Originally posted May 1, 2015
When Kimmy Schmidt first arrives in New York, she has thousands of dollars in Mole Women pity earnings packed into a purple monogrammed JanSport. She drops a few bucks on light-up high tops straight out of her youth and gleefully makes her way through the city in floral print, bright jeans, and a butterfly-appliqué cardigan. Kimmy’s young bliss and sunniness was an intentional move on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creators and writers Tina Fay’s and Robert Carlock’s part. After all, it’s a show about starting over, but it’s also about learning to get from adolescence to adulthood and being able to enjoy the ride, despite setbacks.
Unsurprisingly for Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is packed with images of strong womanhood. It’s a unique perspective from 30 Rock though because of the show’s keen focus on girlhood—Kimmy is, after all, only 14 when she is kidnapped and trapped in an apocalypse cult leader’s underground bunker. After a raid on the bunker frees her at 29, she has to start from scratch to not only get her girlhood life back but also make her way into the larger world beyond her native Indiana, the trauma of the bunker, and the slew of challenges that come with being female, victimized, uneducated, and ill-prepared.
Her first day in the big city starts off reasonable but takes a rocky turn when all her money is stolen and she loses her new nanny job as quickly as she found it. Her new roommate, failing actor Titus Andromedon, tells her to pack up and go home—New York isn’t for her. Crestfallen and bound for the bus to Indiana, Kimmy sees a reminder of her time in the bunker, a moment when she’d promised her kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, that he’d never break her. She gets her second wind. She won’t go back home and be the Mole Woman victim because she’s more than that. She convinces Titus to agree with her: “We have to say, We’re different, we’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.” Together, they stare the world in the face and make the most of where their detoured situations have dropped them.
The show is an entertaining and comedic watch, but there’s also a lot there in terms of critiquing girlhood and womanhood in general. For starters, Kimmy is mirrored by her employer, socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock fame), who is revealed to be fairly trapped by marriage, materialism, and helplessness and runs from her Native American heritage in favor of the blonde bombshell ideal. To boot, Jacqueline’s step-daughter Xanthippe comes off as the spoiled, bad-egg teenager who stands as another foil to Kimmy. Early on, Xanthippe promises to eat Kimmy alive while throwing her into the deep end of girlhood tropes: “Disney lies to little girls,” she snarls. “Stepmothers aren’t scary. Nannies aren’t magical, and dwarfs do not let you sleep in their house without expecting something.” In other words, life totally isn’t going to be what idealistic Kimmy Schmidt from Indiana expects. And it will swallow her up.
But Kimmy is unbreakable. It’s interesting to notice how Jacqueline and Xanthippe grow with Kimmy—who struggles through typical girlhood hurdles of going back to school, having crushes, battling mean girls, and wearing lots of bright colors. It’s revealed slowly that even cynical Xanthippe isn’t as clear cut as she looks: for all her boasting about partying and sex, she’s actually straight edge and sexually inexperienced. She turns out to be just like Kimmy, wading in a current of girlhood pressures that call for beauty performance, partying, cliquiness, and relational aggression. The show takes all the tropes of performing femininity and turns them, revealing something fresh and instructive on what it means to get from girl to woman.
It’s telling that the overarching theme of the show is how to get from victimized to empowered, with a lot of sunny comedy to guide the way. The plot plays on the cult concept of religious fundamentalism—with Colorado City–style rhetoric and prairie dresses to match—and the idea of patriarchy silencing and belittling girls and women. The Mole Women haven’t known much else, so they believe (for the most part) in their inferiority. When they’re released, they’re defined as Mole Women by outsiders, and after a TV interview they’re shooed out of the studio and onto the street by a production assistant who repeats, “Thank you, victims! Good luck!” There’s something fresh about a show that sets up how society sees the protagonist and then defying that stereotype in all ways, without coming off as just another re-birth story. Kimmy Schmidt has added to the canon of girlhood and feminism, giving us just one more reason to put away all the harmful tropes and setbacks working against us, to stand up and be unbreakable.