“Females Are Strong As Hell”: How Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Portrays Resiliency

In the first blog post on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we looked at the impact of trauma on the character of Kimmy. This second post shifts to exploring ways Kimmy exemplifies resiliency and posttraumatic growth. First, some clarification on how I am using these terms. Resilience refers to the ability to appropriately adapt to stress; posttraumatic growth relates to improving relationships, having clear priorities, and an increased sense of self and strength. Kimmy’s resiliency does not mean that she overcomes all obstacles and is untouched by her past.

Creative Coping Skills To Survive

The scenes from Kimmy’s time in the bunker demonstrate the amazing and creative ways that she learned to survive and then to cope. In the bunker, the four “Indiana Mole Women” had to turn a heavy crank for hours at a time, and Kimmy cleverly learned that she could tolerate this or any distress by breaking it into 10-second chunks. Instead of being overwhelmed by the never-ending stress of the task, she cycles through feelings about the crank, shifting from exhaustion and frustration with each count of 10 to being refreshed as she starts over at 1. This is an example of a skill that Kimmy develops in order to survive. Later, in her present-day job, Kimmy shares this technique with a young boy who is waiting to open his birthday presents by saying, “Just take it ten seconds at a time. Everything will be okay.”

Adapting Skills As Needed

Throughout the show, Kimmy evaluates how her ways of coping are working for her now that she is free. For example, she teaches her boss Jacqueline Voorhees, played by Jane Krakowski, to chant “I’m not really here!” when facing a distressing event. By the end of the episode, Kimmy realizes how this mantra once helped her when she was trapped and had no other options, but that now, she instead has to walk through challenging emotions like sadness or acknowledge realities like the “scream lines” on her face.

Shifting Beliefs, Shifting Actions

From training in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I learned about the categories of core beliefs that are usually impacted by trauma. These include feeling: inadequate or flawed, overly responsible, not safe, or not in control of one’s life. When a survivor is triggered, these beliefs become distorted. For example, “I am not safe around the person who hurt me” could morph into “I am not safe in any situation.” We see an example of this in the first episode, when Kimmy sees a large portrait of her boss Jacqueline’s powerful husband, jumps to the conclusion that this is Jacqueline’s “reverend,” and checks to see whether Jacqueline needs help getting away from him.

When a survivor is working through the effects of trauma, the exaggerated effects of these beliefs can be reduced, leading to more balanced ways of facing the world. For example, “I am not safe in any situation” can shift back to being able to identify specific dangers.

In Kimmy, we see multiple examples of her shifting beliefs from the past to fit her current circumstance and to empower herself and others. In a pivotal scene, Kimmy and her boss Jacqueline have been exploring Jacqueline’s choice about leaving a marriage with an unfaithful and unavailable husband, even though the marriage is financially secure. When Kimmy learns that Jacqueline is considering staying because she does not believe she can make ends meet on her own, Kimmy purposefully reveals her identity to Jacqueline, saying:

Kimmy: My name is not Kimmy Smith. It’s Kimmy Schmidt. From Indiana. As in the Indiana Mole Women. I was kept in a bunker for 15 years by an insane preacher. I thought the world had ended. I thought I would die there. But I survived, because that’s what women do. We eat a bag of dirt, pass it in the kitty pool, and move on.
Jacqueline: I hope that’s a metaphor.
Kimmy: It’s not. We needed the iron.

This short speech illustrates how Kimmy is now choosing to react to the world with the belief that she can survive and then move forward. In addition, Kimmy is seeking to empower Jacqueline to make her own choices, see her own strengths, and not settle for the manageable oppression she is now facing in her marriage. It is a powerful connection between two women and two survivors.

The character of Kimmy Schmidt exemplifies being able to adapt to stress and adversity, both when it occurred during her captivity and as she navigates starting over in New York City. In the final blog post on this subject, I will look further at what Kimmy can teach us about trauma recovery.