The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Isn’t Racist, But…

Promo for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is hilarious. Audiences and critics having been, for the most part, singing its praises. It’s not a huge show by any means (and Netflix’s refusal to disclose its numbers continues to make it difficult to truly quantify its success), but simply by paying attention to social atmosphere and various review sites, along with a guaranteed season two, you can easily surmise that the show’s cult audience is thriving.

Its success, however, is tainted somewhat by a wave of criticisms of its approach to racial humor (here’s just one of the many, many thinkpieces about it). It’s odd to hear so much criticism of a show that’s not Two Broke Girls and/or something from the mind of Daniel Tosh or Seth MacFarlane. I mean, Tiny Fey? The darling girl of 30 Rock and SNL’s more successful runs put to task about the show’s alleged racism? Never thought I’d see that day.

After binging through the show though, while I can certainly see why so many people are making this argument, I don’t think the show is racist at all. Or rather, I don’t think it’s “racist” in the way that such a loaded word tends to imply. Tiny Fey and Robert Carlock’s new show certainly isn’t intentionally racist, that’s for sure. The problem is that its unilateral focus on Kimmy Schmidt’s life has indirectly weakened its portrayal of the various characters around her. It’s not racist per se, it’s poor characterization, resulting in racist (and homophobic) impressions.

Personally, I’ve always had an issue with how Tiny Fey portrayed minorities. I’ve only seen a few episodes of 30 Rock, but of the ones I did see, they too had somewhat disingenuous racial connotations (specifically I’m talking about this episode), particularly when they’re all centered around a successful white woman who also happens to be neurotic (the pretty white people with problems syndrome, or PWPWP, pronounced “pwip-pwip”). I don’t think its necessarily Fey’s fault though. I think the general narrative that tells the story of a single character’s journey through a troublesome point in his or her life tends to lead to poorly structured characters around them. If you’re not careful, that can lead to a lot of uncomfortable moments.

Bojack Horseman, another cult-hit Netflix show, has a similar issue. What started out as a comic take on Hollywood excess through the eyes of the scene’s most failed misanthrope, turned into a dark character study of a broken former star. That’s fine, I suppose, although it’s hard for me to sympathize with an (ostensibly white) dude with a lot of money in the throes of interpersonal ennui. But that heavy focus really diminished other potentially rich characters like Todd, Mr. Peanut Butter, and, worst of all, Princess Carolyn, who, in the midst of her own depression, ends up dating two kids in a trenchcoat. The problem isn’t that she’s dating two children – clearly, that’s the joke; it’s that her crafty, confident, hilariously determined character became a sad sack who only felt her only worth was finding a figure worth dating before she got too old.

Contrary to most critics out there, I also find The Last Man on Earth, Fox’s newest hit show, problematic in its own way. It’s a trickier matter with this show, as there’s only been four episodes as of writing this, but so far its high-concept premise, in which a man struggles to survive within a world devoid of life, has essentially relied on a “Men are like THIS, but women are like THIS” template, just in an apocalyptic setting. I mean, I sort of see the show’s attempt to make Carol’s insistence on preserving a certain sense of humanity part of her character, but I disagree that the show makes it clear that it’s part of her personality, not necessarily her gender. Why is she so driven to marry before sex beyond the fact that this is what women do? The show doesn’t say.

These shows aren’t bad by any means, but they feel contrived, forced to fall victim to sitcomy tropes, gender cliches, and relationship woes, and no amount of animated animals or barren landscapes will hide them. What Bojack Horseman and The Last Man on Earth do with gender, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt does with race. All three shows are so intrigued with their central lead characters (not in and of itself a bad thing) that they struggle to explore other characters outside of gender/racial stereotypes. In this post-Tumblr world, it’s easy to categorize that as sexist or racist but really, it’s just a form of laziness.

And that’s the crux of the racial problems with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There’s an… air of concern underlying the show that seems to exemplify Patricia’s Arquette’s misspoken post-Oscar comments, where white women should be propped up by minorities and LGBTQ people (that’s not what she meant, of course, but that’s how her words were (mis)interpreted as). In this case, it’s Kimmy Schmidt (and Jacqueline, which I’ll get into later) who is the white woman propped up by Titus, the gay and black man, and Dong, a Vietnamese character, so they claim. By propping up Kimmy’s journey towards autonomy and self-reliance, Titus and Dong are forced to go through generic storylines mostly defined by their race and/or sexuality.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is funny, and the storylines involving Titus, Dong, and Donna Maria are hilarious, yet I can see why so many people are having trouble with the show, despite disagreeing with them. Unlike 30 Rock, whose main character is successful and wealthy yet seems to be swamped by first-world problems, Kimmy is emerging from a darker, more complex place – fifteen years within a bunker at the behest of a controlling male figure. Kimmy is driven wonderfully by her desire to no longer be a victim, which is a stronger motivation than “lack of fulfillment” that drives Bojack or 30 Rock (and, implicitly, Last Man on Earth). Yet the show is so glowingly focused Kimmy’s success (witness how easily she succeeds at finding a home and a job in New York) that everyone around her, from a character perspective, feel like their playing catch-up; Titus is defined by his blackness and gayness; Dong thrives on a host of Asian-American stereotypes; Donna Marie ends her arc by selling mole sauce.

This all probably applies to Jacqueline’s character the most, whose Native American parentage has become the most decisive part of the show. There’s a difference between being absurd and being nonsensical: absurdity allows the satire to shine through cosmically massive hyperbole, while “nonsensical-ness” relies on sheer illogical connections for humor. Jacqueline’s Native American relations toe this line, which only comes off confusing. It isn’t clear if the show wants to satirize Jacqueline’s overwrought attempts at whiteness (at the expense of some easy Native American gags) or play it all ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous (like a text-alerting banana). The result is, unfortunately, tone-deaf, especially with that wild season finale scenario at the gas station.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t necessarily have to explore its racial (and sexual) caricatures with any real depth, but it may be in the show’s favor to do so, particularly in the second season, to make a richer, stronger, and more comically complex show. After all, this is the show that, just as lazily, implied a catcalling construction worker as a closeted gay person; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt can do so much better (and has, frequently). Fey and Carlock can certainly continue their story into Kimmy’s world, but they’d be better off letting Titus, Dong, Donna Marie, and Jacqueline’s parents into it.

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Why I’m Okay with The Lego Movie’s Oscar Snub

The Lego Movie poster

The most talked-about Oscar snub was for Selma’s exclusion from the Best Director and Best Actor nominations. Surprisingly, talk over The Lego Movie’s Best Animated Picture snub seemed equally controversial, perhaps even more so, particularly over at The Dissolve. And while outrage continues to follow it around, with directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller tossing back-handed insults towards the Academy for their perceived neglect, I can’t help but think that, perhaps, the Oscar voters may have gotten this one right.

To be clear, award season has always been, and continues to be, an elaborate stroke-fest: self-servicing, brown-nosing, self-celebratory crap. Most people know that most of these awards are nonsense, and the outrage only really feeds into the season’s insatiable love for itself. That being said, some films are noted to be shoo-ins, particularly with the Academy increasing the number of films that could be nominated. The Lego Movie was a critical and commercial success, so it just seemed like a no-brainer that it would win Best Animated Picture, let alone be nominated for it. Yet the Academy chose: Big Hero Six, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, leaving off The Lego Movie, much to the chagrin of many people.

Not so myself. While a majority of the world saw the film and loved its clever take on the Chosen One concept, along with its comical/thoughtful take on the Lego world, I saw just a perfectly fun, cute film that nevertheless fell for the same kind of tropes that Chosen One films tend to fall into, via animation that did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Lego Movie had fun with its premise but it’s difficult for me to agree that it did anything novel with it – save for an inspired climax. Beyond that, though, it possessed the kind of simplistic gags that often fill animated kids films, troubled with actors unsuited for voice over work, and the kind of average, Joe Campell-esque pacing that most critics would pan in other films, animated or otherwise.

Not to say it wasn’t a bad film at all! It reminded me, in fact, of Cats Don’t Dance and Over the Hedge: two animated films with comically clever group dynamics and fast-paced sequences. Yet while The Lego Movie wore its satire on its sleeve, Cats and Over were a lot more subtle about its commentary (the former’s endearing homage to 40s and 50s musical animated shorts; the latter to the encroaching suburban blight on the natural environment). I love those films but I would never say they deserved Oscars, and The Lego Movie was basically a trumped up version of those films. The Lego Movie is also built on a slightly recent batch of animated films which seek to “subvert” certain tropes of animation plots – only to lean into those tropes anyway. Shrek sought to break down the happily-ever-after ending of generic fairy tale stories, only to end with exactly that, albeit on the ugly-orge side of things. Frozen tried to break free of love-at-first-sight storytelling when it comes to princesses, only to suggest the second handsome guy you meet is totally fine. And The Lego Movie, while exposing everyone to be potential master-builders, still ended up with Chosen One Emmet to be the master-builder that saved the day.

I’ve said this before, but most modern critics tend to be terrible at analyzing animation as a whole. They’ll know the big names of animation -  your Brad Birds, Hayao Miyazakis, Chuck Jones, Tom Rueggers – and if you’re lucky, they might be aware of Genndy Tartakovsky, Lauren Faust, Henry Selick, or Pendleton Ward. Critics are not voracious viewers of cartoons – the insane work of Tex Avery, the character-focused oeuvre of Paul & Joe, the wacky excellence of Mark Dindal, or the brilliantly satircal cartoons of Jay Ward. The latter, in particular, was built upon satire and subversion, with the various bits introduced in Rocky & Bullwinkle utterly annihilating generic animation tropes, and this was back in the 60s. Watching a lot of cartoons is tricky – it’s time-consuming and requires a certain degree of patience – but I think to truly understand cartoons, the various approaches to visual representations, requires a certain commitment that many critics fail to take part in.

So of course The Lego Movie seems like some sort of top-notch brilliance to them. And, to be fair, there is a lot to like about it. But in the whole scheme of things, The Lego Movie, with its reliance on generic rhythms and faux-subversion, all within (and let’s be blunt here) an obvious toy-based corporate tie-in, is pretty ordinary. Some people point to the film’s animation as a celebratory selling point. I agree that the film’s visuals were perfectly tailored to The Lego Movie’s sensibility, but to be honest, the film did exactly what it was supposed to do. It committed to the “Lego” look, with the movements and pacing akin to the limited movements and pacings of the actual toys, but it actually didn’t do anything interesting with it. No sharp montages. No unique comic/dramatic visuals. Nothing about the animation pushed the film aesthetically.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (the only nominated film I managed to see this year, an unfortunate blight due to financial issues) had its flaws, too. And while I don’t think it should win, I do think it’s a stronger film than its reputation, with its commitment to its central family unit (before its torn asunder), its unique dragon personalities (Toothless has never seemed less adorably playful), and its mastery over its visuals and art designs. Just the scene where Hiccups reunited father and mother singer their courting song to each other is powerful stuff, with its swooping camera angles and play on the area surrounding them. It’s an insular, personal film that struggled against its bombast, action-fest second half, but it understood the importance of look, feel, and meaning, in terms of the situation and the characters. In comparison, The Lego Movie was about the flair, the self-awareness, the subversion (that never was). It’s a movie that leaned hard on the idea of being a self-aware toy-product, and while it did do a fine job with that limitation, it still was a self-aware toy product. Of course, this allowed for a wonderfully strong, climactic third act, but that’s just the third act. Two-thirds of the film are still flat, generic, run-of-the-mill animation and pacing, with mediocre gags, less-than-average voice work, and exciting-if-passable action.

The next few weeks I’ll be working my way through the rest of the nominated film as they drop on DVD. With The Lego’s Movie snub, and the various flaws that How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, and Big Hero Six reportedly possess, perhaps this will allow the outliers Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya a larger chance to win (or maybe that this was just a weak year for animated films). But while The Lego Movie has strong moments, I can’t agree that it’s worth a nomination nor even the Oscar itself. It’s fun but slight, ambitious but generic, fun but fluff. Admittedly I do have issues concerning the “Lego-fication” of a lot of entertainment nowadays, but even still, I wonder why it takes a product-film to bluntly emphasize the power and wonder of unbridled creativity, even though, particularly with animated films, that should be the default mindset. (Perhaps it is the lack of openness when it comes to critics and their approaches to animation – film, TV or otherwise – but that’s an argument for another day.)

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Social Media Doesn’t Ruin You. Snark Media Does.

This New York Times article confirms essentially what many are fearing about social media of today: the wrong tweet, post, or comment, removed from context, can explode in a wave of social mob outrage, destroying lives and careers in the process. Shaming, a form of bullying that ridicules people just for the existence of one personal aspect of their lives (whether physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual), has become democratized; in the process, it has become a weapon of the masses, regardless of class, race, sex, or gender. But it’s basically a nuclear warhead, and unlike Kennedy, there’s little to no leader at the head on that program.

I think the question though is why certain comments on the internet become pitchfork-worthy and other, equally hateful and terrible comments are either ignored or, in fact, celebrated. The opening couple of paragraphs of that Times article show that Sacco isn’t particularly a PC-minded person on her Twitter account, despite being a PR rep. (Buzzfeed went further and collected her 16 worst tweets.) But the one that caught fire was different. The one about the German? Rude, but personal. The bad teeth? Lazy stereotype, but direct. The joke about AIDS in Africa? Well, that’s snark. Sacco lays it bare:

    “To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” (She would later write me an email to elaborate on this point. “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”)

Ladies and gentlemen: it is 2015, and snark is done.


 

SNARK was fine as a quick, biting, responsive form of comedy. Snark always existed, the literary bridge between irony (a legitimate literary device) and sarcasm (a punchline, a tightly-squeezed form of irony reduced to end a joke.) Whole worlds are build on irony – Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for the easy examples – and sarcasm was one-and-done, easy-peasy toppers to gags – heroes yelling, “This is going well!” as they sink into the quicksand. Snark was culled from those two concepts and built an attitude around it, often used to mask certain feelings or behaviors.

It makes sense though. Irony masked truth (or more accurately, satirical truth) nearly one hundred percent, and sarcasm barely masked the obvious (clearly, things are not going well). Snark was the middle ground, the way for so-called geniuses or experts to expel their version of the truth to the world while sort of, kind of, justifying their obnoxious behavior. Snark got big in the early 90s, the Dr. Houses and Dr. Kelsos of the world seemingly inspiring a burgeoning class of people with now-regrettable desires to be like them: smart, with the hot-shot ability to put down everyone with elaborate ridicule, under the premise that, deep down, they were broken or flawed – you know, human. This began the horrid wave of “I’m an asshole, but that just me, so get used to it” mentalities that thrived in the late 90s to the mid 00s. Some people were proud of their worldview. Others didn’t flaunt it, but nonetheless were expressing themselves as such, usually in passive-aggressive ways. Everyone thought they were a comedian, or a satirist masking “brilliant” insight behind abject meanness. Hell, Family Guy built a show around it (although I would argue it didn’t start out that way).

The rise of nerd culture embraced snark like no other. It’s a perfect attitude for lovers of geek culture, now embracing the cultural cachet that once pushed them to the margins. They have the knowledge – of classic comics, old-school games, and ye films of olde – and now they could impart that knowledge on others, particularly on those that once shunned them. It was as if The Simpson’s infamous Comic Book Guy was now in charge. What better way to both express that knowledge as well as exact revenge by using snark? What better way to thrive into the 21st century as cultural leaders than to be a smartass blogger?


 

THE thing about snark is at a certain point, no one will tolerate it anymore. Everyone has a breaking point, and we as a society reached it. Social media let that happened. Snark was everywhere: comments implying inferiority behind knowledgeable superiority. People were being snarky without them knowing they were being snarky. Chris Christie is a good example. His “bullying” was once celebrated, telling people to shut up as he expunged his own brand of nonsense, but now, people are sick of it. More and more people are calling out snarky behavior and commentary, and that’s what Sacco learned the hard way.

Everyone “ruined” in that Times article was ruined by the internet’s response to, specifically, a snarky comment or photo: Stone and her goofy gestures at the Tomb of the Unknown; Lynch and her Boston Marathon Victim costume; hell, even jokes about dongles. Regardless of seriousness or intent, all were examples of people joking “all in good fun,” attempts to be comical under the idea that their comments couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. And while most people think that the lack of context and wave of social media is what ruined them, I’d argue that indeed social media knew exactly that they were being “funny”. They didn’t object to the joke regardless of context; they responded to the snark, the “what’s the big deal?” attitude around it.

Such reactions were exacerbated by the rise of minority voices. Nerd voices and their “snark” rose, but so did feminists and transgendered and black voices, and they all kind of, sort of embraced snark (with its passive-aggressiveness, flippant jokiness, and direct meanness masking an indirect point) and it’s lead to a line in the sand. Snark versus snark – smug ironic comedy veiling satire (regardless of quality) pitted against itself – was a lose-lose. The dongle gag lead to both sides being attacked and being fired. Biddle, he who called out Sacco’s snarky AIDS gag got his own karmic retribution when the internet turned on him with his “Bring Back Bullying” comments. All of which ties to Gamergate, perhaps THE biggest depiction of the fallout against snark. Gamergate surges onward because of aggressive responses to snark; any sarcastic jokes that put men in any kind of harsh light will get their full wrath, regardless of how “obvious” the joke is. As Sacco learned.

Snark has become so toxic that sincerity – directly stating how you feel – has become preferable, regardless of belief or stance. Had Stone, Lynch, or the dongle-jokers been candid about their jokes – expressed themselves directly, they might have have been rewarded. There’s precedence for this belief. It’s reached the point that sincerity has been earning more respect. It’s better to outright air your opinions, law-breaking be-damned (Cliven Bundy, Darren Wilson) then to cutely “beat around the bush”. Today’s role models, for good or ill, are those who are candid with their words and deeds.

Snark can work, but it has to be approached positively, not a reflective response to justify assholery or masking poor, ill-thought out behavior under some guise of comedy or satire. Social media has exposed everyone to snark’s insidious side. Those who have been at the receiving end of snark all their lives are calling it out now, and those who have embraced it as a so-called defense mechanism, are entering a tougher world to manage, and may want to tread carefully before releasing another smartass comment out into the world. Because they get the joke. They just don’t like the attitude behind it.

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