Please see Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Foreword to understand the purpose of these posts and my general feelings when approaching the topic of cult abuse as proffered by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock.
1. Pop Culture.
It isn’t a mistake that Tina Fey shapes her show—often a study of contemporary pop culture—around a protagonist who is uniquely suited to take notice of it. Kimmy has been kept out of the world since middle school and so her reentry is truly an initiation. Public washroom sinks and dryers that automatically turn on, shoes that light up, no knowledge of Michael Jackson’s or Whitney Houston’s demises…The frivolous lifestyle of Jane Krakowski’s character Jacqueline… Here is an area that the show gets right. Cult members are entirely sheltered from the world and when they reenter the general populace (or enter it for the first time, as is the case in second- and third-generation members), it is jarring and full of alien mores.
2. The Today Show with Matt Lauer.
The media. This is a central avenue by which Americans get their information, and The Today Show with Matt Lauer’s handling of the “Mole Girls of Indiana” is only slightly exaggerated. Simplifying these girls into a headline snippet. Mole = underground. Girls = stunted. Indiana = small town. It in every way diminishes the real danger that cults present. They are not underground. The idea that they happen underground, that they prey on naivete, that they occur only in small towns is dangerous. Cults are complex operations. They prey on all walks of life and generally the common thread is not naivete but desperation. They occur in small towns sometimes, but they thrive in big cities too, and college towns. They are everywhere and their approach is as opportunistic and mutable as a virus. The Today Show preys on the girls in its own way by using them to fill air time, giving one girl a makeover (and how will that mend anything?) then sending the girls back to Indiana after ensuring their status as cult victims with accompany them everywhere they go. Keen characterization of what’s become of our news leaders today. And NBC allows itself to be portrayed in this way. Not only will cults take advantage of the vulnerable, so will the media in this voyeuristic, ratings-based age.
3. Stuck in Middle School.
Stunted. Naive. Truly the show portrays Kimmy and her compatriots as dumb, simple, innocent. Useful for the purposes of the show, I guess, but entirely off the mark. We are led to believe that Kimmy entered the cult during her middle school years. And voila, she exits the cult as though it merely preserved her middle school self. Spitting her out a cheerful, toothsome smiler, one who loves to swing, eat candy and play with American Girl dolls. That is perhaps the most offensive part of this episode. Cults do not preserve innocence. Cults do not freeze time. They pervert time and twist spirits. Anyone who is lucky enough to have a “before” and left a cult does not have a broad smile to welcome a new and interesting world. The world they reenter is intimidating. They are changed. And to dismiss that change impedes a survivor’s ability to move beyond their oppression and take control of their lives.
To be clear—to make honest Fey’s and Carlock’s portrayal of cults victims—many cult survivors do not have a “before.” Many have grown up as second- and third-generation cult members, and they know nothing other than abuse, capricious family separation, and the enforcement of arbitrary rules, all at the hands of their all-powerful leader.
5. The Rat.
Hmmm. Is the rat flashback real, or imagined as a device to spur Kimmy’s determination? Regardless, the flashback gives a depiction of Kimmy’s pastor Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. A simplified depiction, but the denigrating way he talks to the girls is not off the mark. If the show had a moment to be serious, they would have shown the reverend controlling all monies (income from those who work in jobs outside the cult, welfare checks, inheritances), it would have shown him favoring one person over another. Raping. Separating families. Arbitrarily ordering beatings… If this show were an accurate portrayal of the control a cult exerts on it’s members, Kimmy’s ability to stand up to Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne would not be so easy, nor would it likely occur to her as an option. The general absence of the reverend on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is no surprise. Cult leader and comedy are not simpatico.
4. Life Beats You Up: Kimmy’s Doppelganger Tituss.
Yes. Life does beat you up. And this realization brought on by Kimmy’s backpack getting stolen (strangely the show portrays this as more disturbing to Kimmy than her captivity—whaat?) is healthy. It’s healthy because Kimmy’s bad luck prompts Tituss to reveal his own bad luck. And Kimmy and Tituss are kindreds in being damaged, similarly brought to New York by a desire to escape an identity that is too narrow. This moment is our first peek at growth—acknowledgement of struggle, loss, damage, and maybe something on the other side. Tituss tells Kimmy that “escaping is not the same as making it” and while the whole exchange sends Kimmy packing, it ultimately leads to her return and an impassioned scene where Kimmy tells Tituss that they are going to make it together.
In the delay each of these characters took to share their true selves we see the issue of trust emerge. Trust is difficult for cult survivors, not only because they may not want to be pigeonholed as victim, but more importantly, cult survivors have been conditioned in such a way that trust is dangerous. This is not to say that relationships aren’t forged in the sphere of a cult, it is just that they are rare. Emerging from a cult, placing trust in the hands of another is not only difficult, but prudent. The show does have one thing right: the support of caring friends is vital to the success of the human spirit. And not only do survivors need the support, they experience a lot of healing when they realize they are able to support others as well. As Kimmy has inspiration to share, cult survivors gradually, and thankfully, find they do as well.
“But females are strong as hell…” goes the rap in the strange musical montage reporting the “Mole Girls’” release. And that is true. True because often, cults and their leaders prey on women. It is true that females are in fact, strong as hell, but when we’re talking real cults, being strong isn’t all it takes. But let’s grant that this is a comedy about one cult survivor, and give it some leeway as such. At least the show presents Kimmy as a strong woman whose spirit is not broken. For all the show’s shortcomings and offensive broad strokes, episode one’s takeaway is positive. The show’s ultimate message is that Kimmy is unbreakable because she is able. Look at the show’s logo: unbreakABLE. The word ABLE is notably larger than the rest of the word. But by definition, being “able” references a task. Kimmy’s task, and the task of all cult survivors, is to be in the world: find work, trust friends, meet the day’s challenges, and not be crushed by it all. Cult survivors are able too. And strong as hell. Re-assimilating, or meeting the larger world for the first time, takes doing, takes effort. But as the show obviously hints, our protagonist is going to be up to the task, with the help of worthy friends.