Comedy; Trope; Comically Traumatized;, Kimmy Schmidt; Ellie Kemper;, Lisa Kudrow;, Nadine Velazquez; My Name is Earl; Friends; The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; Survivor; Rape; Sexual Assault; feminism; rape culture;
“They alive, dammit!” Cheers The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s opening chorus. “Females are strong as hell!” Such is our introduction to Kimmy – a childhood kidnapping victim who spent 15 years buried in a bunker in Indiana. She emerges, clueless, but smiling and apparently unscathed.
Schmidt is a pioneer beyond her fictional universe. She represents the loud emboldening of a trope that is recent, infrequent, and classically overlooked: that of the Comically Traumatized Woman.
It started with Phoebe Buffay, of Friends.
“I remember when I first came to this city,” Phoebe tells Rachel comfortingly in the first episode. “I was fourteen. My mom had just killed herself and my step-dad was back in prison. And I got here, I didn’t know anybody. And I ended up living with this albino guy who was like, cleaning windshields outside port authority – and then he killed himself – and then I found aromatherapy. So believe me, I know exactly how you feel.”
Shocked glances suggest no one is comforted. But this is the recurring source of Phoebe’s humor – disturbed expressions following offhandedly tragic disclosure. Her sunny disposition is the only thing that makes it work. For a horror-tale survivor, she seems utterly, unreasonably, fine.
Catalina Aruca, My Name is Earl’s undocumented Bolivian refugee, carries on the trope with gusto. “This is the sweetest, most justified kidnapping I’ve ever seen!” She once praises our show’s namesake, calculating after that she’s seen five or so. She likes the pop-pop-pop of bubble-wrap, because it reminds her of her childhood in bullet-riddled La Paz. And she never has plans for Mother’s Day, because her mother is dead. When offered condolences, she shrugs and explains, “It was either her or me.”
In every genesis of the Comically Traumatized Woman, but most of all in Nadine Velazquez’s Catalina, we hear a voice of quiet social conscience. She reminds other characters of the vastness between their privilege and the world of strife she remembers; they can respond to her revelations uncomfortably, or not at all. She will disturb, annoy, offend, and be ignored – but she stays within the bounds of comedy. Because around her, no one knows what to say.
The archetype emergences next with Erin, from The Office – a pre-incarnation to Kimmy Schmidt, also played by actress Ellie Kemper. Erin unleashes the trope’s positivity to an on-it’s-own comical degree. “I like every person that I have ever met,” she says, smiling blissfully, as though she hadn’t just been told by her co-workers that they’ll never really like her.
It’s no secret that she’s an orphan – her frequent references to The System include practical know-how in ridding the office of lice and statements like, “In the foster home, my hair was my room.” Everyone she meets is a likely substitute for the family she never had. She is worshipfully gratefully to colleagues like Michael Scott and Kelly who offer her lukewarm attention in return.
“Thank God he’s my boss, because I would not have said yes to a first date if I didn’t have to,” she tells us, about one of two douchey supervisors she dates. The very first time we’re introduced, she’s being encouraged to change her name by her regional manager’s interim replacement – who breaks decorum to tell her that she’s pretty. And co-worker Clark convinces her to wear skimpy clothes solo to a non-existent audition at his apartment. The date-rape of a scenario is avoided only by the intervention of her future love-interest, Pete.
Erin’s vulnerability is an overstatement, more so than a departure, from her Comically Traumatized kin. They are all blatantly exploited by other characters; they value relationships with a heedless valor rarely or never mentioned. Phoebe takes on the surrogate pregnancy of her brother’s triplets. Catalina returns to stripping against clearly-stated inclination, to free chief-rival Joy from prison (after Earl collapses in a heap of fragility). And the element of sexual violence is implied, with ever so cautious a subtlety, by each woman.
“This reminds me,” says a pregnant-and-grumpy Phoebe to a Rachel who can’t stop agonizing about Ross, “Of the time when I was living on the street and this guy offered to buy me food if I slept with him.”
After a confused pause, Rachel asks, “How is this like that?”
“Well, let’s see, it’s not really like that.” Says Phoebe. “Because that was an actual problem and yours is just like, y’know, a bunch of high school crap that nobody really gives, y’know…”
We later learn that she contracted hepatitis when a pimp spit in her mouth. Neither her fiancé nor the fiancé’s rich parents, to whom she has thusly introduced herself, ever ask for specifics.
When Catalina learns that Randy is afraid of chickens, she soothingly offers, “We all have fears. I fear snakes and rape.” She had no male friends before fleeing Bolivia, due to her belief that they would rape her mother. And we watch her good friend Earl slap her butt, to express his disillusionment, and earn a reprimand because she “expects better” of him than she does of other men.
And then there was Kimmy.
In episode one, Miss Schmidt’s roommate Titus Andromedon begins a question about money with the sentence, “I’m very scared to ask you this – ”
“Yes!” Kimmy cuts him off, rolling her eyes. “There was weird sex-stuff in the bunker.”
Her admission is swallowed in swift-flowing narrative, but the second season has her date a soldier who openly recognizes her PTSD. “If you think you don’t have triggers, then you’re in denial,” he tells her, after she reacts to his sudden movement at a party by wrestling him on the floor. She also reflexively hits old-flame Dong with a telephone each time they kiss, until he’s in handcuffs – at which point she says her brain feels calm enough to attempt coition.
None of this happens with any sobering hint of drama. Kimmy, and all of our Comically Traumatized Women, stay funny.
And that is a narrative revolution.
“I couldn’t stay,” says Kimmy’s hot-mess of a mom, referring to life in their small town after her child was abducted. “Everywhere I went people were looking at me like I was a bummer, you know, with their eyes all watery, ‘I’m so sorry for your tragedy’, when I just was trying to get one minute of peace on a mechanical bull.”
“Ugh,” says Kimmy, “I hate that look! I don’t want pity. It’s like, I’m more than this one terrible thing that happened to me!”
“Exactly!” Says Kimmy’s mom – who, in possible homage to Phoebe, is also played by actress Lisa Kudrow. “I’m all the terrible things that have happened to me. And I’m not a bummer! I’m fun.”
Drama, the near-exclusive purveyor of traumatic representation in the arts, prescribes a gingerliness in dealing with affliction – a thorough separation of survivor from what she has survived. Here is the thing that shouldn’t have happened, and there are the things you fear and think and unhealthily love in result. Somewhere under all that trauma is the real you, the person you were meant to be before these bad things happened. A Comically Traumatized Woman does what may never have been done before on screen; she claims every fear, and think, and unhealthy love as her own. She is not fun sometimes and traumatized some other times. She is always both. And proud.
“Don’t worry about me,” Kimmy says to Dong, grinning after insisting she’ll help him marry someone else. “I’m like a biscotti. People act like I’m this sweet cookie, but I’m really this super hard thing, that nobody knows what I am, or why I am.”
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gives us a Comically Traumatized Heroine who can tell her own story. This isn’t Rachael’s or Monica’s or Ross’s New York. We see through Kimmy’s eyes. In her freak vision, ‘normal’ is a boring unicorn. The world doesn’t make a ton of sense; but it’s bright, and resilient, and loudly being lived-in. You are invited not to pity, ignore, or revere – but fully, and finally, relate.