Warning: This article discloses some spoilers from the third season of Netflix Original Series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” It also contains a discussion of the series’ theme of sexual assault.
I have a picture of Tina Fey on my left-side bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s from a photo shoot she did for a feminist magazine more than a decade ago, and she looks kick-ass. Everyday, I look at this picture, and it reminds me to be the best writer and woman I can be. So, yeah. I guess you can say I follow her work.
In 2015, when the first season of Fey-created series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” dropped on Netflix, I was admittedly skeptical about it. Ellie Kemper was playing the titular character, and her turn as Erin Hannon on “The Office” was more annoying to me than when I go to McDonald’s and the person at the drive-thru window says, “It’s going to be a minute on those nuggets. Can you pull up?” After begrudgingly giving “Kimmy” a chance, my opinion of Kemper and the premise for the series changed almost immediately. I fell in love with the fast pace of the dialogue, the wide repertoire of pop culture references (especially those that Kimmy either missed while she was underground or those that she believes are still relevant), and the creatively terrifying concept.
For those of you who might not know anything about “Kimmy Schmidt,” the series centers on now-thirty-year-old Kimmy who had been held hostage with four other women and a malicious reverend (Jon Hamm) for fifteen years. After she is rescued from the bunker in fictional Durnsville, Indiana, Kimmy takes up residence in New York City with her talented-yet-unsuccessful actor roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess). Amid sitcom-esque antics (some classic, some new), “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is actually a story about breaking Kimmy Schmidt. Over the course of three seasons, the eponymous protagonist has gradually dealt with the trauma of being kidnapped and held hostage for fifteen years.
Each season, thus far, has presented increasingly darker manifestations of Kimmy’s trauma. The first season revolved around Kimmy’s ability to recognize that she was strong in spite of what happened to her, which eventually culminated in her return to Indiana to testify against the Reverend. In the second season, Kimmy began to realize that admitting your strength doesn’t cure you of trauma. She repeatedly hit her love interest over the head whenever they attempted to have sex, she became physically sick whenever she was reminded of her time in the bunker, and she sought therapy. For a series that has been culturally problematic (I won’t even attempt to touch Jane Krakowski’s character, Jacqueline White, in this essay.), I have to applaud “Kimmy” for not turning talk therapy into a total joke, as many television series do. Two seasons gone by, and Kimmy has gradually but bravely come to realize that what happened to her was not normal or acceptable.
However, in the third season (released on Netflix on May 19), “Kimmy” uses a word it has, for two years, awkwardly avoided. The episode “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” focuses on Kimmy meeting and dealing with a woman named Wendy, who plans to marry Kimmy’s abuser. To do so, she must ask Kimmy to legally divorce the Reverend, whom she married when they were in the bunker. At first, the episode’s tone is a hybrid of quirkiness and discomfort, which describes the majority of “Kimmy” episodes. And then, this exchange of dialogue occurs:
WENDY: It’s kind of sophisticated if you think about it. An evening in Manhattan with my lover’s wife. It sounds like a Noel Coward play.
KIMMY: If Noel Coward was really a coward who rapes everybody.
The line comes at the audience so quickly that you’re not even sure if you heard it. But you did. Kimmy is the first character in the series to use the word rape, which implies that the Reverend probably raped her. It was something that viewers could have guessed, especially because there are real-life situations like this one where the survivor is also a survivor of sexual assault. Still, the text itself has implied more than once that Kimmy might have been sexually assaulted in the bunker. In the pilot episode, she confesses to Titus that she is one of the “Indiana Mole Women,” and tells him, “…there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.” While Kimmy speaks this line, she makes a face like a disgusted sixth-grade student during her very first sexual education class. Based on Kimmy’s sexual immaturity (a trait which is developed throughout the series), perhaps the viewer’s first thought is that Kimmy is referring to lesbian sexuality. While according to the text, there were occurrences of lesbian sexuality in the bunker, it doesn’t seem that was the “weird sex stuff” that Kimmy referred to in the pilot.
Indie Wire’s Liz Shannon Miller wrote this fantastic article about why using the word rape on “Kimmy Schmidt” was a big deal, citing Kimmy’s sexual experience with Dong as a major clue that Kimmy is a survivor of sexual assault.
Acknowledging Miller’s example, I present another earlier instance. In the middle of “Kimmy’s” first season, Kimmy dates a very rich man named Logan Beekman (Adam Campbell). When she talks about their relationship to Titus, she tells him that on their third date, she and Logan had “a mishap.”
As it turns out, that mishap was Kimmy asking Logan if they could take their relationship “to the next level,” which for her meant pushing him down on her bed and attacking him in a way that resembles the techniques we’re taught in self-defense classes.
“Apparently,” she says to Titus, “all the stuff I thought I knew was way wrong.”
Ten episodes into the series, and Kimmy has already evolved from a perpetual tween girl whose only words to describe what happened in the bunker were “weird sex stuff” to a maturing woman who is coming to realize that maybe her experience was more painful than simply weird. The implications that the Reverend likely sexually assaulted Kimmy only grow in the second season when the only way Kimmy can have sex with Dong (as Miller points out in her aforementioned article) is if he is handcuffed. If Dong is apprehended, Kimmy finally feels comfortable with him “for totally normal reasons.” Those reasons, the astute viewer comes to realize, probably all fall under the same umbrella. Until that point, Kimmy had never had consensual sex with a man.
Now, Kimmy has used the word rape to describe what she (and, likely, the other three women in the bunker) experienced over the course of fifteen years. Some critics aren’t happy with that. They can’t believe that it took the series three seasons to use the word. While I believe that it would have been poor judgment to omit the theme of sexual assault from the series altogether, I don’t think it was missing before “Kimmy Can’t Help You!” I think that waiting three seasons to use a word so severe was a testament to the specific character of Kimmy Schmidt.
Earlier, I wrote that Kimmy is a sexually immature character, which clearly stems from her kidnapping and the Reverend’s forcing her into a state of arrested development. She has needed time. She has needed time to discover that she is not a victim of the Reverend’s abuse, but rather, she is a survivor. She has needed time to learn what sex is supposed to look like and feel like, as she discusses with a gas station cashier (Joshua Jackson as a caricature of his role on “Dawson’s Creek”) in the second season. It comes as no surprise that Kimmy would need time to explore the word rape and determine whether it happened to her. When she was in the bunker, she had access to only two books, and neither of them had any information on sexual education or sexual violence. Those large and seemingly unfathomable concepts were purely esoteric to her for fifteen years. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is learning how to be breakable, but viewers should never expect her to understand the whole of her experience in one year.
“Kimmy Schmidt” has done an excellent job at deepening their central character’s confrontation with her past each season. Now that the series has reportedly been renewed for a fourth season, I have no doubt that creators Fey and Robert Carlock will delve into a deeper discussion of Kimmy’s sexual assault with the maturity of their character. The team behind “Kimmy Schmidt” has done a formidable job at balancing the elements of a wacky sitcom and tackling real-world social and sexual issues. In the future, audiences are bound to see more of that technique as they teach that their protagonist that it’s all right for her to be a little bit breakable. That’s what will keep her strong.