Passing for Indian in ‘Kimmy Schmidt’

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Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Tiny Fey‘s Netflix-produced satire about a naive young woman (Ellie Kemper) finding her way in the world after spending fifteen years in an underground bunker with an Indiana doomsday cult. While Kimmy fumbles her way through her new life in New York City, she befriends a number of interesting characters, including Manhattan social climber Jacqueline Vorhees (Jane Krakowski, playing a variation of the clueless blond she played on 30 Rock), who turns out to be a Lakota woman from South Dakota. A subplot in both seasons of Kimmy Schmidt explores Jacqueline’s struggle with her Lakota identity.

The show introduces Jacqueline’s background in episode three of season one, when one minor character inquires about her origins. We flashback to South Dakota in 1992, when Jacqueline Vorhees, stereotypical trophy wife, was teen Lakota Sioux girl Jackie Lynn, who rebelled against her parents, played by Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster (the actors are Comanche and Cherokee, respectively), by pretending to be white.

The younger version of Vorhees is also played by Krakowski and the casting of a white actress to play a Lakota character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does several things: it reminds us of the need for more Native American/Indigenous actors in film and TV, it points to the structures of society that favor the appearance of whiteness, and as the series progresses it points out the absurdity of the insensitivity that America has expressed towards Native Americans.

“I just want to be somebody!” Jackie Lynn proclaims in a flashback that introduces her backstory and plays into the show’s theme of identity, which also informs main character Kimmy Schmidt’s character arc . “Nothing has changed in this country. If you want to get anywhere you’ve got to be blond and white” teenage Jackie says before heading off to New York City with dreams of marrying People Magazine’s sexiest man of 1992, Nick Nolte.

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Jackie Lynn/Jacqueline bleaches her hair and wears blue contact lenses to insert herself into the world of white affluence, but when (spoiler alert) she loses her wealth at the end of season one, she retreats back to North Dakota in a season two subplot that reiterates for her the importance of asserting her true self in a world where she is expected to be nothing more than a blond trophy wife. As Jacqueline sheds her socialite status, she tackles Native American causes that her wealthy former philanthropist friends dismiss as inconsequential. Still, she charges forward and by the end of season two plots to take down the Washington Redskins.

In a daring way, the casting of a blond, white actress to play a Lakota woman brings the show’s satire back to itself, as it uses Krakowski to point to the lack of diversity in the film/TV/media worlds. The show and its casting become part of criticism towards a lack of racial/cultural diversity in the entertainment business.

 

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