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“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and the Rise of Popular Culture

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a very long time now, as strangely enough, I feel it’s something close to my heart. Since I was very young I’ve always had an interest in popular culture and the entertainment industry. Growing up I would read my mother’s magazines, whether they be tabloids, glossy fashion magazines, or even the weekly television guide. Half the time I was probably too young to understand any of it, favouring the posters and astrology charts over the hard-hitting journalism, but whatever the case, I knew it was something I was passionate about.

Throughout school, college, and now university, English has always been my favourite class; I love being transported into the glitz and glamour of other words, and I know you’re lying if you say you don’t feel it to some extent too. The thing that has been bothering me for some time is the determination that by liking certain “mainstream” components, and having an interest in the mass media entertainment industry, automatically brands you with the epithet “dumb”. That is a completely absurd accusation, and one I feel inclined to speak upon. I first felt these pressures in school when liking chart music suddenly made you a “loser”, and the “indie” music clique emerged. These nevertheless faded away throughout college, and to some extent, university. But recently, and this may just be my opinion, but I’ve felt that you can be easily ridiculed just because you favour creativity and self-expressive over structure driven subjects. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that these are of vital importance, but I don’t think the creative arts and humanities should be penalized just because people don’t regard them with as much worth.

I was given the drive to write this article from a programme I’ve recently been watching. Yes, it’s on Netflix, that amazing website you love so much, that is, funnily enough, part of the entertainment industry! It goes by the name of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and is created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, writers on the widely popular NBC show 30 Rock. Starring The Office’s Ellie Kemper as the title character, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt documents the daily life of a young woman, recently rescued from an underground doomsday cult, as she ventures through the fun-packed and fast-paced New York City lifestyle. Asides from being packed with love, laughs, and friendship, it’s also filled with numerous pop culture references! And if you’re an avid pop-culture fanatic, Netflix procrastinator, and magazine maniac, you’ll have no doubt picked up on these references to mainstream phenomena. Of course, these are used to emphasise just how inexperiened with modern technology Kimmy is, but I also believe it is used to represent something much bigger, and far more abstract. In a world that places great emphasis on “high culture”, visuality, and consumerism, Kimmy Schmidt seizes all of these aspects and cleverly integrates them into the storyline.

The show’s setting, the fabulous New York City, retains its status as the ‘city of dreams’. If you’ve been to New York yourself you’ll know that all these assertions are actually true! NYC is renowned for its attractions, landmarks, and culture – all on a massively high scale, but it is also associated with freedom, creativity, and ambition. The city has inspired many singer-songwriters, artists, and writers. Take for example Alisha Keys’ New York, in which she describes the city as a “concrete jungle” where dreams come true and bright lights inspire. In this respect Kimmy Schmidt almost feels like a musical on Broadway, and we are the audience watching the play unfold. It appears that Fey and Carlock are using the artificiality of New York not only to introduce Kimmy into this new and improved world, but also to reach out to a wider and more accessible audience. Viewers are able to sit back and watch the characters as they struggle, succeed, and soar through their everyday lives, and with these human experiences embedded within a colourful whirlwind of cultural sensations, the messages of each episode, which are reflective in their respective titles, becomes both believable and thought-provoking.

In addition to these representing freedom and creativity, I believe Fey and Carlock are also hinting at how mainstream phenomena has been so integrated into society that it has now become a natural part of life. After all, where would we be without television, movies and music? The entertainment industry is a very profitable one, and something that we can all admit we willingly indulge in. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has evidently picked up on this, and as such the show is littered with film quotes, re-enactments of famous movie scenes, and allusions to classical literary texts.

First up, let’s talk about that amazing opening sequence. Unbreakable, they alive dammit, it’s a miracle! If you’re not living under a rock, you’ll definitely notice that this is a parody of an actual news interview, which has since been auto-tuned into the viral sensation commonly known as the “Bed Intruder Song”. It seems only natural that the writers of this pop-culture infused series would use opening credits that were both recognisable and catchy. As you’re most likely aware, auto-tuning and the pop genre are vastly popular in the musical world, especially in today. Take for example Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, and more recently, Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk. You may now despise them, but it is unlikely that you haven’t at least heard of them, and are no doubt struggling to get the tune out of your head. And that’s what mainstream phenomena is all about – attracting the audience and holding their attention. It’s just one big rollercoaster, and we’re along for the ride.

Secondly, let’s address some of the references to popular film and television. My favourite scene from the series has to be Kimmy’s re-enactment of the final scene from the 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Movies from the past help to shape the future – Not only are they watched, but they also become a depiction of the time in which they were made. In Kimmy’s case they also become an action to represent the situation – thus telling a story. Proving victorious in her first day in school as a middle aged woman, she certainly adheres to the movie’s famous quote, “Spend a little more time trying to make something of yourself, and a little less time trying to impress people”. A simple movie quote can go a long way, and be used to aid in the representation of a completely new narrative. Another fabulous reference is to that of the insanely popular TV sitcom Friends, when Kimmy and Dong act out the opening credits whilst jumping around a Central Park water fountain. Now everyone loves Friends, surely? With the series concluding just over 10 years ago, it has already become a cultural sensation. Which emphasises that popular culture is not something that can be easily ridiculed because of its progressive advancement. It is something that is constantly changing, evolving, and often for the greater good. The entertainment industry, modern technology, and popular tastes are something that are becoming more and more important every day, and even though some do not rely on this, or are adverse to it, it is something that should people should learn to accept. There’s no stopping the media!

Thus, I aim to wrap up this somewhat lengthy proclamation by simply stating that although everyone is welcome to express their opinions freely, I believe that before a whole cultural formation be branded as and associated with the lower class, one should take into consideration that everybody has their own preferences, and should not feel belittled because others do not agree with their choices. Everyone has a right to love and enjoy what they like, and shouldn’t feel pressured into believing otherwise. If you love watching TV and want to pursue a career based around your hobby, then you embrace that, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. God knows if Kimmy Schmidt can make it, so can we!   

Watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix NOW! It’s one big sugar rush!

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Hannah Harrison

Exeter Cornwall

Aspiring entertainment journalist who dreams of living and working in the USA. Currently studying English Literature at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus. 
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