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What it’s like to watch Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ as a Native American

Screengrab via Netflix/YouTube

What Tina Fey does is genius.

Like the Native American character in Tina Fey’s new Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I once tried to hide my identity while living in New York.

I didn’t bleach my hair blond or wear blue contact lenses like the character Jacqueline Voorhees (played by 30 Rock alumna Jane Krakowski) does as she leaves behind her Lakota parents in Bear Creek, S.D. I was passing for Puerto Rican—not white—on the upper-upper East side, Spanish Harlem. Every morning as I walked to the subway, I’d pass a large, brick apartment building and smiling, happy kids waved at me from every window and shouted out to me in Spanish, mistaking me for a member of their community. I felt both like a fraud and incredibly accepted, like I was the star of my own TV show.

How could I stop and say, “No, you’re wrong! I’m not one of you. I’m Native American!” I would find myself an outsider again like I am every day in America. So I allowed the lie to go on: I smiled and waved, enjoying pretending I belonged.

Krakowski’s character in Unbreakable is a lot more Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock than anything like me. I am serious, Ivy League-educated, and have never denied being Native American. If the kids greeting me each morning had asked me, I would have owned up to not being Puerto Rican.

As a Native American activist, I’ve written about “Redface,” and I’ve protested at Nike World Headquarters—urging them to stop selling Chief Wahoo products—and at sporting events (the Super Bowl and Washington Redskins games) and music performances (Ted Nugent and the Flaming Lips). Our goal is simple: We want Americans to see “Redface” and the stereotypes sports mascots promote as unacceptable. Study after study has found that this racist stereotyping negatively affects the self-esteem of Native youth, a group that has among the highest suicide rates (three times that of their peers) and yet is forced to face routine discrimination in high schools across the country.

We must ask: Is a white actress playing a Native American passing as white engaging in “Redface?”

It is true that parts for Native American actors in Hollywood are few and far between. To this day, a majority of casting calls, estimated at 70 percent, are still open only to white actors. That means if you are a non-white actor, the number of opportunities you have to audition in front of casting directors is much smaller. An Annenberg study done in 2013 found that 76.3 percent of all speaking characters in film were white. And yet, according to the U.S. census, only 63 percent of the country is white, and according to the Motion Picture Association, 56 percent of movie ticket buyers are white.

I’ll admit the characters of Jacqueline’s Voorhees’ parents played by Gil Birmingham (of House of Cards fame) and Sheri Foster are a bit two-dimensional, but to see actual Native actors play them is worth it. They’re a loving Native American family, even with a Jenna Maroney-type daughter dressed in whiteface. Yes, that’s how desperate we are to be seen at all on TV, and we’re not the only ones.

I recently read TV critic Jeff Yang’s article about the regrets he had about bashing Margaret Cho’s TV show All American Girl back in 1994, never realizing he’d have to wait another 20 years for a depiction of another Asian American family on TV. Now with his son, Hudson Yang, starring in the new series Fresh Off the Boat, he knows how crucial any depiction is, as imperfect as it may be. My son is about the same age as Yang’s character, Eddie, and loves the show, but when I think why, it pains me. It’s because my 12-year-old is excited just to see another boy of color on TV portraying his own experience of being the only non-white kid in suburbia. I’m glad he likes the show, but it’s disappointing that we have made so little progress in representation on TV that another generation is growing up knowing they are being excluded from American TV or film.

My fascination with Fey’s comedy comes partly from her point of view as a fellow outsider. Greek Americans share certain things in common with us: Both of our achievements are perceived as taking place only in the distant past. And like Native Americans, Greek Americans comprise only a tiny percentage of U.S. citizens—less than 1 percent, a smaller population than those who claim Native American ancestry, who make up just slightly more than 1 percent. 

In her bestseller Bossypants, Fey speaks to the experience of being too “ethnic” in America: “What 19-year-old Virginia boy doesn’t want a wide-hipped, sarcastic Greek girl with short hair that’s permed on top? What’s that you say? None of them want that? You are correct.”

So when I hear Fey is writing a character who is a “secret” Native American, I read into it her own critique of her hidden Greek identity, just like I read my own experiences into her Greek American experience. This is what people in this country do when they are not well-represented in American culture.

While her Greek identity is not immediately apparent in her productions, Fey routinely parses out the experience of being an outsider, living outside the bubble. In her show, 30 Rock, “the bubble” is exemplified by Jon Hamm’s character, Dr. Drew: Bumbling and incompetent, Hamm plays a doctor who doesn’t even know the Heimlich maneuver and makes salmon bourguison with Gatorade. However, due to the privilege of his extreme good looks, those around him routinely coddle him and lie to him, taking another bite of whatever he cooks with a reassuring smile. Living in the bubble he has not had to learn anything about the world outside himself, a reality outsiders know too well. 

Dr. Drew offers a pointed commentary on the arbitrary privileges whiteness conveys in this country. Jon Hamm is also in Unbreakable as the kidnapper who holds the women prisoner and once again, nearly gets away with it because of his looks.

Fey was featured last November on one of my favorite shows, Finding Your Roots hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates. In rewatching this episode, I was struck by what she said about her approach to her work: “I always felt like my job was just to discern how … I see this issue and then try to write a joke that is a form of telling the truth of what I see. That’s just the basic thing of a great joke, that everyone when they hear it they go, ‘Oh, that’s true, and I haven’t thought of it that way before.’”

When asked why she had given her daughters Greek names, Fey explained, “That was so important to me because you have a kid and you realize that I am an extension of a family line.”

My mom named me Jacqueline because of her school-girl fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy. My grandparents did not speak English, only Navajo. My mother “arrived” in this country when, at age 18, she left the reservation to go to college in the big city. Her first morning in this strange land, she awoke frightened and disoriented, convinced the sun had risen from the west. She was a stranger in a strange land. My Native American parents were immigrants to this country from their respective Indigenous nations. And like other immigrants, they studied American film and TV carefully for cues on how to be American and how to live among Americans whose backgrounds are not Dakota or Navajo.

As a second-generation expatriate, I’ve watched 30 Rock over the years and found myself wondering: Is this acceptable? Can I laugh at this? Why do I feel this way? What is wrong and what is right about this?

Reflecting on my own experiences with these characters, I realize Fey’s writing pushes me to a place where I am not comfortable. Her work forces me to think about race and status in a way I am not asked to do day-to-day. I live in a bubble of sorts, a privilege constructed of class, education, and some level of misunderstanding due to my ethnic identity being both unclear (no one expects to meet a Native American) and mistaken for and embraced by a large swath of the population (I’ve been mistaken for Latina, Vietnamese, Italian, and Iranian).

So when I see the opening of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with the auto-tuned “funny black neighbor” turned into a YouTube meme, my feelings are literally on hold because I still don’t know how to parse them. I can’t relax and simplistically enjoy it because I am grappling with my own feelings of entitlement, of class, a desire to be non-judgemental, and a subsequent protective reaction to put them in a drawer and forget about those feelings. I am ashamed and I am moved, but I am left changed. What Fey does is really a form of genius.

Screengrab via Netflix/YouTube