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Tina Fey has a problematic history with race that goes beyond 30 Rock's blackface

  • When Fey apologized and pulled four 30 Rock episodes on Monday over their use of blackface, some pointed out that she has had a "sh*tty track record" of mocking Asians, especially on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey's issues with race have been brought up before. Ten years ago, one writer described 30 Rock as "terribly racist." Yet Fey has "spent years ignoring, dismissing, and flat-out ridiculing critiques of her writing when it comes to race," says Laura Bradley. "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 Bradley notes, race is baked into 30 Rock's 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," says Bradley. "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." Bradley says she doesn't think the blackface episodes should be pulled -- they should instead come with a warning. Bradley adds: "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." ALSO: Megyn Kelly throws shade at NBC after Fey pulls blackface 30 Rock episodes.

    TOPICS: Tina Fey, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Megyn Kelly, African Americans and TV, Asian Americans and TV, Blackface, Retro TV