thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Breaking Down ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

In Netflix, race, TV, Uncategorized, violence on April 20, 2015 at 5:00 am

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Sarah S.

For me, Kimmy Schmidt came out of the bunker as an incongruous maelstrom—a pickle juice cocktail, fuschia and lime confetti, hail on a sunny day. I was excited for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, show creator Tina Fey’s “television” follow-up to 30 Rock, and it almost immediately presented a combination of the expected and the surprising, the standard and the bizarre.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brings an oddball charm to a rather complicated role. Kimmy takes up life in New York City after being rescued from a bunker in which she was held captive for 15 years. She and the other “Indiana Mole Women” were kidnapped and held by a deranged preacher who told them the apocalypse had happened and they were the only people left on earth. So Fey set herself a challenging task: create a comedy about kidnapping, rape, trauma, and the will to survive. Fortunately, Kemper is all in, playing Kimmy as an uncomfortable-but-funny combination of plucky, outdated, dopey, and indomitable.

Kimmy surrounds herself with a motley crew—Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), an aging, trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny, personal assistant, and general underling; Lillian (the incomparable Carol Kane as), a Jewish, New York hippy who owns Kimmy’s apartment building; and Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s roommate, an impoverished, down-on-his-luck actor (is there any other kind?). All of these characters are stereotypes but with enough twists or charm or combinations thereof to make it work. Titus works the black GBF for all it’s worth and Lillian is a genuine kick in the pants. Jacqueline is a Native American passing for white in order to sustain the materialism she always idolized, an interesting twist on “demanding, clueless, rich white woman”—a character Krakowski has made a career out of playing. These characters aren’t going to change narrative television but they are played and written with enough aplomb to carry them through, particularly as offsets to Kimmy’s quirk.

On Lena Dunham and Modern Jewish American Identity

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2015 at 5:28 am

Sarah Todd

People have a right to feel offended by Lena Dunham’s recent New Yorker column, “Quiz: A Dog or My Jewish Boyfriend.” But to focus solely on the question of whether or not it’s offensive is to ignore knottier and more nuanced issues.

The Anti-Defamation League has condemned the article for relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Dunham’s theoretically humorous quiz includes such descriptions as, “He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.”) New Yorker editor David Remnick rose to Dunham’s defense, arguing that as a Jewish woman she is operating within a longstanding tradition of insider humor and self-deprecation as typified by artists like Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth. Bloggers and Twitterati are taking sides.

Although I found Dunham’s humor piece neither upsetting nor funny, I’m sympathetic to both sides of the debate. (I’m also a white, Jewish, middle-class woman, for what it’s worth.) It’s true that some of her jokes reference harmful stereotypes about Jewish people–and men in particular–as miserly, coddled and physically weak. And I understand why the ADL is troubled by the historical implications of equating a Jewish person with a dog.

Like Remnick, however, I think Dunham’s status as a member of the tribe informs the piece. Even if her jokes fail to land, it seems likely that she intended it as an affectionate send-up of her own culture. (Part of the problem may be, as Phoebe points out, that Dunham fails to extend this brand of insider humor to herself–the quiz mocks the “Jewish boyfriend” but avoids self-scrutiny.)

But far more interesting to me than the issue of whether the column is inappropriate is the critical conversation it has spurred about American Judaism and cultural specificity.  

Secret Histories: Wonder Woman, Feminism, and Uncomfortable Truths

In books, feminism on March 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

Sarah S. lepore_wonder_woman_coverThe secret history of Wonder Woman is in many ways the secret history of feminism in America. Or at least this is how it is portrayed in historian Jill Lepore’s book of the same title. Feminism in the U.S.—indeed, the history of women in the U.S.—seems to be constantly forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. And so too Wonder Woman, who’s popularity and overt feminism have both ebbed and swelled and waned again.

The secret history of Wonder Woman is also the secret history of the character’s creator—William Moulton Marston—and the inspirations for his super-powered Amazonian—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his/their second wife, Olive Byrne. Psychologist Marston invented the polygraph but failed to bring it into reputable use, earned extra income during college by writing movie scripts, and advocated for women’s rights while at Harvard. He met suffragette Holloway, a woman whose brain, ambition, and political fervor exceeded even his own. But Marston was also a proponent of free love. He carried on one affair that Holloway at least tolerated, possibly participated in, setting the stage for their relationship with one of his college students—Byrne.

The secret history of Wonder Woman includes a bevy of such tricky or uncomfortable realities. One of these is Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, a birth control and free love activist almost forgotten by history, overshadowed by her better connected and more PR savvy sister, Margaret Sanger. And so it includes her daughter, Olive, who grew up learning about birth control and free love from her mother and aunt, and then lived in a secret polyamourous relationship with Marston and Holloway from the time she graduated college to Marston’s death. (Byrne and Holloway continued to live together for the rest of their lives as well.) And it includes Marston, who let his ego mask his general inadequacies and lack of financial success (Holloway was the primary breadwinner for the household and the only consistent one) and yet this same ego also emboldened him to woo and “marry” two such brilliant women.

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