In The Jerk, protagonist Navin Johnson, played by Steve Martin, introduces himself with the line "I was born a poor black child." And it's funny, because it's not true. A new TV sitcom is trying to play a Native-character-who's-obviously-not-Native for laughs, and is catching some heat for it.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix original series, debuted on Friday, March 6, to critical acclaim. Created by Tina Fey, the show is about a young woman (Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper) who has escaped an apocalyptic religious cult and is starting her life anew in New York City.
The show has a Native American subplot (most seem to, these days), and this is where it runs into some trouble. Kimmy gets a job as a nanny, working for Jacqueline Voorhees, played by Jane Krakowski (last seen on Tina Fey's successful 30 Rock). And Jacqueline has a secret: She's American Indian.
Oh, right—spoiler alert.
Jacqueline, so the back-story goes, left her people, culture, and parents—played by Comanche actor Gil Birmingham and Cherokee actress Sheri Foster—behind to become a white woman (she dyes her hair and begins wearing blue contacts) and pursue her dreams of being a well-off Manhattanite. To an extent, her story of reinvention mirrors the main plotline: Kimmy's efforts to live her life after escaping the cult. Yet if that's what's going on, there are problematic parallels: That being born Native is like being born into a cult, that "escaping" Native culture is necessary to get somewhere in life. Admittedly, that is an emotional reaction, but it's there.
Writing for AV Club, Kalya Kumari Upadhyaya grants that the subplot isn't an inherently terrible idea—it's just terribly executed. "As a mixed race and often white-passing person myself, pretending to be white is a reality I’m all too familiar with," Upadhyaya writes. "But Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t seem like the right show to tackle that. Or, more accurately, the very white Jane Krakowski doesn’t seem like the right actor to tell this story. It’s a whitewashed plot about whitewashing. And it just feels off. Krakowski should not be playing a Native American character, even one who has decided to pretend to be white."
At one point, a character (not Jacqueline) laments that one of the indignities thrust upon Native Americans is being played by Mexicans on TV. So... what does that line mean when the "Indian" in the room is played by Krakowski? Is the show's casting of Krakowski meant to be a joke in itself—and is this the show making a joke about its own joke?
Libby Hill, writing for New York magazine's Vulture.com, is also baffled by Jacqueline's origins, musing that "There must be more compelling (and funnier!) ways to give Jacqueline a backstory that don’t require sloppily marginalizing a group of people who are already as marginalized as you can get."
"Think of it this way," Hill continues. "Is there any other race Krakowski could have played without raising a substantial uproar? ... If we take the show at its word, we are laughing at a Native American woman who felt so uncomfortable in her skin and in not being a member of the dominant culture, she sold her soul to look the way she thought she should. That’s not funny; it’s disturbing. Not just because the pressure to Anglicize exists for so many cultures in America today, but because of how this very country systematically stripped the Native American people not only of their culture, but of their lands, too, not so very long ago."
Upadhyaya sees the Native storyline as a troubling way to make a simple point: "'Why does it matter where I’m from? It’s where I’m going that counts,' Jacqueline asks. Sure, yes. That seems to be the character’s central philosophy. But we probably could have gotten there in a different, less whitewashy way."
Here's another way we could have gotten there: Keep the Native American character, and hire a Native American actress, one who looks like she might share a single gene with pappy Gil Birmingham, to play her. Irene Bedard and Kimberly Norris Guerrero are contemporaries of Krakowski, either of them with dyed-blonde hair would be funny—funnier than a white woman playing a Native who is passing as white. When a character is passing as another race, the comedic question is Who does she think she's fooling? But instead of a joke within the narrative, any moderately intelligent viewer is more likely to feel like the show's creators are trying to pull a fast one: Do they really expect us to believe she's Native American?
Krakowski, though, is a selling-point of the show; she comes with the fairy dust of 30 Rock and Ally McBeal on her. Tina Fey and company would sooner rewrite the character than replace her with a Native actress. So perhaps they should have rewritten the character. As much as we like—correction: we love—seeing Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster in a sitcom, watching them pretend to be Jacqueline's biological family is unsettling, on more than one level.
As Libby Hill says in the conclusion of her Vulture article, "What's most disheartening about this isn't that it exists, it's that apparently, nobody thought it would raise alarms at all."