Content warnings: sexual assault, abduction, mental health
The first time I watched “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt,” I didn’t love it. I was studying abroad in Turkey at the time and spending a lot of time alone—and, though I didn’t know it, I was still processing a lot of my own anxiety and trauma, which manifested mostly in wearing dark colors and writing slam poetry.
So I didn’t find Kimmy particularly relatable.
But then season two came out, and I went to a lot of therapy (those two things were simultaneous but unrelated), and finally I get it. Revisiting the show through the Mental Dam has been a delight.
The premise, for those of you who have not born witness to Tina Fey’s legendary career, is that the show follows Kimmy Schmitt’s move to New York after being liberated from an underground bunker where she was held hostage for twelve years. She quickly accumulates a sort-of-community of funny and complicated friends, and as in all of Fey’s work, quirky adventures ensue.
Certainly, Kimmy is a female character written by a female person. That said, she’s not exactly an everywoman. Kimmy is unrelentingly positive, trustingly clueless, and wears her heart on her sleeve. I know few people who see themselves in her, and that’s probably for the best, since she’s pretty annoying. The brilliance of this character comes not in how she deals with every day, but in how she deals with trauma.
The bunker itself is presented in a pretty light, comedic way—every flashback scene that takes place there has at least one big punchline, and references to it are mostly jokes. Nevertheless, there are definitely allusions to how dark and terrifying that period of Kimmy’s life likely was, including forced labor, torture, and possibly sexual assault.
What this show does best is present trauma as part of a survivor’s life. Some days Kimmy seems fixated on the bunker, some days she avoids the topic, some days it just doesn’t come up. She knows who she can talk to for support and who she can’t. She has certain strengths and coping strategies—as well as fears and triggers—that originate from her experience and change the way she interacts with the world. Fey’s (and Robert Carlock’s) absurdist humor flows from everyone who enters Kimmy’s world, but paints this part of Kimmy herself as deeply real and powerful.
And as Kimmy herself says: “I survived. Because that’s what women do. We eat a bag of dirt, pass it in a kiddie pool, and move on.” (Season 1, Ep. 8)