The Emmy-nominated comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opens with the liberation of four women from an underground Indiana bunker where an apocalyptic preacher has kept them captive and convinced them that the world has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. With an armed SWAT officer opening the bunker door, the women rise blinking into a sunny, verdant meadow and are quickly nicknamed “the Indiana mole women” by the surrounding media.
Astounded by the mole women’s survival, an eyewitness—whose words quickly morph into the show’s catchy theme song—says, “Unbreakable! They’re alive damn it. It’s a miracle…those women are strong as hell.” The title character Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is, indeed, nothing if not determined to be unbreakable. She moves to New York, quickly finds work as a nanny, and settles into a basement apartment that is no bunker, but is cleverly fitting for the former subterranean dweller.
I like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; not just because the tone and smart dialogue remind me of its Bossy Pants co-creator, the fabulous Tina Fey, but because the show’s conceit is so slyly false: Call her unbreakable all you want, but Kimmy Schmidt is profoundly broken. How could she not be? She was abducted as a teenager, trapped in a bunker for fifteen years, and deluded into believing the world had become a radioactive desert. Emotionally, she is stunted, an adolescent trapped in a thirty-year-old body. For fifteen years she handled the adversity of the bunker the way a teenager might: by jumping up and down and repeating “I’m not really here,” and by counting to ten over and over again because, “You can take anything for ten seconds.” Now, outside the bunker, she is handling life the same way. When insulted, she snaps back with sneers and retorts of the “I know you are but what am I” variety.
Her enthusiasm and earnestness are likewise juvenile. Jaded New Yorkers—from whom Kimmy tries to hide her mole woman past—interpret these qualities as midwestern wholesomeness and innocence, but Kimmy is neither. (Was there weird sex stuff in the bunker? Yes, Kimmy tells us. Were there lies and emotional abuse? Most definitely.) What Kimmy is, is traumatized, and that trauma is keeping adult Kimmy imprisoned behind fifteen-year-old Kimmy’s bright smile. Indeed, every time Kimmy’s eyes grow wide and her smile spreads tight and stiff across her face, it becomes clear that there is something seriously broken in Kimmy, and that that seriously broken thing is itching to get out.
The smile as emotional vise is not an unfamiliar trope. Think Jane Austen. Think Edith Wharton. Or, more recently, think of the unsparing, gorgeous prose of Victoria Patterson, whose short stories and novels are populated with emotionally unspared and gorgeous women, who hide their trauma behind carefully manicured and sculpted bodies, and who smile like their lives depend upon it. Indeed, their lives do depend on it. Once their smiles break, even a little, once their brokenness spills into their public lives, into their public performances of self, the privileges of money and status that they have been chasing are peeled away, one by one: the ultimate social price for letting their smiles falter.
But Kimmy’s smile feels like more than a narrative devise to me, which is why I am really rooting for Kimmy. Like Kimmy, I have tried to smile away brokenness and trauma. Shortly after my daughter turned five she was diagnosed with epilepsy. And boy did I smile! I smiled because I wanted my daughter and her younger sister (then three) to believe that nothing had changed, that everything was fine, that everything would be fine. I smiled because I wanted to believe that too. When I see manic glee spread across Kimmy’s face, I get it. I’ve done it. You would have thought I’d won the lottery that first month and a half after my daughter’s diagnosis.
But trauma demands its due. The body will feel its pain. It is that 8.2 earthquake waiting to hit California. It’s coming, people. Deny it all you want; it’s coming. It will erupt with ferocious quaking and a deafening roar, with palpitations and violent wreckage. In my case, it came in the form of panic attacks. They started six weeks to the day after my daughter’s first seizure. By this time, I had smiled through an emergency room, through EEGs and CAT scans, through neurology visits, and even through a medication that gave my girl a full body rash that dared me in big blotchy red marks to acknowledge a very simple truth: Things were not okay. My daughter was not okay. I was not okay. None of us were okay, and none of us were going to be okay for a very long time. “I was wrong!” Kimmy eventually tells her employer (who, like everyone else Kimmy encounters, is most definitely broken). “You have to let the feelings out! You can’t keep them inside!”
No, Kimmy. No, you cannot. Hiding the feelings behind a slap-happy grin will surely fuck you right up.
But what is the alternative? As Patterson makes clear, the presentation of unbrokenness is a mandate, and the costs of denying that mandate are high—just ask Lindsay Lohan or Shia LeBeouf. My daughter, the one with epilepsy, also has high-functioning autism. She has had a lot of specialists who have spent a lot time trying to help her improve her social skills. Those experts have also spent a lot of time trying to teach me to teach her to improve her social skills. It seems to me that a lot of what we do in teaching these things is that we encourage our daughters to follow the mandate: Smile. Don’t make a scene. Don’t show people that you are frustrated. Don’t show people that you are overwhelmed. Do not express confusion when you don’t get the joke. Do not even show people your exuberance. In other words: Follow the social contract. Be unbroken, damn it. Or, at the very least, don’t make us bear witness to your brokenness.
Of course, the converse is also welcome: If we must bear witness to your brokenness, please make it entertaining. Go big or go home. Be spectacular. Be the train wreck we want to see. (#the_aforementioned_LindsayLohan. #the_aforementioned_ShiaLeBeouf.) Public brokenness is intertwined with fame in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as it so often is in our media-saturated world. In Kimmy’s case, no one is more fascinated by Kimmy’s past than her roommate Titus (played by Emmy-nominated Tituss Burgess), an out-of-work actor who only agrees to live with her when he learns of her mole woman past, and who is ever eager to hear details of her freaky bunker life. When Kimmy’s abductor is finally put on trial, Kimmy is at first so overwhelmed that she blocks the event from her consciousness by obsessively “spirit cycling.” Titus, on the other hand, can’t get enough of the trial. He watches the live stream over the Internet in the hopes of discovering every sordid detail of Kimmy’s trauma, and when Kimmy finally agrees to testify, Titus accompanies her to Indiana and finds his own moment of public humiliation/celebrity, a moment that will come with a cost, but not until Titus has tried to ride his fifteen minutes of fame to the bank (just like fellow mole woman Donna Maria Nunez, who has used her notoriety to become the mole sauce queen of the midwest).
To her credit, Kimmy never accepts the fame that comes with her trauma. In that respect, Kimmy is indeed unbreakable. The bunker has broken her, but it has not defined her, and Kimmy’s strength and resilience come from her not allowing it to define her. It is easy to get stuck in trauma, but as neuroscientist Daniel Siegel notes, trauma does not need to mean the end to our development. And as David Morris suggests in The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma can offer opportunities for growth, even transcendence. I was traumatized when my daughter started having seizures. As a mom, you are supposed to help your kids; you are supposed to make the hurt go away. I couldn’t do those things. Fourteen years later, I still can’t do those things. I can only stand and watch as a bunch of misfiring neurons turn my daughter’s eyes glassy and her limbs rigid. My trauma—damn it—broke me. But it also opened new ways for me to put myself back together again, and although I would not wish the process on anyone, I am not ungrateful for the places where the glue still shows. It is through brokenness that we become unbreakable. Kimmy is not unbreakable because she did not break in the bunker. Kimmy is unbreakable because she does not want her life to be defined by her traumatic experience and because, as she goes through what the theme song calls the “fascinating transition” of putting herself together again, she increasingly allows people to see her broken places without allowing people to reduce her to her broken places. In that respect, Kimmy Schmidt really is “as strong as hell.” In the good hands of Kemper and Fey (who also serves as executive producer, along with David Miner and co-creator Robert Carlock), I hope she stays that way.