Taylor Swift and Television have something in common, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be trying to do something about it.
That might seem like an odd place to start a blog post, so I’ll try to convey what I want to say as cleanly and effectively as possible. The first thing you need to know is that, for a purpose I am not entirely sure I should be writing about on the internet, I have spent the last couple of week studying the career of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift very closely. At this point, I am particularly interested in the narrative of liberation and girl power that she has created for herself. Some people might say that her message might be too narrow. That it is addressed exclusively to girls who are as, excuse the expression, “basic” as Swift herself, and while I have many criticisms about Swift’s message to young girls, I want to make clear that I do believe that she is -or is at least trying- to be empowering.
Swift started out as a country music princess, a teen idol that sung about listening to Tim McGraw, but also about being in love with a boy that is more popular than her, or with someone her father didn’t want her to be with. You know, the kind of thing that every fifteen-year-old girl could empathize with. Hell, one of Swift’s singles is called “Fifteen”. It naturally wasn’t long until she crossed over into the mainstream. What’s more remarkable is that her stardom has only gotten brighter in the decade that she’s been in the spotlight. The exponential growth of her fame culminates in 1989, her latest and best-selling of 2014 album, in which she turns New York City, the biggest and most intimidating city in the world into her personal oyster. In 1989, Taylor Swift had single-handedly conquered the world.
What does this have to do with television? Well, the storyline of the rightful girl who triumphs against adversity is one of television’s favorite staples when it comes to feminist television. Think, for example, of Mary Tyler Moore, a single woman excelling at her job who lets us know that she was “gonna make it after all”. Or Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, clearly an example of an exemplary woman using her inner strength to stand up against the evils of the world. Going further in time, we get Buffy Summers, the “chosen one” that must save the world from demons, and Lorelai Gilmore, a woman who seemingly “fucked up” her life, but turned it around and managed to be essentially the coolest person that ever set foot on the planet.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Gilmore Girls are all fantastic television shows, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them feminist. They feature amazing female characters, and they have helped many women to feel empowered, but in presenting super-heroic women who can bend the rules of the world to their will and make it work no matter what life throws at them based on their own inner strength, their message seems to me to be more “post-feminist” than it is “neo-feminist”. Now, I’m not an expert on feminism (I am, after all, a man, so what do I know, right?), but as far as I understand it, “post-feminism” believes that women have reached a level of equality that gives them the opportunities to be as successful as they want as long as they put in the necessary work. “Neo-feminism”, on the other hand, believes that women should still stand together in a block that demands political changes that will help them achieved equality.
Like I said, I am a man, and thus, I don’t know if I’m exactly qualified to say whether one of these beliefs is right and the other is wrong, or if they’re both ok, or anything like that. That’s up to each and every woman in the world to decide. What I’m saying is that so far, we have seen some pretty awesome examples of “post-feminist” ideals in our media, and not enough “neo-feminist” ones. The television heroes I cited above, and Taylor Swift’s meta-narrative of making it big in an ideal city that is bend to her will position each girl as having the potential to do whatever they want to do, they just have to believe in themselves. That last sentence should give away the reason why “post-feminism” has been so popular in the media: it spreads an easy message to dramatize. After all, how many movies (with either male or female protagonists) have the “believe in yourself” message at their center? I mean, the Walt Disney Company has basically amassed a fortune out of it.
I guess this is all a really long introduction into saying why I like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt so much. I enjoyed it tremendously when me and my girlfriend binge-watched it last weekend, but it wasn’t until the last episode of the Fighting in the War Room podcast mentioned that Kimmy Schmidt seems to be taking place in a bizarro version of “Taylor Swift’s New York” that all the pieces clicked into place, and I realized that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was the rare “neo-feminist” show that I was looking for.
Since the internet won’t shut up about how awesome it is (and rightfully so), you probably already know what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is about, but in case you don’t know, I’m talking about the comedy series created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock as their follow-up to 30 Rock, in which 29-year-old Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), who has been kidnapped by a cult for fifteen years is set free and decides to make it big in New York City.
So far, it sounds like the set-up for a “post-feminist” show, but the great thing about Kimmy is that fifteen years living with that cult really fucked her up, and the only way she can achieve happiness in her new life is when she looks for (or receives) support from the other characters. One such example comes at the end of the season, when Kimmy fails to find the way to win a legal battle until she teams up with the other women who were once trapped in the cult with her. Or how she interacts and deals with the hopes of a couple of annoying teenage girls that appear throughout the season (one of whom is played by Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka!).
Most fascinating, though, is the case of Jacqueline, the rich woman Kimmy works for. Played by Jane Krakowski, Jacqueline is essentially an alternative version of Taylor Swift. A small town blonde girl who moved to New York City and seemingly made it big. She has a huge house and a rich husband. She is seemingly a diva, but she is almost beyond incompetent, and her life is completely empty and meaningless except when she fills the void with whatever distraction comes along. I am very interesting to see where the relationship between Kimmy and Jacqueline goes in the future, as we’ve already seen hints of the women having to find comfort and support in each other in order to make it work. If I’m right, and I hope I am, then Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might be the show I’ve been waiting for. The show not about an extraordinary woman, but about ordinary women helping each other to make it after all.
I guess the easy way to recommend the show is to say that it’s hilarious, but you know I don’t go for the easy route when it comes to praising something. The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available to stream on Netflix.