Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes on women’s trauma and healing

Kimmy Schmidt

Finally, a comedy series about REAL woman-problems… Like PTSD!

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix original series, recently released its second season to further critical acclaim. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s second TV endeavor is very much in the same vein as the fast-paced 30 Rock, set in the same cartoonish version of New York City. But unlike the cynical 30 Rock, which centered around mean-spirited characters who don’t really care about each other, Unbreakable has a beating heart in its optimistic and utterly sincere heroine, Kimmy Schmidt.

Kimmy is grateful every morning she wakes up to a day of possibilities, for good reason — she was kidnapped at the age of 15 by a man who kept her and three other women in a bunker as his slaves. This man, who they called “The Reverend,” made himself god in their tiny world, brainwashing his captives into believing that everything outside had come to an end through an apocalypse he had prophesied. But after 15 years underground, a SWAT team raids the bunker and the women are freed — now, Kimmy is trying to cobble together a new life in New York City. She’s excited by everything around her and little things make her happy, from eating whatever she wants for dinner to buying light-up sneakers. On the subway, she’s so happy to be outside and able to move through the world freely that she quietly squeals, “Wheeee!”

Kimmy Schmidt

Life is still hard, though. Kimmy needs a job, but has a 15 year gap in her resume and doesn’t understand how the world works. Her trauma resurfaces through recurring nightmares about the bunker and triggers that prevent her from being intimate with other people.

Sadly, the premise of Unbreakable is widely relatable to women. So many of us are preyed upon, beginning in our teen years — groomed, abused, and exploited. Whether it be a pimp, a controlling partner, a cultic group, an abusive family, classmates, authority figures, predatorial strangers, or literal prison, many of us know what it’s like to live through trauma. When we are freed from the prison of victimization and abuse, there is joy, but it’s not the end of the story. The strategies we cultivated for survival during those years of trauma don’t just disappear, and the road to recovery is complex. Throughout the show, Kimmy learns how to cope with her PTSD and tries to unlearn the now-unnecessary survival strategies she cultivated in the bunker, exemplified by a song she sings: “You can take anything for ten seconds/So just take it ten seconds at a time.” It’s refreshing to see Kimmy’s PTSD presented not as a personal moral failing, but as a material fact she simply has to deal with.

Kimmy’s trauma also resurfaces as she navigates the misogynistic culture that made the abuse she experienced possible. After finally being rescued, the women’s horrific story is devoured by the public with sick fascination. The “Indiana mole women” become a titillating spectacle of male violence in the news, on talk shows, and online. In one episode, a “mole woman” is invited on a Dr. Drew-like therapy show, where she is tortured by triggering reminders of her past for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Unbreakable plays on this theme explicitly when the characters go to a movie theater where Human Centipede 5: A Need For Pede is playing. A boy heading into the theatre gleefully comments, “In this one, he makes all the women into a sports car!” In a disturbing moment, Kimmy sees a Human Centipede 5 poster featuring four terrified women tied up beneath a man’s hand, holding a bloody scalpel. “Awww,” she says, reminded of her fellow mole women.

In a misogynistic culture that turns violence against women into entertainment, Kimmy knows she is better off keeping her past a secret. This casts Kimmy as a double outsider. She can’t relate to normal people because of her trauma, and people can’t relate to her because she must keep a large part of herself hidden.

Unbreakable shines in its exploration of the gendered nature of trauma. In one episode, Kimmy meets a hunky army veteran named Keith. He approaches her at a bar and asks her where she “served,” assuming she is a fellow vet as he can tell from Kimmy’s eyes that she’s “seen some stuff.” They bond over both having PTSD, but while Keith complains, “Everyone just wants to buy me a drink and say thank you for your service,” it’s clear that Kimmy is treated much differently for what she went through.

This is because women are not celebrated as brave heroes for enduring horrors. When women are prostituted, abused, and exploited, we are shamed for it. By some strange coincidence, the trials women undergo are not commonly viewed as noble. Rather, we are seen as victims who will never be whole again  damaged goods.

Kimmy does her best to keep her history of abuse quiet, but is challenged by an internet age that wallpapers cyberspace with women’s scarlet letters. In one scene, Kimmy and Keith both attend a gala, but while Keith attends in full military uniform, acknowledging and being honoured for his past, Kimmy is forced to shove hers down deep inside and experiences terrible stress burps as her body tries to physically expel her suppressed trauma. Nonetheless, Kimmy refuses to give up. She is optimistic and won’t let people view her as a victim.

The comedy of Unbreakable can get dark, but Kimmy’s unflagging sincerity keeps it afloat and makes for a touching show. Some critics have described it as a “feminist show,” and the series certainly has some fantastic moments and feminist shout outs, but nonetheless, the show has gained a reputation as #problematic. An ongoing subplot features a character played by white actress Jane Krakowski who has hidden her Native American heritage all her life and other characters play on racial stereotypes, including the gay black man who is undeniably Kimmy’s “sassy gay friend.” At Role Reboot, Dana Fleitman writes, “I cannot believe ‘Look how gay this gay guy is! He is literally singing about penises while dressed like a handyman!’ still counts as comedy in 2015.”

Fleitman also argues, as others have, that Unbreakable makes light of the issue of violence against women. She writes:

“The viewer is very clearly not supposed to take the premise seriously or think too much about it. This is a problematic ask when the premise is violence against women, an issue we already fail to give the appropriate weight in our society. If writers wanted to create a comedy about a young woman’s adjustment to the modern world after a period of isolation, there were endless other ways to tell that story; what if she time-traveled? Or the women formed their own isolating cult?

… There are so many ways that the same jokes could be told without trivializing the Cleveland case and/or violence against women.”

While Fleitman believes violence against women should have been taken out of the plot entirely, in order to avoid insensitivity and trivializing serious issues, the main point would be lost if the show was just about a time traveller from the ’90s. The fact that Kimmy doesn’t know that Lance Bass is gay (“Who’s next, Ricky Martin!?”) and makes references to koosh balls are fun jokes on the side, but are not what Unbreakable is all about.

Fleitman also suggests that the premise would be less offensive if male violence were not part of Kimmy’s background and the women had instead formed their own isolation cult. But again, the show would lose its power if it weren’t centered around a woman dealing with the aftermath of male violence while living in a culture that condones and promotes it.

What makes the show compelling and unique is the fact that it looks at gendered trauma and women’s resilience. (In a comedy format, at that!)

In the Season One finale, the mole women testify in court to put The Reverend behind bars. It’s a near impossible feat because, as a man, he is immediately humanized by the jury — seen as a sympathetic character who is likable, authoritative, and trustworthy. By contrast, the mole women are disbelieved, personally attacked, and victim-blamed: “Your story doesn’t add up.” “If it was so bad in the bunker, why didn’t you just leave? Unbreakable’s humour often draws on the ridiculousness of male privilege and sexism — The Reverend spouts literal gibberish while on trial, yet his words are taken with the utmost respect.

Another episode sees a fitness guru worshipped by the elite women who take his spin classes. They hang on his every word until Kimmy unmasks him as nothing more than your gross average dude (perfectly exaggerated as a man sitting on the toilet, suffering from IBS). Men’s superiority is revealed as smoke and mirrors created by their privilege in a patriarchal culture.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt takes the hyperbolic, absurdist style of 30 Rock and applies it to a story with more meat, where the underlying absurdity is, often, male supremacy itself. And, truly, what a joke that is.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.