TV Shows, Pop Culture

‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ has a disability problem that nobody talks about

The show shouldn't treat disability as a joke.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been one of my favorite shows. I got into it last year and binged all the available episodes while waiting eagerly for the finale that Netflix finally released at the start of 2019.

Created by Tina Fey, the show premiered in 2015 to favorable reviews and went on to be nominated for multiple Emmys. It leans progressive – with a diverse cast, and stories that focus on how New Yorkers on the margin of society grapple with prejudice and oppression. A comedy that – mostly – punches up and not down.

Which is why I was disappointed when the final episodes of the series treated disability in a callous and problematic way.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows its 29-year-old protagonist Kimmy. Kimmy has spent the last fifteen years of her life in an underground bunker along with three other women. The four of them were kidnapped by a misogynist who convinced them that they were the lone survivors of an apocalypse. Now rescued, Kimmy re-adjusts to a changed New York along with her roommate, Titus (a black gay Broadway aspirant), Lilian (an old, poor white lady raging against gentrification) and Jacqueline (a trophy wife desperately trying to make it on her own after divorcing her husband).

Most of the show’s memorable moments have had to do with how marginalized characters navigate their identities. Titus discovers that life is easier as a monster than a black man in contemporary America when he dons a werewolf costume, Lilian chains herself to a bulldozer in a futile attempt to stop the gentrification of her neighborhood, and Titus hires a ‘straight coach’ to help him do better at auditions. The show shines when it is at its most political (some cringe-worthy exceptions aside) and does politics well.

However, in the show’s penultimate episode we meet Eli Rubin who is the first blind character in the series. We don’t yet know he’s blind and nothing in his speech or mannerisms gives this away. He appears as a foil to Jacqueline – a sexist and entitled fellow talent agent stealing away her best client.

Eli, from the hilariously named UTI talent agency, bonds with Jacqueline’s male clients by offering them strip club visits and a “tour of the Statue of Liberty’s vagina”. He corners Jacqueline alone and tells her that he’d love to take her out to dinner and have her “work under [him]”. When Jacqueline furiously retorts that she is sick of being objectified, Eli blurts out “I’m blind!”. And with around 15 minutes left till the end of the show, proceeds to tell us that he used echolocation (clicking his tongue and snapping his fingers) to get around so as not to appear disabled.

Hunh?

Eli’s blindness is added to the show at the very last minute in an attempt to offer him up as a ‘perfect’ love interest to Jacqueline, who values her for her intellect because he can’t actually see her and objectify her. Guest star Zachary Quinn who plays Eli isn’t visually impaired and the show does not hint at Eli’s disability, let alone try to use it to explain the unique challenges visually-impaired people face in an ableist world.

In addition to being callous, the show also gaslights Jacqueline by making her seem stupid for thinking that Eli was a misogynist (which, apparently blind men can’t be?) and Eli’s impressive echolocation prowess seems to disappear the moment he and Jacqueline become a couple. Off-camera he relieves himself and tells Jacqueline he wasn’t sure if that was “a ball-pit or a bathroom”, that he doesn’t care that Jacqueline is “huge and flat and painted” (the wall behind her) and fondles her breast by accident. All of this is obviously supposed to be comedic but shows instead that disability is just a gimmick for the show, something to be pulled out or put away when convenient.

People with disabilities are often invisible on television and when present simply used to teach able-bodied protagonists moralistic and heavy-handed lessons. If not, they may be the butt of the joke. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for all its political commentary seemed to play into both these stereotypes and somehow make them worse. The show also cast a sighted actor as a character who is blind.

Depictions of disability on-screen have made some progress in recent times. GLAAD notes that disability was more prevalent in 2018 on television than it has been since it started keeping score, though still not representative of the actual number of American with disabilities. Shows like Speechless (which features an actor with cerebral palsy as a character with the same) are slowly nudging television in the correct direction.

Using that same metric, it seems like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s problematic humor was not only offensive, it also pushed the entertainment industry backward. Disappointing for a ‘woke’ show.