I mostly enjoyed the first season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Some of the bits were outstanding. I still laugh sometimes about the werewolf-taxi plot line. However, I had deep misgivings about the portrayal of the Vietnamese (portrayed by a Korean-American actor) character, Dong. This is old news. People have talked about it a lot, and so I do not feel the need to go back over all of that. I will simply say that I was one of the people who had a problem with the character.
When my wife and I finished the second episode of the second season, we say the synopsis of the upcoming episode, and I said “I won’t watch this.” My wife agreed. It has been a few months. I decided to watch it.
The episode was a “f@$% you” to the people who complained. Again, people have talked about this a lot, so I don’t think I have to explain all of it.
There were some good jokes in the episode, but the plot line about Titus’ geisha play was as insulting as I expected. The people who protested it were portrayed as terrible, angry people who just want to be offended. I believe the phrase was “anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses.” That is both insulting and incredibly arrogant on the part of the writers. The acronym of the group is RAPE. They call everyone Hitler. Kimmy tells them that they are criticizing a show that they haven’t even seen. In the end, the “anonymous hosers” come to like the show and do not know what to do with themselves now that they have nothing to be offended about.
The one thing that caught me completely off guard was the joke about the death of Eric Garner. One of the RAPE group at the end is so troubled about not being offended that she says “I can’t breathe.” Then she panics because she offended herself by saying that and vanishes into a beam of light. Everything about this episode is self-serving, but that was way too far.
I want to be clear that I was not offended by Titus putting on a play where he dressed up as a geisha. It was so absurd that I thought it was pretty funny.
Some people thought that this was in response to complaints by Native Americans to having Jacqueline’s character be a passing-as-white Native American. It probably was. There are a lot of Native American groups with significant grievances against the US government, but making Jacqueline come from the Lakota Sioux, a group of people who were cheated on a very grand scale, probably makes things even worse. However, this episode was also about the reaction to Dong. I have no intention to slight the complaints from Native Americans. However, I am going to focus on the Asian American aspect for personal reasons and because the episode tried to answer critics by having Titus believe that he was a reincarnation of a Japanese geisha named Murasaki (that is also the name of a very famous female author; I am not sure if there was an intentional connection there).
Tina Fey has said that she will not apologize for anything. She thinks that there is a “culture of demanding apologies” and will not take part.
Here is the problem that Fey does not seem to understand. People do not apologize for offending Asian Americans. On the occasion that they do, it is half-hearted and way too late, and then everyone forgets why they had to apologize in the first place. I know that the folks behind the show think that they were being funny. We are not there yet.
This country has had a terrible record of dealings with Asian countries. I want to focus on domestic issues, so I will simply mention the Vietnamese War, the Korean War, the “open door” policy in China, Commodore Perry’s forced opening of Japan, the Philippine-American War, and probably a bunch of other things that I am forgetting. By the way, that was all off the top of my head. Fey and other creators of the show seem to think that people go digging for reasons to be upset. I am not digging. You might argue that the Vietnamese or Korean wars were justifiable in the effort to defeat communism (I don’t think anyone would argue for the rightness of any of the other things I mentioned). However, the US also did some pretty terrible things in both of those wars, neither of which was really our business in the first place, and neither of which was carried out for the good of the people there.
One domestic episode that has come up recently was the forced internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans along the west coast of the United States during World War II. The US government took away the civil liberties of foreign nationals and American citizens, deprived them of their right to private property (I mention that one specially because it seems to be the right that Americans have cared the most about), and did not seem to see why that was wrong. To be clear, there was not, and never has been, any evidence that any of those people were involved in a plot against the United States. The government did not intern any other people based on their nationalities. Before someone makes the idiotic argument that the government did also pass measures against German and Italian immigrants, the US government did, but it did not lock them up. It did not even lock up, say, the ones who had just immigrated immediately before the war. But Japanese and Japanese-American citizens alike were forced into camps. The US government did not apologize for this until 1988.
But the story doesn’t end there. As you may recall, this episode was brought back to our attention by various politicians believing that it could be a model for how to deal with another group of people that they want to discriminate against based on (depending whom and when you ask) their religion or nationality. The democratic mayor of Roanoke, VA, David Bowers, wrote that this was good precedent for rejecting Syrian refugees. When his comment resulted in a strong, negative reaction, he doubled down, and said that FDR made the “right decision.” He did eventually apologize, but I sincerely doubt that he understood why it was wrong; he just understood that a lot of people were angry. However, much of this was overshadowed by the now presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statements that while he “hate[s] the concept” of the internment camps, he was still willing to use the example of the camps to justify his call to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States. I think that is safe to say that no lessons have been learned there.
This also made me wonder if the US ever apologized for its treatment of Chinese immigrants. If you did not know, the US forbade almost all non-white naturalization after 1790. However, the US specifically targeted Chinese immigrants in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was not revoked until 1943, when the US decided that it probably shouldn’t be so terrible to Chinese people if we wanted to be their ally against Japan. In reality, the US simply used other measures to restrict Chinese immigration for a few more years. I did a quick web search and found that the House passed a bill to apologize for this in 2012. Really on the ball there. This resurfaced (last month) when NY state lawmakers asked the president to apologize again because they see the rhetoric used against the Chinese being reused against Muslim immigration.
The state of California, for its part, because it passed a series of anti-Chinese bills and had one whopper of a state Supreme Court ruling that classified the Chinese as “black” to keep them from doing things like voting, having rights, or testifying in court, officially apologized in 2009. I suppose over a century late is better than never, but it means basically nothing to the people who suffered as a result.
If you want a comedy example, how about Stephen Colbert’s infamous impersonation of “Ching Chong Ding Dong?” I am not talking about the whole #CancelColbert dustup in 2014, but the original airing of the character in 2005. Colbert did eventually apologize, and this was something taken off of satellite feed not intended for broadcast, but he wasn’t exactly in private; he was in front of his audience. So in 2005, people are still willing to make horrible, exaggerated imitations of Asian people in public. I didn’t permanently hold it against him and I continued to watch the show. He crossed a line while he wasn’t on air and acting on the spur of the moment. He also apologized. These qualifications cannot be applied to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
As many others have noted, this came on the heels of a number of white actors and actresses being cast as Asians (most famously, Scarlet Johannson as Japanese, Emma Stone as half-Chinese), and it was taken as a response to people who were complaining about these slights to the Asian-American community.
So, in response to this episode, I do not call people Hitler; in fact, that irritates me, too. I did not go digging for things to be angry about; I looked up a few things for dates and details for this post, but I did not google “offensive Asian stereotypes” or similar. I have literally never posted anything in a comments section. I have almost zero social media presence. I have seen the show (up through episode 3, season 2, anyway).
In response to a “culture of demanding apologies,” I couldn’t say if there is such a thing. Honestly, I don’t spend enough time on the internet to know that. However, I could say that there is not a culture of apologizing to Asian Americans. There have been some; I believe that Colbert’s was sincere. However, some apologies have taken more than a century, and it is pretty clear that people have not learned any fundamental lessons from them. This is not something that people are ready to move past.
Finally, in response to the show, I was willing to keep watching it after the first season. You were trying to do something that wasn’t working. People make mistakes. However, in this episode, you told me to f@$% off in a big, insulting, and incredibly self-centered way. So I’m done with the show. I have very little power here. I’m not going to cancel Netflix (I am eagerly anticipating the return of Bojack Horseman). However, I can write this blog post that no one will read, refuse to finish the series, and move on with my life. I am doubtful that I will watch Fey’s next project, whatever that will be.
I am reminded of something Amy Poehler talked about in her recent book. She reflected on a time that she unknowingly offended someone very deeply, but instead of apologizing, she got angry. Many years later, she felt terrible and tried to apologize. It didn’t work. I’m sure that we all have stories where we became defensive instead of showing compassion or apologizing. I guess that, for Fey and her team, this will be one of those times.