The new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt includes a Native American subplot that has sparked debate both within Indian country and among non-Native viewers. The protagonist, Kimmy, is hired as a nanny to the children of a wealthy Manhattan mom, and before too long the audience learns Kimmy's boss has a secret: She's American Indian. The boss, Jacqueline, is played by Jane Krakowski, a sitcom veteran who is not Native. Her parents are played by Gil Birmingham, Comanche, and Sheri Foster, Cherokee. Jacqueline is passing as white; Jane Krakowski is a white actress playing a Native character who is passing as white—is there a problem here? Last week, ICTMN ran a piece that included opinions from two non-Native TV critics who felt that yes, there was something off-putting about this plot element.
Judging by Twitter chatter, some Native viewers agree—but many others don't. Jiwere-Nutachi/Chahta journalist Johnnie Jae, co-editor of Native Max magazine, has watched the whole first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and approves of the Native storyline. We asked her to explain.
What was your reaction to the Native subplot as you were watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
I was waiting for a cringe-worthy moment once the Native subplot was introduced. I was thinking, "Oh no, here we go again". But that cringe-worthy moment never appeared and I found myself cracking up. The conversations that Jacqueline had with her parents reminded me of some of the conversations that I had with relatives when I took an interest in doing things that you don't normally associate with Natives. So I think they nailed the conversations between Jacqueline and her parents, especially when she told them she was no longer going to be Native because "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde and white."
That's a good line, but she could have said simply "If you want to get anywhere, you need to be blonde." Does pulling an entire race into the conversation, and making this about race when it doesn't need to be, trivialize the issues Native people face?
No, I don't think so because talking about race is not a bad thing, and that particular line has some undeniable truth in the mainstream media. Look at most news anchors, actresses, musicians, et cetera—blonde and white. Jacqueline's story also illustrated a few other issues that rarely get discussed. There's the fact that Natives come in various shades of brown—yes, you can be Native even if you "look" white. So many Native people hear that: "You're Native American? Hmm, you don't look like it." The show is also addressing the white privilege afforded to those same white-passing Natives. It's not trivializing these issues, it's bringing them out in the open. There's a very real sentiment that to be successful in the mainstream world, we need to be less Native. Some of us deal with this feeling every day.
Should the show have cast a Native actress in the role?
Let's be honest, if they had cast an obviously Native woman in Jacqueline's role and put a blonde wig on her, the storyline wouldn't work. She'd just be a blonde Native trying to be white and her reality would be different from Jacqueline's reality. The reason Jacqueline's character has the lifestyle she does in show is because she could pass for white and was able to benefit from the white privilege that goes along with that. I'd also like to add that Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster were amazing and spot on with the Native humor. The show also has Azie Dungey ("Ask a Slave") on board and I trust her with this storyline.