clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why does Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt keep choosing race as a hill to die on?

The show tries to take on outrage culture by letting Titus play a geisha. It never makes a clear point.

Titus (Tituss Burgess) in character as a geisha for his controversial one-man show
Netflix

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't bulletproof.

Though it mostly charmed and sparkled in its first season, the Netflix sitcom from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock came under scrutiny for how it treated race. In particular, many people felt the show bungled its portrayal of Jacqueline Voorhees's (Jane Krakowski) Native American ancestry. Vulture called the subplot "ultimately offensive," BuzzFeed said the show had a "major race problem," and the Daily Beast said the show's approach to race "leaves much to be desired."

In the third episode of its second season, called "Kimmy Goes to a Play," Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt seems to be addressing its and Fey's biggest critics. Titus (Tituss Burgess) faces an internet boycott of his upcoming play, in which he stars as the geisha he believes he was in a past life. Asian people are offended by the project and want to shut it down — they find out through the internet, and the outrage and backlash builds online. But by the end of the episode, the internet mob comes to realize the play is not the mockery of Asian culture they feared, and that they're the ones who are acting like jerks.

It's a reflexive, smirky response to people who aren't happy with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's past treatment of race. But is it successful? Does it offer a brilliant argument against the show's biggest critics? Alex Abad-Santos and Caroline Framke discuss.

Alex: So. Wow. This episode. What in the fuck did I just watch?

Caroline: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt trying desperately to say something about Internet Culture Today while also desperately trying to pretend it doesn't care.

Alex: But it does care. It cares so much. And this plot is vaguely based on the controversies with modern-day adaptations of The Mikado. Want to explain?

Caroline: Sure. In 2014, a Seattle theater troupe put on an all-white production of ​The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 opera that’s set in Japan (though they mostly used that setting as a cover to criticize British society). The white actors wore black wigs and heavy makeup to make themselves appear more Asian, and on top of Gilbert and Sullivan’s already exaggerated Japanese caricatures, it wasn’t a cute look. The same thing happened in New York last year — two out of 40 performers were of Asian descent — and it was torn to shreds on the internet.

Alex: Right. The main question and critique of the play wasn't about the caricatures of Asian people. The play was written ages ago, and racism was the norm at the time. What was so puzzling was the lack of awareness; no one seemed to be considering the inherent message that an all-white cast in yellowface playing characters named "Nanki-poo" and "Yum Yum" sends today. With the right creative team, I think The Mikado could be adapted in a way that its silliness and comedy would shine. But no one made any effort to do that when it was produced in Seattle and New York.

Caroline: But this isn’t just about The Mikado; casting white actors in Asian roles or making a racist role worse with white actors performing hyperbolic portrayals happens all the time. Literally just last week, we saw the first photo of Scarlett Johansson as "Major Motoko Kusanagi" in the film adaptation of the Japanese manga comic Ghost in the Shell. Johannsson, as you might be aware, is not Asian. That apparently didn’t stop the production from trying to make her look more Asian, instead of just, you know, hiring an Asian actress to play the part in the first place.

Alex: And with all that swirling in the pop culture blender, we have this boring turd of a episode. Titus believes he was a geisha in a past life and wants to create a play about it. But he finds himself in trouble with a bunch of grumpy, hating Asians who are part of the group called Respectable Asian Portrayals in Entertainment.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (Netflix)

The members of the group are painted as ignorant internet users ("anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses") who will get offended at anything and are just being mean to Titus for no good reason.

Caroline: The climax of "Kimmy Goes to a Play" — written by Sam Means — comes when Titus sings at those unhinged, offended Asian bloggers until they come around and realize they were the assholes all along. Essentially, the episode argues that Titus's portrayal of Asian culture is beautiful enough to negate the angry internet takedowns written by the good members of RAPE (ugh) in response to his mere announcement of the show. They were just offended for the sake of being offended.

"Kimmy Goes to a Play" is peppered with Kimmy Schmidt's main cast wondering why people on the internet get so mad about things they haven't even seen yet. And if the episode is intended to be a response to fierce criticism over Kimmy Schmidt's Native American plot line in season one (more on that later), it's confusing; in that case, people were reacting after having seen the material in question. That backlash certainly wasn't preemptive, as it's depicted here.

The episode also totally forgets — or maybe purposely sidesteps — the fact that there are real reasons people have trouble giving entertainment the benefit of the doubt when it comes to portraying race.

Like I said in my overall season two review, there are definitely jokes to mine from knee-jerk outrage and circular debates — but this episode didn't find them. Come on, Kimmy Schmidt. You're capable of writing sharper jokes than, "What do we do now that we're not offended? I feel weird."

What is it with Tina Fey's obsession with Asian people?

Alex: The odd thing about this episode is that it's another Tina Fey project that paints Asian people, specifically Asian women, as crappy characters.

In Mean Girls it's the two named, female Asian characters — Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh — who have an inappropriate relationship with and fight over Coach Carr. In Sisters, there's a Korean character named Vicki who gets made fun of when she reveals her Korean name; later, Vicki goes to a party and acts sexually aggressive and is trying to find a husband so she can bring her brothers and sisters to America.

Now on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the members of RAPE are portrayed as idiotic and ignorant, complete with an on-the-nose acronym. One of them actually vanishes into thin air when she can no longer find something to be offended by. The plot feels like a pointed, ironic response to anyone who has criticized Fey's past projects for being lazy and racist.

To be very clear, Fey is allowed to create the art she wants to create. But why does she continue returning to the well of ironic racism if she truly believes the people she's offending are just hosers yelling at her genius? Why this is the hill she seems intent on dying on is mystifying to me.

Caroline: Fey hates the internet, and I get it. When you're making something creative, you don't want to be so bogged down in the possibilities of shitty commenters or myopic backlash. I have never once heeded that old internet chestnut, "Don't read the comments," and I've almost always regretted it.

But when I asked Fey about this episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt back in January, at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, my question was if she thought any online criticism could be valid. The answer? "People have the freedom to write what they want. We also have the freedom to not care."

Out of context and as a general statement, that line earned a positive response on Twitter. But as a response to this particular episode, it kind of sucks. There's a difference between not letting the haters get you down and absolving yourself of any responsibility when you write racist jokes.

Alex: This isn't to say there aren't internet mobs that blow issues out of proportion. The internet is all about outrage. But in season one it felt like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was trivializing Native American heritage, and in season two it feels like the show is trivializing yellowface — just to make a point. Further, the show has failed to address the criticism it's facing in any meaningful way.

There's no nuance to it. And if you follow the logic of "Kimmy Goes to a Play" to its conclusion, it's basically an argument of "not all blackface."

The episode becomes an argument where the only people who object to whitewashing, blackface, or yellowface and advocate for non-racist portrayals are too easily offended and don't deserve to be heard. But at no point does anyone acknowledge that blackface/yellowface/whitewashing is actually an offensive thing that happens.

Kimmy Schmidt doesn't make the point it thinks it's making about how the internet is bad. It just proves it's insecure about criticism.

Angry Asians show up and call Titus a "Hitler" for putting on a one-man geisha show.
Netflix

Caroline: Let’s be real: This episode is way less about The Mikado than it is about flipping off the people who gave the first season of Kimmy Schmidt shit for casting Jane Krakowski as a (partial) Native American. It's think piece bait, and we're taking it.

Alex: But it isn't just about casting Krakowski as a Native American; it's also about writing some terrible lines for her character and her onscreen Native American family to say.

Caroline: For sure. And while it did present Krakowski's Jacqueline as overtly clueless about Native American traditions, it was hard not to cringe every time she did something egregious, like howl at the moon. I would say the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does about as good a job of course correcting on that storyline as it can, considering the hole the show dug in its first season, and the season two finale — spoiler alert! — makes it look like season three will apparently be about Jacqueline trying to take down the Washington Redskins, which, sure.

But I just don't think this episode's "Titus as a geisha" storyline is making a larger point about how we talk about race. It's making a point about criticism — or trying to, anyway.

This confusion over addressing criticism — or even just discussion outside the show about the show — also happened with 30 Rock. Take the Tracy Jordan Hates Idiots two-parter from 30 Rock's sixth season, which saw Tracy Morgan's character going on a homophobic rant — like the actor reportedly did in real life during a standup set. The ensuing episodes concluded that Jordan wasn't a homophobe; instead, they declared he was just an idiot, which then offended self-professed "idiots," and on the circle went.

Tracy Jordan and Denise Richards spoke up for idiots on 30 Rock.
Netflix

The Carlock-penned second half of that two-parter ("Idiots are People Three!") loses the plot almost immediately, and any point it might have wanted to make about the power of intention gets lost in muddled jokes — not to mention the fact that Jordan's rant on the show is much less vitriolic than Morgan's was in real life. (Morgan allegedly said he would stab his son to death if Morgan found out he was gay.)

As a response to that incident, the two-parter wasn't thoughtful so much as it was defiant. Just like "Kimmy Goes to a Play," it felt like 30 Rock was trying to flip off critics, but it almost immediately diverted from an actual issue to make a point that was ... well, beside the point.

How 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt react to criticism shows that the more you talk about how much you don't care about something, the more it's obvious you absolutely do care. And one thing that both Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock — both created by Fey and Carlock — determinedly fail to recognize is that there's a real difference between reasoned criticism and knee-jerk Twitter mobs.

Alex: Right. Like, you could disagree with Fey or Carlock's politics but still find what they create funny. And there are moments in this episode — like the recurring DJ joke about how deejaying isn't a real profession, or the "Bad Doug" scene — that are actually kind of great.

Caroline: Yes. And Kimmy struggling to catch up with basic technology, and being completely confused by the way people talk and debate online, was a smart way to bring her into this story.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, though, Carlock seemed nervous about this episode — and it shows. It’s totally jumbled. I didn't come away with a clear idea of what "Kimmy Goes to a Play" is trying to say — that all criticism is bad? That the internet is bad? That racebending isn't offensive if you have good intentions, and shut up you dumb bloggers? And I just don't believe the episode itself has any idea.

Alex: What's interesting to me is the dissonance between Fey's projects and the image she projects. When Fey's advice book, Bossypants, came out in 2011, she became a patron saint of feminism. Now she's behind the scenes of projects that fall short of that image. As a result, her fans are faced with a serious question: Is it okay to like Fey's feminism when you don't like how insensitive she can be about race? It comes back to that saying, "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit."

And it's not like anyone's asking her to move universes here. They're asking for baseline stuff: a portrayal of Native Americans, and now Asians, that isn't lazy or racist, or at least an explanation of why she depicts them the way she does.

When I first heard about the subject matter of "Kimmy Goes to a Play," I wanted to watch it in full before passing judgment on it. That's the point the episode is making — that you shouldn't go online and whine about the mere idea of a movie or TV show or other creative work until you've actually consumed the work in its entirety. But when it comes to addressing its own argument, "Kimmy Goes to a Play" is not funny or particularly thoughtful.

Caroline: And let's not forget: 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are otherwise well-received shows. Critics liked the first season of Kimmy Schmidt far more than they didn't; the "but that Native American plot..." caveat was more often addressed as a disappointing sidebar to an otherwise great review.

So not only is it weird that the show spent an entire episode fixating on criticism, it's downright baffling that it keeps trying and failing to make racial jokes that Say Something about our society today. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is already so good at just about everything else; it doesn't need to push this particular envelope. But if it's going to insist on doing so, it needs to start by figuring out what point it's actually trying to make.