Tina Fey’s Problems With Race Extend Far Beyond ‘30 Rock’s’ Blackface
The ‘30 Rock’ episodes containing blackface have been removed from streaming platforms. But this feels less like growth and more like an evasion of an uncomfortable conversation.
Throughout her career, Tina Fey has had a fascinating relationship with race as a source of comedy. From Mean Girls to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Saturday Night Live alum’s work often walks a tightrope between satirizing racial stereotypes and simply replicating them. And 30 Rock, her longest-running work and almost certainly her most recognizable, is quite the case study—rife with racial tropes and, yes, no fewer than four episodes that include the use of blackface.
Or at least, it did contain those things. On Tuesday, at Fey’s request, Hulu and other platforms carrying the show agreed to remove the episodes containing blackface from their libraries. The episodes will no longer be available for purchase on iTunes or Google Play, and syndicated re-runs of the series will no longer include them, either. So apart from those who bought the show’s box sets, few people will likely see these installments again.
In a letter obtained by Vulture, Fey framed the move as an attempt to shield viewers from the painful experience of watching these episodes. But Fey has also spent years ignoring, dismissing, and flat-out ridiculing critiques of her writing when it comes to race. Removing these episodes might save some viewers an offensive experience, but conveniently for Fey it could also stifle a conversation that has periodically arisen about her most well-known series. Given that context, and the wording of Fey’s letter, this move feels less like growth and more like a maneuver designed to pre-empt and avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
“As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation,” Fey wrote. “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honoring this request.”
Putting aside the inventive euphemism “race-changing makeup,” Fey also seems to frame these episodes as isolated instances of racial awkwardness within the show. But really, it’s cooked into its DNA. 30 Rock’s two primary black characters are dueling racial tropes—the lazy, over-the-top Black man, as represented by the eccentric Tracy Jordan, and the educated and “well-spoken” James Spurlock, known to his NBC family as “Toofer” because he is both Black and went to Harvard. At times, the show uses this false dichotomy to comment on the way Black men are seen by white people and portrayed in white media. But often, these stereotypes are simply used for laughs.
That pattern pervades Fey’s work. Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie (Sherri Shepherd), calls Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, out for looking for a “sassy Black friend” in one breath—a self-aware nod to the show’s employment of that same stereotype—before breezily telling her, “Well you got one now, girlfriend!” It’s a favorite joke pattern of 30 Rock’s: Make clear to the audience that the writers understand the issues surrounding a particular vein of humor before “satirizing” it in a way that never quite makes clear what the satirical statement is.
Indeed, the primary defense lobbed at anyone who’s criticized 30 Rock’s blackface in the past is that in context, the show made clear that it understood blackface is wrong. Still, one has to wonder why Fey and so many white liberal entertainers felt so comfortable performing ironic racism over and over and over again—or, perhaps more importantly, why any of them thought it was fresh. Either way, pretending these episodes never existed hardly feels like the answer; a more appropriate solution might be to mimic streamers’ choice in 2014 to affix a warning and disavowal of racist humor on old episodes of Tom & Jerry—a solution that both acknowledges the mistake and allows the conversation surrounding harmful tropes to continue productively.
At its most self-aware, 30 Rock sometimes felt like a window into Fey’s mind as she worked through some of its central contradictions in real time. As Huffington Post senior culture writer Zeba Blay noted in 2016, one of the series’ most self-aware moments came when Liz Lemon confronted her own failings as a feminist—after the series faced critiques of its use of slut-shaming humor and jokes made at the expense of sex workers. In a Season 5 episode titled “TGS Hates Women,” Liz Lemon defends a sketch in which Hillary Clinton, as played by Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Mulroney, nukes England because she was on her period. Liz tries to argue the gambit is “ironic reappropriation,” Blay notes, before conceding that she’s lost sight of what counts as satire anymore.
There’s something to be said for a white writer who chooses to use their platform to engage with questions about race and comedy. One could argue that messy series like 30 Rock are at least better than comedies that maintain a light atmosphere by ignoring the fact that racism even exists. But since 30 Rock, Fey’s responses to critiques—both on-screen and off—have been less introspective. And that is where the real problem lies.
Fey’s new series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is every bit as hilarious as 30 Rock was, but equally flawed. The series has its successes when it comes to addressing race—like a Season 1 storyline in which Tituss Burgess’s narcissistic actor character Titus Andromedon realizes he’s treated better while dressed as a werewolf than when he wanders the streets of New York as a Black man. But in its second season, the series also revealed that Krakowski’s character, Jacqueline White, was actually Native American. That season also included a Vietnamese love interest for Kimmy named Dong—on one hand, a positive move as Asian male love interests remain rare in Hollywood, but also a disappointment as the character was largely a stereotype.
When asked about critiques the series had received for effectively casting a white woman to play a Native American, Fey’s response was dismissive as best.
“We did an [Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt] episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes,” Fey told Net-a-Porter in 2015. “I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
A year later, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aired an episode in which Titus plays a geisha in yellowface. As Vox senior culture reporter Alex Abad-Santos pointed out Tuesday following the news of the blackface episodes’ removal, much of Fey’s work is rife with Asian stereotypes as well; “the underlying ‘joke,’ Abad-Santos writes, “is that they're hyper-sexual, and looking for green cards/can’t speak English.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the episode’s message essentially boiled down to a call for those complaining about cultural insensitivity to stop being such snowflakes.
All of this speaks to Fey’s tortured relationship with the internet. Although Kimmy Schmidt lives on Netflix—a Web-based platform—Fey has been notably dismissive of the discussions that take place online. Some of that, of course, is justified; Fey, like most famous people, especially women, has faced more than her fair share of ugliness from online trolls. But the most vocal critiques about Fey’s work often come from fans, whether it be 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. And focusing on the trolls obscures the ways social media has democratized who gets to critique the art we all consume.
In 2016, however, Fey did seriously engage with one online criticism: the furor that arose after she appeared on Saturday Night Live and advised viewers to avoid protesting the white-supremacists who had descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, online critics noted the privilege required to wash one’s hands of such demonstrations and binge on cake instead. And in this case, Fey admitted, they were right.
During an interview with David Letterman, Fey said, “I felt like a gymnast who did, like, a very solid routine, and broke her ankle on the landing.”
Fey said it wasn’t her intention to tell people not to protest. “If I could put one sentence back digitally, I would say to people, ‘Fight them in every way except the way that they want,’ but I didn’t write that at the time,” she said. “I wrote it two days later as I was pacing in my house and that’s the nature of SNL.”
As the two discussed the sketch, Fey admitted she doesn’t like to make public apologies, but emphasized that in this case, she was listening to criticism and wouldn’t stop trying to do better: “You have to be an athlete about it,” Fey said. I broke my ankle on the landing... I’ll try again.”
Fey’s ascent in the entertainment industry is remarkable, and should not be downplayed. She has created multiple endlessly quotable cultural sensations, and more importantly, as NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out in 2013 and Blay reiterates in her piece, has actually been recognized as the brains behind them. That distinction, Holmes notes, has affected the opportunities and discussions surrounding creators like Chelsea Handler, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham, all of whom are recognized not only as performers, but as creators.
But getting the space to try again remains a privilege not all artists receive. Fey’s ascent in the entertainment industry, which remains a hotbed of misogyny, is important. But it’s equally important to recognize that much of her work has missed the mark on race. Hollywood is just as racist as it is misogynistic, and much of Fey’s work has upheld the very stereotypes that marginalize people of color and, in many cases, prevent them from attaining power in this industry or elsewhere.
Whether Fey wants to face it or not, her legacy is a lot more complicated than a few questionable episodes—and scrubbing them from streaming services won’t change that.