Tina Fey’s Problems With Race Extend Far Beyond ‘30 Rock’s’ Blackface
Jeffrey Ufberg / WireImage / Getty
During her career, Tina Fey had a fascinating relationship with the breed as the source of the comedy. From Mean Girls to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the work of the Saturday Night Live alum is often a fine line between satirizing racist stereotypes and their simple replication. And 30 Rock, their longest running work and almost certainly their best known, is a case study - full of racist tropics and, yes, no less than four episodes that use Blackface.
At least it contained these things. On Tuesday, at Fey's request, Hulu and other platforms that carried the show agreed to remove the episodes with Blackface from their libraries. The episodes can no longer be purchased on iTunes or Google Play, and they no longer include syndicated reps of the series. Aside from those who bought the show's box sets, few people will likely see these rates again.
In a letter from Vulture, Fey framed the move as an attempt to protect viewers from the painful experience of seeing these episodes. But Fey has also spent years ignoring, rejecting, and ridiculing criticism of her writing when it comes to racing. Removing these episodes could save some viewers an offensive experience, but for Fey it could also suppress a conversation that has arisen regularly about their most famous series. Given this context and the wording of Fey's letter, this step feels less like growth than after a maneuver to prevent and avoid an unpleasant conversation.
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"As we strive to get the job done and do the race better in America, we believe these episodes with actors in race-changing makeup are best pulled out of circulation," wrote Fey. “I now understand that 'intention' is not a free ticket for whites to use these images. I apologize for the pain they caused. In the future, no comedy-loving child will have to stumble across these tropics and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for responding to this request. "
Aside from the inventive euphemism of "racial change makeup", Fey also seems to view these episodes as isolated examples of racist awkwardness within the show. But really, it's boiled down in its DNA. 30 Rocks' two primary black characters duel with racist tropes - the lazy, exaggerated black man represented by the eccentric Tracy Jordan, and the educated and "well-spoken" James Spurlock, known to his NBC family as the "Toofer" is because he's both black and went to Harvard. Sometimes the show uses this false dichotomy to comment on how black men are seen by white people and portrayed in white media. But often these stereotypes are just used to laugh.
This pattern pervades Fey's work. Tracy Jordan's wife Angie (Sherri Shepherd) calls Fey's character Liz Lemon because she was looking for a "cheeky black friend" in one breath - a confident allusion to using the same stereotype in the series - before airily telling her: "Well, you have one now, girlfriend!" It's a popular joke pattern of 30 rocks: make it clear to the audience that the authors understand the problems associated with a particular type of humor before "satirizing" them in a way that never quite makes it clear what that is is satirical statement.
Indeed, the main defense against anyone who has criticized 30 Rocks Blackface in the past is that the show in context made it clear that Blackface is wrong. Still, one has to wonder why Fey and so many white liberal entertainers felt so comfortable practicing ironic racism over and over again - or, perhaps more importantly, why one of them thought it was fresh. In any case, it hardly seems the answer to pretend that these episodes never existed. A more appropriate solution could be to imitate the streamers' decision in 2014 to add a warning and rejection of racist humor to old Tom & Jerry episodes - a solution that both recognizes the mistake and enables the conversation about harmful tropics to be productive to continue.
In its most confident form, 30 Rock sometimes felt like a window in Fey's head as she worked through some of his key contradictions in real time. As Huffington Post senior culture writer Zeba Blay noted in 2016, one of the series' most confident moments came when Liz Lemon was confronted with her own mistakes as a feminist - after the series criticized the use of bitch-humorous humor and made jokes was at the expense of sex workers. In an episode of season five, titled "TGS hates women," Liz Lemon defends a sketch of Hillary Clinton, played by Jane Krakowski's Jenna Mulroney, pressuring England because she was in her period. Liz tries to argue that the game is "ironic reappropriation," Blay notes before admitting that she has lost sight of what counts as satire.
There is something to say for a white writer who chooses to use his platform to deal with questions about race and comedy. One could argue that chaotic series like Rock 30 are at least better than comedies that maintain a light atmosphere by ignoring the fact that racism exists at all. But since 30 Rock, Fey's reactions to criticism - both on-screen and off-screen - have been less introspective. And this is where the real problem lies.
Fey's new series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is as fun as 30 rock, but just as flawed. The series has had success when it comes to tackling the race - like an episode of season one, in which Tituss Burgess' narcissistic actor Titus Andromedon realizes that he is treated better as a werewolf than when he is black in the streets of New York wanders. In the second season, the series also showed that Krakowski's character Jane White was indeed an Indian. This season also included a Vietnamese love interest for Kimmy named Dong - a positive move on the one hand, as Asian male love interests remain rare in Hollywood, but also a disappointment because the character was largely a stereotype.
When asked about the criticism the series had received for effectively occupying a white woman as an Indian, Fey answered dismissively as best.
"We did an [Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt] episode and the internet was in a whirlwind and called it" racist ", but my new goal is not to tell jokes," Fey told Net-a-Porter in 2015 So much effort to write and design everything that you have to speak for yourself. There is a real culture of demanding excuses and I reject that. "
A year later, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broadcast an episode in which Titus plays a geisha with a yellow face. Vox senior culture reporter Alex Abad-Santos stressed Tuesday after news of the removal of the Blackface episodes, that much of Fey's work is also full of Asian stereotypes. "The underlying" joke, "Abad-Santos writes," is that they are hyper-sexual and look for green cards / cannot speak English. "So it is perhaps not surprising that the episode's message essentially boiled down to the fact that those who complain about cultural insensitivity should stop being such snowflakes.
All of this speaks for Fey's tortured relationship with the Internet. Although Kimmy Schmidt lives on Netflix - a web-based platform - Fey has particularly rejected the online discussions. Of course, some of this is justified; Fey, like most famous people, especially women, has experienced more than their fair share of ugliness from online trolls. However, the loudest criticism of Fey's work often comes from fans, be it 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. And the focus on the trolls hides the way social media has democratized who can criticize the art we all consume.
However, in 2016, Fey was seriously concerned with online criticism: the excitement that arose after appearing in Saturday Night Live, and advised viewers not to protest the white supremacists who had come to Charlottesville, Virginia. At that time, online critics noticed the privilege of washing the hands of such demonstrations and eating cake instead. And in that case, Fey admitted, they were right.
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During an interview with David Letterman, Fey said, "I felt like a gymnast who did a very solid routine and broke her ankle when landing."
Fey said it was not her intention to tell people not to protest. "If I could digitally reset a sentence, I would say to people," Fight them in every way except the way they want, "but I didn't write that back then," she said. "I wrote it two days later as I paced my house, and that's the nature of SNL."
When the two discussed the sketch, Fey admitted that she didn't like to apologize publicly, but emphasized that in this case, she listened to criticism and didn't want to stop doing it better: "You have to be an athlete," said Fey "I broke my ankle while landing ... I'll try again."
Fey's rise in the entertainment industry is remarkable and should not be downplayed. She has created several endlessly quotable cultural sensations, and more importantly, as Linda Holmes of NPR 2013 emphasized and Blay repeated in her play, was actually recognized as the brain behind it. Holmes notes that this distinction has influenced opportunities and discussions about creators like Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham, who are all recognized not only as actors but also as creators.
However, it remains a privilege to have the space to try again that not all artists get. Fey's rise to the entertainment industry, which remains a stronghold of misogyny, is important. But it's just as important to realize that a lot of their work missed the mark in the race. Hollywood is as racist as it is misogynistic, and much of Fey's work has confirmed the stereotypes that marginalize colored people and in many cases prevent them from gaining power in this industry or elsewhere.
Regardless of whether Fey wants to face it or not, her legacy is much more complicated than some questionable episodes - and removing streaming services won't change that.
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