Is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Racist?

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Is it ever okay for an actor to play a character of a different race? Save for a few inclusive exceptions — the Broadway musical Hamilton, which features Black and Latino actors as America’s white founding fathers, comes to mind — the answer is no. But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a different opinion. In the third episode of the season, “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” Titus (Tituss Burgess) decides to star in Kimono You Didn’t!, a one-man show about Murasaki, the Japanese geisha he claims to have been in a past life. When word of the show gets out, Titus is pilloried by an online group called The Forum to Advocate Respectful Asian Portrayals In Entertainment. (Yes, R.A.P.E. is part of the acronym.) The organization turns out in force for the show, ready to excoriate Titus, whom they call “a Hitler.” But when he sings, it's so beautiful that they completely change their minds. Then they're bewildered: What do they do if they aren’t mad about some injustice? The message of the episode is: People on the internet overreact. In a not unexpected turn, the internet has some problems with the episode. One viewer tweeted: "the kimmy schmidt episode where titus dresses as a geisha & miraculously wins over the rightfully offended asian community is so patronising." Another wrote: "WTF #UnbreakableKimmySchmidt Titus's one-man geisha show? Making fun of asian american activists? Making 'I can't breathe' a punch line?!!!!" This isn't the first time Kimmy executive producer Tina Fey has been called out for her approach to issues of race. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed ran a piece titled, “It’s Time To Stop Apologising For Tina Fey,” in response to her movie Whisky Tango Foxtrot. That film, about a reporter in Afghanistan, failed to cast Afghan actors in key Afghan roles. The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was taken to task for its portrayal of Vietnamese character Dong (Ki Hong Lee) and for a plot line involving the hidden Native American heritage of Upper East Side trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees, played by white actress Jane Krakowski. In the series' second season, Dong has mostly lost his accent thanks to the ubiquity of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Jacqueline attempts to reconnect with her past and resolves to help the community she once left behind.
Fey isn't a fan of online commentary. In fact, she told Refinery29 earlier this year that she thinks the internet is “bad for jokes.” She said, “I think people are much too easily offended. People make a hobby of being offended, and it’s boring.” So with this episode, Fey and her crew take direct aim at those who so live for outrage that they even get outraged at one another. When Titus explains to the protesters who come to his show that he was Murasaki in a past life, their ringleader says, "That's idiotic." In response, a Hindu member takes issue with the notion that former lives are "idiotic." Fey certainly has a point. The internet can be cesspool, and uninformed anger often runs rampant to the point of becoming nothing but nonsense. But it still seems that the target of the episode's criticism is misplaced. In real life, there is legitimate reason to be concerned with Hollywood's attitude toward Asian characters. Take these two currently brewing controversies: Just last week, an image emerged from Ghost in the Shell, a film adaptation of a popular manga series. Scarlett Johansson plays the lead, named Major Motoko Kusanagi in the source material. In response to the still, actress Ming-Na Wen wrote on Twitter: “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I'm a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.” Meanwhile, Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange features Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, who is Tibetan in the comic books. Obviously, Titus’ play doesn't offer an exact parallel to these controversies, namely because we're supposed to get on board with the fact that he truly thinks he was once Murasaki. Co-creator Robert Carlock used this very claim to defend the episode to the The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that the writers “wanted to play with those ideas of perception and appropriation.” Carlock said, “It seemed like a funny double bind that he really believes he was that person. So is it offensive for him to portray that person?” Carlock answers his own question with a "maybe," but the episode seems to come down on the side that Titus' performance is not offensive because it's done well and out of respect. But if Fey and Carlock's series is satirising how quick people are to judge when it comes to portrayals of race, shouldn't Titus at least be forced to consider on some level how his show might come off as offensive? Because the protestors may be vicious, but they — just like the chorus of indignant voices sounding off on the internet — are often dead right.

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