A Sitcom about a Rape Survivor? Yes, and Her Resilience is Real Thanks to Tina Fey #rapesurvivor #sitcom #resilience #tinafey

150330_r26306-320The bright-pink resilience of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix.

Sometimes breaking a taboo means telling a hidden truth. Much is done and written about helping and treating rape survivors, which is necessary. But what about the fact that many survivors get their lives back and move on to overcome the pain and dwell in a place of peace and increased empathy? This new sitcom is about one such girl who escapes being imprisoned and fulfills her dreams. How odd? No, maybe how real for some former victims.

Without any contradiction, it’s a sitcom about a rape survivor.

The show doesn’t address sexual violence head on; it’s possible to watch without dwelling on the details. But Kimmy’s ugly history comes through, in inference and in sly, unsettling jokes about trauma, jagged bits that puncture what is a colorful fish-out-of-water comedy. The backstory that emerges combines elements from a number of familiar tabloid stories: those of Katie Beers (abducted from her abusive family, kept in an underground bunker), Elizabeth Smart (snatched from her bedroom by a self-styled messiah), Jaycee Dugard (abducted from her front yard), and the three women who were rescued two years ago in Cleveland, after having been beaten and raped for years by Ariel Castro. At times, the story feels inspired by Michelle Knight, one of Castro’s victims, who wrote a memoir called “Finding Me.” Like Kimmy, Knight had no family to go back to; her upbringing was a horror. But, to judge from newspaper profiles, she has not merely survived the abuse—she’s resilient and downright giggly, a fan of karaoke and dancing, angels and affirmations. It’s a powerfully girlish model of human toughness.

Kimmy’s vision of the good life has exactly that vibe: she wants to enjoy what she’s missed out on. Roaming around New York, she binges on candy, like a crazed toddler. She buys sparkly sneakers. Peppy and curious to the point of naïveté, she acts as if she’d learned about life from sitcoms—she gets into a love triangle, she goes back to school, she’s eager for every party. But there’s also something tense and over-chipper about Kimmy’s zest, an artificial quality that even the cartoonish characters around her can sense is “off.” Yes, there was “weird sex stuff” in the bunker, she blurts out to her roommate. She has an unexplained Velcro phobia. At night, she wakes up from a fugue state and finds herself rinsing off a knife in the shower or attacking her roommate. (“This isn’t the Chinatown bus!” Titus tells her. “You can’t just choke people who are sleeping.”) When Kimmy decides to take things to “the next level” with her new boyfriend, she mashes his face with the heel of her palm and tries to overpower him. She marvels, “All the stuff I thought I knew was way wrong.”


This is rare material for a sitcom. But it’s not unusual for modern television, which has been experiencing an uptick in stories about sexual violence—a subject once reserved for Lifetime and “Law & Order.”

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