ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: How ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Skewers Empowerment Culture

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: How ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Skewers Empowerment Culture

nullBack in the early 2000s, a friend and I worked together on
creating a musical medley based on all our favorite songs. We featured artists from
Ani Difranco to Radiohead. Our favorite silly addition was a song by Ja Rule
and Ashanti called “Mesmerize” which was utterly and fantastically terrible. In
my favorite line of this atrocious song Ashanti sings about how, for a woman,
love is always pain, to which Ja Rule sweetly and patronizingly replies, “It’s
a man’s world. But I understand.” 

Barring the fact that these lyrics seem like a complete non
sequitur, the assertion that female pain is a kind of status quo smacked deeply
of condescension. The fact that this catchy and absurd song got airplay
multiple times a day, as if we all could seemingly care less about what a dumb message
this was sending us, made it feel as though it were actually benign.

I laughed when I first heard the lyrics. I grew up in a home
where a woman’s identity was measured by suffering. In the world of my mother’s
telenovelas, women were constantly
beating their breasts and crying and cursing the heavens. To be a woman was to
endure various pains—the pain of childbirth, the pain of philandering boyfriends
and husbands, often the pain of domestic abuse. Young beautiful women
experienced pain at being harassed, and older, less beautiful women faced
instead the pain of invisibility.

I think for a long time I felt that if I could be as “American”
as possible I could be free from this old-fashioned and debilitating portrait
of what it meant to be female. After all, in America I received lots of
messages of “girl power.” But these messages never seemed to reach the women of
my generation, myself often included, and, ten years later, many of my young
American female students are consumed with the same fears and kinds of sadness
that I tried to shut my eyes to when I was young. They worry about how they
look, and if they are likeable enough. They worry about if they are too girly,
or not girly enough. They worry about whether they’ll be objectified or
ignored. Room after room of young women who feel no more empowered than I did
at their age. Room after room of young women who laugh off a sexist song
because it just hurts too much to actually confront what it means.

The Unbreakable Kimmy
is about a woman who was kidnapped by an insane preacher when she
was 14 years old, and held underground in a bunker for 15 years. When she
emerges she’s ebullient. Her personality is infectious. Her desire to rebuild
her life and not be seen as a victim is palpable. In the opening credits, we
get this nifty autotuned theme song with the catchy lyrics, “White dudes hold
the record for creepy crimes. But females are strong as hell.”

This idea of female strength and solidarity pervades the
entire series, as Kimmy offers words of wisdom to her boss, Jacqueline, who is
struggling to come to terms with her life after her divorce. “I survived,”
Kimmy opens up to her, “because that’s what women do. We eat a bag of dirt,
pass it in the kiddie pool and move on.” In one episode, Kimmy attempts to give
a pep talk to a bunch of women awaiting plastic surgery. In another, Kimmy
helps rescue a bunch of women from an exercise-based cult.

One of the most subversive things about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way the show satirizes the way
that survivors are often victimized by a culture that cares more about juicy
details than actual healing. The show also demonstrates how the “women are
strong” narrative that emerges from this culture might not be as feminist as
one might hope. On the one hand, the narrative of female strength frees women
from the stereotype of femininity as weak and submissive. On the other, it
presents female strength as deriving entirely from the ability to endure
patriarchal injustice after patriarchal injustice over and over again. In this
way, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also
skewers “empowerment culture,” from the girl power ethos of the 90s to today’s #yesallwomen
activism. Women in empowerment culture band together out of necessity, not
necessarily because they have a lot in common as individuals, or truly want to
be friends, or comrades in arms. The four “mole women” could not be more
different from each other in interests, attitudes in life, cultural background,
or intellectual ability. Similarly, Kimmy and Jacqueline bond over their
identity as women and survivors, but could not be more different in about every
other way imaginable.

Over the last several years, funny women like Tina Fey, Amy
Poehler and Amy Schumer have been heralded as ushering in a new wave of
feminist comedy. I feel lucky to be living in a time period where women’s
rights provide a topic of popular conversation, but I can’t help but also sometimes
feel frustrated by the popular response to shows like these, where we’ll laugh
at how terrible sexism is but feel powerless to actually change the current
culture. While humor is an effective way to get people to think more critically
about sexism, I also worry that many people are completely content to laugh and
then go along with the status quo.

And sometimes I do feel like a “humorless feminist” when it
comes to certain topics. I don’t think domestic violence or rape or eating
disorders are funny. When people talk about women’s strength as coming from
surviving these types of experiences, the only thing I can think of is that
dumb Ja Rule lyric from over a decade ago. It’s still a man’s world. I don’t
want to be told I’m strong anymore. What I want is for the culture to actually change.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Kimmy’s close
friend Titus offers to be in charge of music for her birthday party (all of
Kimmy’s musical knowledge is based on 90s hits from when she was barely out of
middle school). After playing a bunch of house music, Kimmy asks for some music
with lyrics and gets the charming little ditty, “I beat that bitch with a bat,”
of which there is both a club version, and slower acoustic version. It’s
shocking and funny and ridiculous, except that we’ve all been to a party like
that, where we’ve heard similar kinds of lyrics. We laughed at it until we
didn’t, and then the words just faded quietly into the sound of everything

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

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