I’ve watched Tina Fey pummel a sheetcake into her face more times than I’d like to admit.
Rewind. Pause. Play. Oh shit, did she really just crack a light joke about Sally Hemmings, who was raped as early as 14 by Thomas Jefferson? The Sally whose descendants fought tooth and nail to be acknowledged and invited to Jefferson family reunions at Monticello? Rewind. Pause. Play. Yes; yes, she did.
I’ve spent more anguished hours watching and debating Fey’s body of work than any pop culture zombie should. I could teach a MOOC on dismantling her work that would get all the hate mail. But no matter how many “Calm down, it’s just comedy” statements have been thrown at me, I’m just not buying it — the analysis of pop culture and its deconstruction is absolutely vital in our society, and it’s why magazines like this exist.
Fey’s work has been an interesting barometer of awareness among my friends. I’ve enjoyed much of it, but enjoyment and love for something, in my opinion, never preclude criticizing it. So the last time I posted on social media about Fey’s rather racist portrayals of Asian-Americans (like Dong on Kimmy Schmidt), I was surprised to lose a friend over the ensuing discussion — a friend who didn’t believe I had the right to claim Asian as a race or that white privilege exists, but a friend nonetheless. There’s something about Tina Fey’s work that has managed to draw a pretty clear and distinctive line for me of how aware and receptive folks are of what it feels like to be a person of color soaked in pop culture racism — and I’m of the opinion that that’s because Tina Fey herself is not very aware of that feeling, and she doesn’t seem to care to listen. She’s too busy mocking the people who are actually doing something, like the Asian-American activist group named R.A.P.E. that she positions in Kimmy Schmidt as a group of hysterical, over-the-top SJWs. Gaslighting much?
First, let’s pick apart the satire element that Playboy so kindly explained to us as a mere send up of “Trump-phobic vanilla liberals with relatively pampered lives.” While Fey likely isn’t recommending that we facepalm sheetcakes every day instead of ever going to a rally, elements of the spiel like the Standing Rock shoutout and the condemnation of Trump’s “on many sides” statement point to the likelihood that many of the piece’s sentiments are indeed genuine, and thus, that the piece is a mixed bag of some satire and some honest politics. Fey is introduced as herself, not as a character, and well, wouldn’t you say she pretty much is a Trump-hating vanilla liberal with a (very) pampered life? If this is satire, some of us think it could’ve been better.
That very pampered life came about partially from plying racist stereotypes for laughs to receptive audiences via one of my favorite shows of all time, 30 Rock. After that, Fey went on to double-down on racism with Kimmy Schmidt. So, after being assaulted with constant stereotypes, how are folks of color then supposed to support Tina Fey when she comes out as the mouthpiece of a Resistance meant to better our lives? It’s hard to believe Fey has as much personally on the line as folks of color when she makes her supposedly bold liberal statements.
Another issue at hand here is the lack of recognition of everyday racism in Charlottesville. Wearing a UVA sweatshirt, Fey descends from the liberal heavens to say, “It broke my heart to see these evil forces descend upon Charlottesville.” Tina, evil forces have been there, and they’re a lot harder to pinpoint than neo-Nazis. UVA was built by slaves who students would beat, and 132 years later, its students were still doing things like throwing blackface parties. A Cville pal told me its most famous Farmington country club has been de facto segregated even after its de jure segregation ended in the seventies, and this Black Charlottesville farmer witnessed to its racial profiling problems. Charlottesville may be a liberal university town, but it’s not exactly a diverse, equal-opportunity, anti-racist plurocracy—not yet.
What’s not going to help get us there are stereotypes that invade our brains from regular exposure, like this one: “Part of me hopes these neo-Nazis do try it in New York City and get the ham salad kicked out of them by a bunch of drag queens. ‘Cause you know what a drag queen still is? A 6’4” black man.” Fey’s perpetuation that underneath their costume of makeup and heels, drag queens like RuPaul (the 6’4” bit was an obvious reference to RuPaul’s height) are big, scary, violent Black men who can be counted upon to do the dirty work we don’t want to do and take the heat for it. Well, that continues a narrative that’s responsible for much of the criminalization and incarceration against Black men in America today.
This is all very ironic, since white working women like Tina Fey have been the biggest benefactors of affirmative action, which was initially enacted to protect the Civil Rights Act that Black activists literally died to bring about. If you haven’t done much reading about the role that white women have played in the history of anti-Black racism, start with Emmett Till and the Fourteen Words coined by David Lane), which promoted white beauty standards that still benefit white women today, and work forward from there to the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young summed it up pretty well when he wrote, “How ’Bout This, Tina Fey: Give Us (Black People) the Sheet Cake, and You Go Confront the White Women Who Voted for Trump.” Until she acknowledges the harmful effects of her comedy (and she’s already said she won’t), I can’t be with Tina Fey, just as I couldn’t be with Hillary Clinton when she stayed with and supported Bill at the expense of the women he sexually harassed.
I love comedy. I’ve giggled at the absurdity of Kenneth the Page’s page-off, and chuckled at the truths about brutal New York City living that Tituss has proclaimed to Kimmy. But many of my favorite comedians, like Hasan Minhaj, Jenny Yang and Aziz Ansari, don’t need to resort to racist stereotypes to get a laugh. When it comes to the kind of comedy Tina Fey writes, I wish she’d double down on brilliant absurdity instead of dehumanizing stereotypes, because especially with all the media power she has, her stereotypes have deep reverberations beyond pop culture.