s post-bunker life, but that does not diminish the seriousness of the issue, this brings that satirical tone to the subject. And while working in the realm of the situational comedy, we see how the show can both prop up commonly understood ideologies and begin to tear them down. This concept works with Hutcheon’s outline of satire and how it plays with contradictions in society (Hutcheon, 1986, p.101). She observes that satire is the form of the ironized subject, which legitimizes and subverts the subject, and in this satire is doubly coded in terms of politics and ideology (Hutcheon, 1986, p.101). However, Hutcheon also notes that in a postmodern society, satire is not necessarily ineffective even though it may comply with what it is trying to work against. The subversion is still present therefore in a subtle way, in this case, the subtle feminist undertone to a strong woman who has been hurt but works to help others and move past it can work to break down the patriarchal system it is operating within (Hutcheon, 1986, p.117). So, comedy in a post-modern society works to both align with dominant ideologies and tear them down in an attempt to subvert our understandings of what we know as the audience. This is all to bring about an ironic viewing of the text like putting inverted commas around what is being said. The effect is to provide humour while also drawing our attention to the irony in the subversion. In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we get a clear subversion of expectations, by bringing us smart comedy within a situational comedy. It has a quality television standing but is hidden within other comedies like it. It still uses the generic production formula of any other comedy, but it tackles tougher material with a more diverse cast, and perhaps deals with the issue of capitalism itself. Jacqueline’s life is full of excess, and the show makes it very obvious how rich she is, as she is not just portrayed as rich, she is over-the-top rich. In the show, Jaqueline offers Kimmy a bottle of water, and when Kimmy refuses, Jaqueline throws the bottle away. The show is using this excess to create laughter and through that develop a critique of the hegemonic depictions of class, gender, and race through this narrative structure. But within the episodes, there are many one-liners and continuing jokes that make this show go above, and beyond other sitcoms, Jacqueline’s excess is just one, with there being constant references to how rich she is. In this, there is more than just a commentary on post-feminism and individual choice, there is also a clear critique of the system of capitalism itself, wherein Jacqueline finds fulfillment in her affluent lifestyle. But through Kimmy’s questioning, the show offers a subtle commentary on Jacqueline’s life and the systems that encourage her to continue to live that way, rather than questioning her unhappiness. In this the show uses comedy to offer more than just entertainment, it provides a critique of the systems of oppression, including capitalism.
Another important aspect of comedy outlined by Linda Hutcheon is her definition of irony in her work Irony’s Edge (1994). Verbal irony works with satire to undercut what has been said and replaces the real meaning and is part of an overlapping discursive practice in communication, in short, it is a way of reading (Hutcheon, 1994, p.3). This explains why everyone does not always ‘get’ the irony, but a text is not ironic until it is read as such (Hutcheon, 1994, p.3). The irony of Kimmy’s predicament, the use of humour to depict a woman held in a bunker for 15 years. Through the show we see her happily finding a job, a boyfriend, etc. highlighted by the happy-go-lucky titles of each episode from “Kimmy Goes Outside!” to “Kimmy Kisses a Boy!”. However, there is a much darker reality of her (un-discussed) post-traumatic stress disorder from the bunker and the trail of her kidnapper. In this, the disconnect between the darker content and the sitcom offer the audience a way to laugh and engage with the show. In more than one scene we see her strangle Titus, her experience with reoccurring nightmares, or attack on a love interest when he tries to surprise her. These visual cues are a reminder of Kimmy’s PTSD and offer indications of Kimmy’s suppression. Rather than seeming to focus on the act of the bunker, the focus is on the act of her recovery. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt commands a comedic tone to Kimmy’s life and misfortunes, where each thing that she is faced with tends to have an extremely dark undertone, but is met with a smile or cheerful saying. In this disconnect between action and reaction is where the critique, and the comedy, are found.
Satire works to de-naturalize aspects of our way of life in the form of nudging. The use of satire in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt allows us to see the show “nudging” towards our understanding of women in society (Hutcheon, 1986, p.1). This nudging works to de-naturalize dominant ideologies like patriarchy and brings to our attention that they were made by us (Hutcheon, 1986, p.1). Therefore, in nudging towards the unruly woman, the show can work to make the audience aware of beauty standards and the institutions that are portraying women who do not fit our standards as “unruly”. Unruly women, such as Kimmy, show defiance against societal gender roles and expectations and by doing this, they both reinforce and challenge these roles and expectations. Kimmy Schmidt, because she is an unruly woman, strong and loud, but also young and immature. And through all of this, she works to subvert dominant ideologies of femininity. Thus, Kimmy’s position as an unruly woman is critical in understanding how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt subverts expectations of femininity and critiques the institutions that continue to condemn women who do not fit conventional notions of femininity.
Through the vehicle of the sitcom genre, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses satire and irony to subvert expectations of viewers. Through the show’s comedy, it makes a grand statement about the state of American society, by creating humour surrounding race, sexuality, and class. Through Kimmy’s questions, the audience is invited to question why society creates these environments. So rather than just conveying humour the show also invites the audience to look at what created and enforced these experiences. All of those happens while using the structure and aspects of a sitcom, its representation of everyday life and its subversion of society. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt humour creates references to real-world subjects such as well as larger systems of oppression. This section discussed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s humour and set up the genre of situational comedies, and expectations of the genre. This was in order to show the show subverts viewer expectations and by doing so offers a critique of oppression for minorities (sexual, racial, class).
“Kimmy is Culturally Relevant!”
To show clearly how each theory can work together to create social critique in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the opening sequence functions as a contained example in which the show is set up. It offers both the audience and the storyline a clear starting point, so it seems only fitting to analyze both the opening sequence and the opening scene. The opening sequence shows how comedy and feminism work within aspects of quality television in the first ten minutes of the show, which quickly introduce how the rest of the show works. The shots that are shown in the opening sequence are shots of Schmidt and the other Mole Women leaving the bunker, Bankston, retelling what happened and shots of young girls tap dancing, eating cake, playing on monkey bars, hula hooping and a final shot of a baby falling. The lyrics are “Unbreakable, they alive dammit, it’s a miracle, unbreakable they alive dammit, females are strong as hell. Unbreakable they alive dammit, that’s going to be a…a…fascinating transition”. The imagery together with the lyrics paints the picture of our lead character, a female who has been hurt and pushed around but is not going to break because she is strong, and functions as a representation of all women. Here is the show’s call for feminism. It shows that these women are all survivors of direct male brutality. The show begins quickly with more complex storylines, innovative humor that addresses social issues and an obvious social and cultural commentary towards news coverage of events, viral videos, and victims of a tragedy. Where these are concerned, we can see Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt transcending the narrative expectations of situational comedies and using the outline of a sitcom to offer social critique. This section breaks down the opening scene, the transition, and relevance of the opening credits and the way that comedy, feminism, and quality television work together in the first ten minutes.
The shows first shot of the characters, is in the bunker, we see Kimmy, and it gives further context to the credits. The opening credits are part of this first scene and are later remixed into the opening credits. In the opening scene of the first episode, the scene that leads up to the opening credits, the Mole Women are celebrating Christmas. The lead, Kimmy is placing decorations on the tree, and learn that the women have been keeping track of the days in the bunker for 15 years. The women come together around the tree to sing a Christmas song with the lyrics “apocalypse, apocalypse; we caused it with our dumbness” to the tune of “O’ Christmas Tree”. This scene holds a lot of significance because it is the only scene in the present where the women are in the bunker. Although the show contains many, this is the single moment where the audience sees exactly how the bunker is, as many times through the show; it shows that Kimmy’s memory is not as truthful as she thinks it is. By opening with this establishing scene of Kimmy in the bunker, all of the scenes that follow can build off of this knowledge, and rather than rely on memories; the audience is granted one scene inside of the bunker. Therefore, the show offers the audience one moment of direct contact with Kimmy’s oppression.
There are multiple key points to this scene that need to be broken down: first, Gretchen tuning the crank in the back of the bunker, second, the news clip that runs and explains the situation, and thirdly, Walter Bankston, the neighbour who tells what happened to the women. Post-Christmas celebration, the women are cut off by a SWAT team breaking into the bunker and releasing the women. This scene is explained by a newswoman who, along with shots of the Mole Women and headline titles on the bottom of the screen, gives us our first explanation of the situation. One headline reads “white women found, a Hispanic woman also found”, other reads “Methuzalophsteron: Durnsville’s Worst Wedding DJ”. Both offer subsequent information that aids in visual humour, both work as examples of “visual gags”, which if noticed offer further humour to the situation but are often missed. The first is a subtle critique on the way that the news covers stories about women of colour. The latter, a humorous play on “Methuselah,” the oldest man to live in the Hebrew Bible, which functions as the Reverend’s cult alias. The show quickly bombards the audience with information about how long the women have been in the bunker, how many women there are, their kidnapper, and of course the way in which the news covers the situation. This scene is important, as it is the first scene with the Reverend, the antagonist of the show, who is only shown from behind until episode 12. He was introduced as Richard Wayne Gary Wayne: “cult leader apprehended while ‘acting weird’ at Walmart”, and accompanied by a shot of him from behind. Each episode of the television show follows this narrative structure, through the Reverend’s actions in the present and flashbacks the audience is shown how to feel about him. This connects to the show’s feminist critique, in that there is a lot of importance placed on the Reverend throughout the show. This outlines how the show emphasizes the patriarchy as the source of women’s troubles. The focus on the Reverend’s treatment of the Mole Women and his lasting effects on Kimmy’s psyche both drive her character’s motive forward and continuously present obstacles for her. In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, there is a lot of indirect focus on the Reverend and what he has done to the Mole Women. Within these first moments of the television show, the show establishes the Reverend’s character through the way other character’s talk about him.
The shows use of quality television is well observed in its opening sequence, with a complexity that calls its viewers to view it more than once, both in narrative complexity and in dialogue. As in the show’s opening sequence, the audience is shown Walter Bankston (played by Mike Britt), who explains the scene from first-hand experience. This slowly morphs into the show’s opening, which just happens to be a remixed version of Bankston’s account. The song is then used as the opening sequence for future episodes. He explains:
“what had happened was, I was outside fixing a bike tire for my grandson, when out of nowhere, 40,000 police vehicles came booking, they went bustin’ up in that weird old white dudes house, he had a cult up in there, white dudes hold the record for creepy crimes, but females are strong a hell, unbreakable, they live dammit, it’s a miracle, unbreakable they alive dammit…we lived here ten years, never seen no girls”.
The lyrics pass by quickly, they are hard to understand and easy to miss. As in the opening sequence, there are many levels of the humour in the scene that can only be fully understood by watching it more than once. Which is what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt offers with its opening sequence, a chance to revisit this important scene in each episode. The show’s complexity can be seen in its use of humour, which goes across cultural and social issues, as well as its call to past episodes and characters.
There are a few jokes that come up immediately in the first scene that arise again throughout the season. As discussed earlier, one aspect of quality television is that it has a memory, which involves referring back to old episodes. For instance, there is a moment in the opening scene where Gretchen is turning the crank. This is a joke that appears throughout the whole show, as the show offers flashback shots of various Mole Women turning the crank. In this first scene it is Gretchen, and for the entire series, they are told that they have to turn the crank continuously. In the end, they find out that it is a crank-powered generator that runs the Reverend’s television, various game systems, and stereo. A large part of Kimmy’s motivation comes from her saying “you can do anything for ten seconds” which stems from this moment in the opening scene where they are turning the crank, something we later find out is what made Kimmy capable of doing anything for ten seconds. This saying greatly effects Kimmy’s attempt to move forward in her life, while accepting the oppression of her past. Kimmy’s struggle with turning the crank directly reflects her struggles against the Reverend and her life in the bunker with her current life and how she applies her experience in the bunker to her new life. Also, how the characters around her experience trauma in their daily lives that Kimmy helps them move beyond with her quote “you can do anything for ten seconds”.
The opening scene of the first episode and the opening credits for the show are all a comedic recreation of other incidents similar to it in society. First and foremost, it reflects the events of kidnapping in Cleveland, Ohio, where on May 6th of 2013, Charles Ramsey gave his retelling of the events that occurred outside his home. Ramsey helped rescue four missing women in Cleveland, who were kidnapped and held for a decade. He also had a humorous interview recounting the events, which garnered a lot of public attention. Ramsey explains that he lives next door to the kidnapper, and on this afternoon, he heard one of the girls screaming, recalling that “I was eating my MacDonald’s, I come outside, I see this girl going nuts…I knew something was wrong when a pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!” (ABC 2013). Similarly, we are shown the Mole Women being rescued after fifteen years in the bunker, by another unassuming neighbour-come-hero who called in a suspicion. Another similarity is the distancing between the two black men who called in the crimes and the white men who are the offenders. We are shown a very close recreation of the original event. We are lead through the scene in a way that is helpful to explain how the two are related, in the same way as the original, we are given a firsthand interview with Walter Bankston- the Reverend’s neighbour. And just as Ramsey’s interview received just as much attention as the actual kidnapping of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, so does Bankston’s fame in the show. By showing these issues in a comedic and multi-layered way, the music, the voice over, and the words on the screen in the opening scene a certain viewpoint of the world is suggested, and the audience is directed to reflect back on contemporary culture and the cultural moment when they are produced (Feuer 1984). As for the meme of Bankston, it is not uncommon to see a viral video come from tragedy. For instance, the opening sequence very closely replicates that of a viral video entitled “Bedroom Intruder”, where Antoine Dodson recalls the events of the evening before when his sister was almost raped in their home. Dodson was witness to the event and was recalling the event for a local news channel. The internet took to creating “auto-tune remixes” of his interview with specific lines repeated such as: “hide your kids, hide your wife” as well as “run and tell that…you are really dumb!” (schmoyoho, 2010). These remixes, as well as the original video, quickly went viral and had over 100 million views on the original video. This situation functions almost exactly like the events shown in the opening scene of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where Bankston is giving a very animated interview, and it subsequently goes viral. In its close relationship to real-world events and viral videos, the television show’s use of this interview in its opening sequence creates a tie between its cultural context. It calls the audience to find the humour in its relationship to things in our everyday popular culture, but in the parody of these viral interviews and songs, perhaps there is a critique about popular culture as well. That we are meant to laugh at how we find the interview funny, and can all but ignore the actual events. These viral videos offer a distraction from the real problem and with our jumping off point is the viral video, we are inevitably forced to see Kimmy’s reality as a victim and how it unfolds after the viral video. Perhaps encouraging us to focus on victims of real-world crime as well. The importance then is not on Walter Bankston in this scene, but how that viral video sets up the audience to understand the rest of the television show.
Both of these stories strongly resemble Walter Bankston, who, like Brown and Ramsey, had been witnesses to shocking events, and in their retelling of the story, they all hold similar veracity that is later exploited for humour in the form of viral videos. In this, we get a parody of real-life events. In which the show is parodying the way the news can be turned into a shareable video that focuses on the witness to the crime rather than the crime itself. This scene holds expectations that its audience will be aware of stories like Brown’s and Ramsey’s so they can understand the social context of the scene. When you are aware of the relationship with the scene and real-world events, it offers a critique of the virtual culture of viral news in which events are shared and remixed, with the focus shifted away from the original accident onto the humourous witness to the accident.
The show starts off with a connection to contemporary society and culture with the reflection of humour in two tragic cases: the kidnapping case in Cleveland, and a bed intrusion. This opening sequence uses the carnage of these tragedies to propel its narrative forward, looking past the actual events to the recovery, what happens after. The humour and the light tone of the comedy masks the darker tone that the show is conveying. It is dealing with much more complex issues than most situational comedies. In the past, we have seen shows where the central component is a family, a workplace, a girl in the city, but not quite with the same backstory and undertone as this. This show, coming from the dark confines of a bunker in Durnsville, showcases the issues of power in the sexes with very blatant sexism in the Reverend’s actions towards the Mole Women. He instills fear in them that the apocalypse was their fault and because they are dumb, the earth has been engulfed in flames. Dealing with a separation of the sexes, as well as the way in which Kimmy empowers herself to keep moving on, we can look at the way feminist studies the women as placed in a binary with their male counterparts. The Reverend’s power over Kimmy remains true even when he is not shown, until the end of the first season we do not see the Reverend, however, he remains a powerful character in the show, with Kimmy referring to the bunker as a source of her struggles. So even though he is not present, his power is felt through Kimmy’s reference to him and her flashbacks.
Although this is happening in a situational comedy, the use of quality- allowing for the ensemble cast, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s use of difficult content helps it to transcend the situational comedy as it is more than entertainment. It is a social commentary about feminism and patriarchal society in which women are held for fifteen years before being released, and about the treatment of victims of such crimes after the fact, who is brought on television and judged for what happened. Kimmy had stopped to tie her shoe, Cindy was trying to be nice to the Reverend, and Donna Maria thought that it was a job. They all had very different reasons for their kidnapping, but each story has been spun so that they appear to be at fault for their circumstances. The point being, that if Kimmy had not stopped to tie her shoe, she would not have been kidnapped, rather than it being the Reverend’s fault. Through this opening scene, we see how they all ended up in the bunker, and what directly follows once they are rescued. We are shown that the Mole Women return to society with their reparation settlement money and nothing more; the audience is invited here to engage with the thought that as victims of such a crime, they should have more assistance. However, what the show reveals to us is something very different. In the television show, Kimmy’s kidnapping is so mentally damaged that almost every issue that Kimmy deals within the show is intrinsically linked to her time in the bunker, whether directly or not. Through her issues with the bunker, the show offers us a critique of the treatment of victims of major kidnappings, as well as the mediated process that victims face after, with no offer for meaningful help. Through this use of comedy to create serious social critique, we can see how quality television can be seen in practical application. It is more than simply aesthetics, and in this case, we see a show using humour to create a critique that both use the narrative expectations of situational comedies to transcend them and in that site of struggle create meaningful content. Therefore, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt works as ‘smart television’, as it can work in the same structure as other television shows, but it also uses this to break down dominant ideologies that are carried in popular culture (Imre 2009). By working within the male-dominated television industry that is created and maintained by males in dominant roles of creation, the show is attempting to tear down the system from the inside. While the show is leading the way for other shows with complex storylines that showcase women who do not fit into society’s expectations of leading roles and portrays an ensemble cast, it also still fits into the category of “situational comedy” which makes it the perfect site for social commentary.The television show may look like a colourful comedy at first, but when we look beyond the surface meaning, we can see larger structures that are at play in Kimmy’s recovery, there is also push back, by providing an audience with both greater access to the problem behind Kimmy’s struggle and a strong female role model. Which, lets the audience know, that through pushback comes change. And in that, we can see the meaning behind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
From the beginning, Kimmy’s character exudes a feminist outlook or at least a feminist critique of the world she is suddenly placed into. Earlier, post-feminism was defined as a movement away from post-feminism of the past, with a focus on individual choice as a form of social protest. There needs to be a shift back to feminism of the past, as its cause is not exerted and there is still work to be done to achieve equality. Kimmy’s character reflects this, as she a reference herself to the feminism of the past, her character functions as a time capsule of information and education that is 15 years old. This brings us back to the turn of the century, as 15 years before the first season of the show is 2000. Kimmy’s character raises questions about characters displaying these characteristics to rework the system that oppresses them. She is brought to us as the leader of the women in the bunker, a signal of hope and the only one who stands up to the Reverend. Then, throughout the show, we see her focus on the way that society has changed and witness her real-world interactions to insight change in her life. In her removal from society, Kimmy also reflects a move away from the quest for heterosexual love. Instead of attempting to find the love of a man, Kimmy is focused on her journey to live life. Her struggle is still male-centered, but rather than it being her ongoing relationship with men or a quest for a man, her struggle is centered around the conflict with the Reverend. Kimmy’s storyline shifts the focus away from a predictable storyline in which she is bound to meet a man and fall in love, with a storyline of her attempt to do everything. In some episodes, this struggle includes her different love interests, but often, it is focused on her trying to move on from her propelling action: the bunker.
The women of the bunker are shown in very traditional expectations of femininity- long, muted dresses, long braided hair, communal sharing and house activities- that include caring for one another and turning the crank. Just after the opening sequence, we are formally introduced to the women of the bunker for the first time as they are interviewed on television about being in the bunker. Here we meet Cyndee, Gretchen, Donna Maria, and Kimmy (in that order) and learn how each was captured by the Reverend. Cyndee was kidnapped outside of a steakhouse because he had invited her to his van to see some baby bunnies and she “didn’t want to be rude” (“Kimmy Goes Outside!”). The television host replies” I am always amazed at what women will do “to not be rude”. Gretchen joined willingly because the Reverend had bought some of her hair on Craigslist and then “started emailing and (she) just thought he has some really great ideas”. Donna Maria worked for a company called Happy Maids and thought that she was hired for a job. Lastly, we are introduced to Kimmy who is simply asked what she will do next, and unsure, she is released into the world. We begin this journey with Kimmy while she is still held captive. She is released without any help and tries to begin her new life; then, through each episode, we see how hard it is for her to do this. This show offers complexity in narrative and reflexivity to viewers who are thrust into a bleak livelihood inside the bunker (but not bleak in representation) and get to watch Kimmy’s recovery process. Each woman who was in the bunker was in there for an arbitrary reason, “not wanting to be rude” “trying to help a stranger” “trying to work as an immigrant” (Kimmy Goes Outside!”). This ridiculousness adds a depth to the darkness of their situation that helps viewers to both laugh at the tragedy and think through why a woman not wanting to be rude could result in her 15-year captivity. Audience members are immediately thrown into this complex situation, where minimum detail is initially given and are then constantly learning new things about Kimmy’s past. This is done through her flashbacks, her misfortunes, and the way she deals with her problems (often by referring to situations that she dealt with in the bunker).
The opening scene is structured around a self-reflexivity and consciousness towards society. It offers a critique of too much concern within oneself, where too much focus inwards will cause people to forget to question society. In this case, the opening scene addresses the need to look at society as a whole and the way in which institutions are creating a need for feminism and equality. This is done by looking at the doomsday cult as an example of male brutality, female oppression and the way society (the news, television, witnesses) treat the situation. By the quick introduction to the show’s main storyline and starting action, we see a very clear critique of society in the treatment of women, treatment of victims, tragedy, minorities and the patriarchal structure within the bunker. This analysis uses humour to unsettle social hierarchies of gender and power. In order to better understand the opening credits, we needed to also analyze the opening scene, as both play off one another.
As per quality television characteristics, this show exhibits both memory and complex storylines, which offer integrated references to other episodes and external subject matter (i.e., politically and socially relevant content). Therefore, when the television show is watched in its current historical/cultural/social context, it offers a reading of society, so rather than analyzing the television show in isolation, it is beneficial to look at the content of the television show in relation to the context in which it has been created. Through genres of laughter, this opening scene both plays within and critiques the broader systems and dominant ideologies that put them in place.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is an example of smart television. It can use the genre that it functions within to break down dominant ideologies and raise questions of the structures that keep them in place. This analysis focused on the dominant ideologies of a patriarchal society and the oppression of women in a post-feminist society. Through the use of works by theorists such as McRobbie, Kackman, Imre and Hutcheon, this paper analyzed the way that these three theories can work together to create a social critique through comedy and the use of quality television. And through the convergence we are able to see the way in which Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when analyzed within its cultural context and through specific examples from episodes and the show as a whole we can see how the show works to create something that is more than just entertainment; it is something that offers a second reading- one of the critical intentions. Through this critical analysis, we were able to see the means by which Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt relays a feminist critique on post-feminism and the place of the patriarchy in society. I believe that through this research we can look at small piece of contemporary culture and discuss the way it, within its cultural context, works to do more for television, and through that makes use of comedy to discuss social issues-but not the first, which I think is a powerful feat for something (situational comedy) being previously deemed “undeserving of academic focus” (Eaton, 1978). This study was limited in both time and length, so the concentrated focus was necessary to keep the study under control. It was a contained study in which the focus was only one season of an ongoing television show and focus on just feminist theory, with a bit of reflection on both gender and class. However, future studies should look into how these three (gender, race, and class), as well as other categorical things (ethnicity, sexuality, religion), play into the original feminist critique made from the text. As well as how these other things would play into the reading of the show’s critique of society and how it may change. Further research should look into the race relations in the show, particularly Dong’s place in the show as a Vietnamese character and Titus’s position as a cross-section of minorities. Another study could also look at the other seasons of the show, as the show is still on air there is the ability to continue to develop this argument as the series progresses. Perhaps, coming more aware and in tune with its critique as the season’s progress. Based on this research, I can assume that the need for feminism will become ever more apparent with the changing political atmosphere. There are plenty of other shows working to critique the current social, political, environmental, economic landscape. This research seeks to shed light on this ever-changing social landscape by illuminating how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt plays within its temporal context and plays to it. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses its “quality” distinction to question what we don’t. It uses thinly shaded remarks to subtly critique dominant ideologies by having characters who both embody these ideologies and rebel against them and through this it works to shake up the patriarchal structure from within.