Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Coping with Trauma

The original 2015 Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, starring Ellie Kemper, is pure comedy at its finest as quirky — and certainly bubbly — 29 year-old Kimmy Schmidt moves from Indiana to New York City for a fresh start. She finds a home with Titus, the dramatic and eccentric roommate looking for stardom (played by Tituss Burgess), has adventures with Lillian, the tough-as-nails and offbeat landlord (played by Carol Kane), and begins to work as a nanny for Jacqueline, a snobby but lovable socialite (played by Jane Krakowski).

But underneath the literally laugh out loud dialogue and hilarity is a serious — and comparatively unique — storyline. In episode one, we learn that Kimmy was kidnapped along with three other young women by a reverend who told them the world was ending; she spent fifteen years of her life immersed in an apocalypse cult, living in an underground bunker until they were finally freed.

And as wondrous as it is for Kimmy to have a second chance at life, you could imagine she may have some post traumatic stress to confront. After all, while she was living in the bunker for fifteen years, her main objective was to adapt to the experience. And to survive.

In season one, we find Kimmy back in the real world again. Her lack of awareness regarding pop culture or societal trends or famous news headlines surely gives way to humor, and her immense drive to surpass her past and move on is admirable. We watch Kimmy help friends who are struggling, take G.E.D courses and even become entangled in a love triangle. And through it all, Kimmy upholds an extremely optimistic disposition. (Though I should note that Kimmy does have a bright disposition, in general).

However, remnants of Kimmy’s kidnapping seep in between the cracks. We see her have a night terror; we see her highly startled from various triggers; we see her react to those triggers with aggression; and, we see her deal with unpleasant moments by counting to ten (an exercise she practiced in the bunker).

In one episode, Kimmy contemplates having plastic surgery. She does not desire recognition; she does not want her experience of victimization to define her. But before she can go through with the procedure, she realizes that fixing the outside won’t matter. Fixing the inside is what counts.

While it’s hinted at that Kimmy would benefit from talking to someone, it’s season two that truly showcases Kimmy’s progress. We see her have flashbacks and erratic sleep patterns and indigestion issues (insinuating she may have some emotional purging to do). We see her put others needs before her own, as if she doesn’t value her own needs at all; as if she’s simply invisible.

When she wakes up on a roller coaster and doesn’t know how she got there, she knows that’s her ‘wake up call’ to seek professional help.

And while her therapist has her own set of problems (played by Tina Fey), Kimmy does begin to deal with not only what happened in the bunker, but deep-seated emotions that preceded her kidnapping, too. (And I don’t want to be a “spoiler,” but let’s just say she has some unfinished issues with her mother.)

Another motif worth mentioning is the strong feminist approach to the show as well; feminist in the sense that these women survived such adversity and will continue to acquire the strength they need to live their lives.

In a 2015 interview with Ellie Kemper for Collider, she’s asked how she balances Kimmy’s optimism with her strength, and how she still finds the humor in such a role.

“What makes this character very special is that, sure, if you saw her at the post office, you might think, ‘Oh, here’s a woman in bright pink pants with red hair who’s smiling,’ but you never would guess the resilience that lies inside,” Kemper said. “That union of traits is what makes her so special. She’s not hardened by it. She’s still optimistic and wanting to believe that the best can happen. She wasn’t defeated by this horrible thing.”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not your average television series. It’s multi-faceted with emotional depth, relaying the inspirational message that resiliency can always be fostered — that trauma could lead to redemption.

Debby Wong/Bigstock

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