“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 pinnacle of a TV trope that is recent, infrequent, and classically overlooked: the Comically Traumatized Person.
It started with Friends’ Phoebe Buffay.
“I remember when I first came to this city,” Phoebe tells Rachel comfortingly in episode one. “I was fourteen. My mom had just killed herself and my step-dad was back in prison. …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 Person, 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 emerges next with Erin, from The Office – an apparent 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 Gabe Lewis – one of two low-key predatory supervisors she ends up dating. The very first time we’re introduced, she’s being encouraged to change her name by her regional manager’s interim replacement. He sets a precedent when he 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 big heap of fragility.
Though each CTP recounts a wide variety of traumatic life experiences, the element of sexual violence is a connective fiber, implied by every one with ever so cautious a subtlety.
“This reminds me,” says a pregnant-and-grumpy Phoebe to a Rachel who can’t stop agonizing over 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.
Then we have Silicon Valley’s Jared Dunn, who springs from The Office’s ashes as a Comically Traumatized, nicely non-predatory version of Gabe (both characters played by Zach Woods). Staring wide-eyed at the giant portrait of Gavin Belson they’ve agreed to hang in his garage bedroom, Jared muses: “I was scared of intruders ‘til I had one of those in my room, and then I realized, you know, if they’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna kill me. ‘Cause he kept whispering that.”
Reminiscent of Phoebe, Jared often mentions hunger and homelessness, including sleeping in a box on the street. Like Erin, he frequently refers to foster care; the closest he had to a stuffed animal was a Ziploc bag stuffed with old newspaper and a smile drawn on the outside. Also like Erin, everyone calls him by a name that a supervisor stuck to him. He’s seen dead people, like Catalina, some of them naked, and, like Kimmy, he used to be a prisoner. “When I was little,” he tells us, “I used to pretend that I shared a room with Harriet Tubman and we were always planning our big escape.”
True to his trope, Jared’s enormous devotion and self-sacrifice on behalf of those he has chosen as his family are persistently taken for granted and overlooked. Still, he is ultimately valued more in his universe than Phoebe, Erin, or Catalina are in theirs. The founder of his tiny company, Richard, arguably abandons his evil plans to “force-adopt code through aggressive guerilla marketing” due to Jared’s vocal withdrawal of support.
But never until Kimmy was a Comically Traumatized Person at the center of the storyline.
The series is appropriately bizarre.
In episode one, Ms. 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.”
The actually-frank disclosure of sexual assault is reiterated in Season Three. “It’s kind of sophisticated if you think about it,” says a lady named Wendy, speaking of her attempts to get Kimmy to sign divorce papers so she can marry the same reverend who held her prisoner. “An evening in Manhattan with my lover’s wife. It sounds like a Noel Coward play!”
Kimmy shoots back under her breath, “If Noel Coward really was a coward who rapes everybody.”
Her admissions are swallowed in swift-flowing narrative, but beginning in the second season with a soldier who calls her out on her PTSD, her life involves more and more recognition of how her past affects her present.
“If you think you don’t have triggers, then you’re in denial,” The soldier 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 characters, 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 sexual violence – 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 Person 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 Hero who can tell her own story. In the words of her unlicensed psychiatrist: “Kimmy Schmidt is free, okay? She can just assume that everybody already knows [about her trauma] and stop worrying about it.”
This isn’t Rachael’s or Monica’s or Ross’s New York. We see the world through Kimmy’s eyes – which are like Phoebe’s eyes, and Catalina’s, and Erin’s, and Jared’s. In their 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.