For all its laudable qualities—its complex characters, its unwavering if imperfect commitment to tackling race, class, and sexual violence—Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, falls prey to a classic American media blunder: it portrays new religious movements as deceptive and dangerous, full of brainwashed women in need of saving.
Fey and co-creator Robert Carlock had planned to call the show “Tooken,” “like that’s the way a child speaks about something that is taken from them,” Fey explained in a recent interview. The series opens out of time, with three women kidnapped (tooken) and held hostage for fifteen years by the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. The sole voluntary congregant, Gretchen, “just thought [the Reverend] had some real good ideas,” and recruits four additional members once “saved” from the bunker.
From the show’s perspective, Gretchen is “tooken,” not only from her previous life in Durnsville, Indiana, but also for a ride. Kimmy refuses to give up on Gretchen: “I know there’s still hope, no matter how brainwashed you are,” she insists. But Gretchen defiantly rejects these overtures. “I’m proud to be brainwashed,” she maintains. “I’ve got a clean brain. You could eat off it.” In Kimmy Schmidt, the joke is always on the believers.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a brilliant show in many ways, but its take on religion is less provocative than it is, as Kimmy’s New York roommate Titus Andromedon would say, basic. Fey and Carlock are reenacting a tired, false dichotomy: women versus religion. Religion is not a source of comfort, or a system of meaning-making, or a mode for women’s leadership and authority in Kimmy Schmidt. Religion is belief, and it is a mistake—one that women make far too often.
Kimmy Schmidt delights in overplaying stereotypes, often to criticize inequality. But there’s little reason to believe that the writers are critiquing stereotypes of religion, and new religions in particular. Revered Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scarypocalypse is another in a long line of pop culture portrayals of cults, a new religion led by a lecherous and charismatic shyster using religion to dominate and exploit women.
(We see similar tropes of exploitative and disingenuous new religions in The Simpson’s “Joy of Sect,” Family Guy’s “Chitty Chitty Death Bang,” and South Park’s infamous “Trapped in the Closet” and “All About Mormons” episodes.)
The series reinforces the notion that members of new religions are either disingenuous and predatory or credulous and vulnerable. Women are assumed to be the latter: victims in need of saving. This attitude has led to disastrous civil rights abuses of women and children in minority religions, both in the United States and abroad. (That the rescued Mole Women take their fashion cues from women FLDS members is particularly poignant, as the attempt to rescue the women and children of Yearning for Zion led to the largest child custody seizure in American history despite the fact that it yielded little substantive evidence of abuse.)
Throughout American history, new religions have pushed gender boundaries. Many facilitated women’s leadership and authority, as seen in figures like the Shakers’ Mother Ann Lee or Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy. New religious movements can prompt reconsideration of divine gender, as with contemporary Goddess worship. They can challenge traditional gender roles, identities, and performances, as evidenced in Spiritualism and many forms of Neopaganism. New religions are a space in which Americans negotiate gender and power. They are more than a punch line.
Titus warned Kimmy that people are drawn to stories like the Indiana Mole Women for three reasons. “One, it’s titillating like a horror movie. Two, it makes them feel like a good person because they care about a stranger. Three, it makes people feel safe that it did not happen to them.”
These kinds of atrocity tales—even when couched as humor—portray new religions as inherently salacious, reinforce the inevitability of women’s victimhood, and focus on sexual abuse only when it happens on America’s religious margins. Americans feel compassionate in wanting to save the dupes of new religions—we see a send-up of this self-satisfaction in the Today Show’s assistant handing the Mole Women their parting gift bags, droning “thank you, Victims! Thank you, Victims!”—and safer in their assumption that sexual predators are religious kooks, and not their neighbors, friends, and family members.
While Kimmy recognizes that “the worst thing that ever happened to me happened in my own front yard,” it’s still the Reverend and his Spooky Church who tried to break Kimmy and betrayed gullible Gretchen’s trust. This show deserves a smart and skeptical audience. Cheer for Kimmy when she insists we “stand up and say, ‘We’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us!’”
Our unabashed love for Tina Fey might tempt us to give her a pass here—surely one more depiction of new religions as crazy and abusive can’t be that bad. But we cannot underestimate how little Americans actually know about new religions, or how much damage misconceptions about minority religions can do. Kimmy Schmidt reinforces Americans’ convictions that new religions are dangerous and that their women members need saving. Don’t be tooken in.