CULTURE & ARTS
04/29/2016 11:30 am ET

The Native Plot On 'Kimmy Schmidt' Makes Us Cringe, But Is It All Bad?

With so little non-stereotypical representation of Native people in popular media to begin with, every bit helps.
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

When the Netflix comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” reintroduces viewers to Jacqueline -- or Jackie Lynn -- Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) in the first episode of Season 2, the blonde Manhattan socialite appears to have embraced her Lakota identity, which was revealed at the end of Season 1. Standing regally against the vast expanse of a cloudy sky on a wide-open plain, with a braid woven into her formerly sleek bob and a worn plaid shirt knotted around her waist, she gazes proudly over her domain.

Jackie Lynn has come home.

Then, a Lakota child pedals by on a bicycle and shouts derisively: “Hey, your house is that way, dummy!”

Yeah -- never mind.

If the romantic stereotype hasn’t been sufficiently shattered, Jackie Lynn’s response will do it: “Thank you! I’ve been standing here for hours! [Pause] Watch out, I pooped over there!” 

This plotline, in which Krakowski plays a comically exaggerated New York trophy wife who turns out to be a “surprise” Native American, already garnered a fair amount of scrutiny when the show’s first season premiered in March 2015. For one, Krakowski is white, playing a Lakota character, an inherent source of concern for many critics; what’s more, some of the jokes that accompanied Jacqueline rediscovering her true identity seemed to play into troublesome stereotypes. (In one scene, she howls at the sky like a wolf after seeing a high school’s offensive Indian mascot and becoming righteously enraged.)

To many viewers, seeing this less-than-surefooted racial plot led through in Season 2 was discomfiting and confusing, as Twitter reactions illustrated:

For some Native viewers, however, watching Jackie Lynn’s story develop mixed plenty of sweet with the bitter.

Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, told The Huffington Post in a phone conversation that she was conflicted about Krakowski’s casting as a Lakota woman. “On the one hand it would be great to have an actual Native actress playing that role,” she said. “On the other hand, the reveal was so unexpected in the first season that it made the commentary sort of ... interesting.”

For one thing, she pointed out, the sheer surprise factor punctured popular stereotypes of Native Americans -- how they dress, where they live, what they do, whether they even still exist. “Here, with the character of Jacqueline, there are a lot of Native people who don't fit into people's stereotypes about what Indian people should be wearing on the reservation,” she explained. “And ... most Native people don't live on the reservation.” According to the last census, 78 percent of Native Americans live outside of reservations; in fact, New York City is home to more Native Americans than any other place, with over 50,000 Native residents.

Still, having a white woman playing a Native woman passing as a white woman makes for risky comedy, especially when Jackie Lynn’s once-intentional ignorance of her Lakota culture becomes the butt of the joke. She “milks” a male buffalo and puts the result in the refrigerator; she replaces a traditional pipe with a tobacco vape; she barely knows how to survive in a totally modern Lakota household. When her desperately annoyed parents, Virgil (Gil Birmingham) and Fern (Sheri Foster) teach her what they claim is a vitally important corn dance so they can get her out of their hair, she doesn’t realize it’s actually the electric slide with ridiculously cheesy lyrics addressed to a “corn god” -- until the young girl rides by on her bike again and laughs at her as she performs the “ritual” in a field. 

What’s really the joke here? Viewers might fairly wonder. “At the start of the new season there were a few moments where I cringed because it seemed like we were supposed to laugh at Native stereotypes, which really aren't that funny,” Cutcha Risling Baldy, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University, told HuffPost in an email. Even though the jokes seem to be intended to satirize clueless white people, the risk remains that they won’t land with everyone. “I know how I see it,” she wrote, “and then how it might be perceived by someone who doesn't have the same information or who is really only engaging with Natives through portrayals on TV or in the movies.”

The inclusion of Native characters, portrayed by Native actors, as the sympathetic figures, played an important role in smoothing this dynamic, however. “Really what she's doing through most of that trip ... is channeling other Americans' ideas about Native people. And rarely do you get to see Native Americans respond back,” Keeler pointed out. “Seeing Native actors being able to respond ... was actually, really, for me, a gratifying experience.” 

In an interview with Signature Reads, Sheri Foster emphasized that the show's writers were "not writing a story that’s mocking our ways — our kid is doing that, for sure, but as parents our characters are there to say that’s totally unacceptable."

Jackie Lynn’s development as a character throughout the season, both Risling Baldy and Keeler say, was encouraging. When she returns to New York City, the now-divorced socialite decides to regain her social status and wealth by marrying another billionaire, and to use that money and clout to agitate for Native American causes.

This turns out to be a bumpy process, as she struggles to find an identity without a rich husband and an effective way to fundraise for Native American causes in the face of wealthy white donors who openly applaud the purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape for $24 in the 17th century.

“What I really saw shining through was this idea that her Native culture and heritage mattered, even if she wasn't talking about it every single day, it mattered to her life,” Risling Baldy said of the activist plotline. “So when she is confronted with what she can do about it, and how much education still needs to happen, and how little respect Native people actually get, that felt very nuanced to me.” As the season progresses, it’s not Jackie Lynn’s stereotypical Indian stunts that aim for laughs, but the absurdity of the white American power structure that propagates those stereotypes, and that openly dismisses the real issues and concerns of Native people.

As the season ends, Jackie Lynn has joined forces with her new beau, Russ Snyder (David Cross) -- a social justice lawyer who, she learns at his family’s Thanksgiving, is one of the Snyders who owns the Washington Football Team -- to take down the team’s much-protested Indian mascot. “I am actually looking forward to next season,” Risling Baldy told HuffPost. “I hope they go over the top when it comes to the possible portrayal of NFL owners. I hope they bring on actual Native activists to be on the show.”

If the showrunners care as much as they seem to about portraying Jackie Lynn’s character with nuance and sensitivity, they could take a lot of meaningful steps for Season 3. “I would love to see an episode that is just full on Jacqueline's Native family,” pointed out Risling Baldy. “It sets things up for what could be a really hilarious spinoff (hint hint Netflix).” Bringing real Native activists, or even casting Native actors as existing anti-mascot activists, on the show as part of Jackie Lynn’s new mission to take down the Washington mascot would also emphasize the real work being done by Native Americans to address injustice.

Perhaps most importantly, Keeler suggests: “I think the next step would be actually to have Native writers to write about these topics, because we can handle it in a way that's very ... is very specific to our situation. I think when you are a Native person who lives in America, you already know how to blend the two.”

At a panel last year, co-creator Robert Carlock stated that the show has “a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage ... So we felt like we had a little room to go in that direction.“ Though many outlets have quoted this offhand statement about the writing staff of “Kimmy Schmidt,” Keeler was skeptical. “One of the issues with being Native is our identity has been very shaky, of course, as the result of genocide and the attempt to cloud our political system,” she explained. “I'm a citizen of the Navajo nation. These are actual, legal ... it's like being French, or German ... Descendancy is not the same thing.”

At the time of writing this piece, Netflix had not responded to our request for further comment on the show’s staff composition. 

Foster, in her interview with Signature Reads, strongly defended the sensitivity and insight of the show's writing staff, however. "They totally respect us, they totally respect our ways," she said. "They never make fun of us. It’s a satirical comedy, that’s the funny part, you know? And if you want something different, then why don’t you produce your own thing -- and I’ll work for you, too! They’re hiring Native people, for crying out loud."

This is not to invalidate the feelings of any Native person who is offended by "Kimmy Schmidt" -- no group is a monolith -- but it's telling that most of the harshest public critiques about the show's treatment of the Lakota plotline have come from non-Native critics. If TV creators and critics aren't listening to the conversations actual Native American viewers are having about their portrayals in pop culture, and what they want to see in the future, they're bound to miss a lot of important truths.

Keeler and Risling Baldy, who have both written thoughtfully about “Kimmy Schmidt” and its treatment of Native Americans, tend to lean toward optimism when it comes to the controversial show. 

“As the season went on, I found myself more interested in Jacqueline's character as a comedic response to what it's like to figure out how little people really know or care to know about living Native people,” Risling Baldy told HuffPost. “A lot of the kind of humor that Tina Fey does is very challenging and discomforting,” Keeler said, “but I think there's more good in the character than bad.”

Part of the value simply comes from portraying Native experiences and struggles -- in addition to providing some sharp commentary, like Jackie Lynn’s flabbergasted “The Redskins? How is this still a thing?” -- on a popular TV show. This shouldn’t be such a significant victory, but to some degree, it is. For now, at least.

“We are 1.5 percent of the population,” said Keeler. “You'd think one in 100 TV writers would be actually Native American, or one in 100 TV producers. There's really no reason Native people should not be represented and be in the position to be able to tell their stories. I look at Shonda Rhimes’ work a lot ... and how she's been able to get complicated African-American women characters on primetime TV. We need that. We need our own Shonda Rhimes.”

HuffPost

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