After years of doubling down on racist jokes and choosing to “opt out” of critical conversations about her portrayals of people of color, Tina Fey’s work has finally caught up with her.
Last Tuesday, the Saturday Night Live alum joined a chorus of Hollywood comedians and showrunners trying to rectify acts of racism and racial miscasting by requesting the removal of certain 30 Rock episodes containing blackface—four, to be exact—from Hulu and other digital platforms. While the internet didn’t seem all that interested in interrogating limp statements by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Jenny Slate and others about their past (but fairly recent) missteps, frankly because they’re just boring for Black people to read over and over, Fey’s strategic attempt to erase crucial parts of her legacy as a creator resulted in a Streisand effect for her and other comedians that have gotten away with utilizing racist tropes under the guise of self-aware, progressive comedy and, for Fey specifically, feminist comedy.
This phenomenon shows up in Louis C.K. stand-up routines, Martin McDonagh films, The Office and plenty more television and film, and is otherwise known as “ironic racism.” Psychologists have also referred to it as “meta-disparagement humor” and “meta-racist humor.” Within this framework, a comedian or fictional character takes on the role of a racist or utilizes a racist joke to highlight the absurdity and/or hypocrisy of actually holding such offensive beliefs. For example, there’s a running gag in the hit murder-mystery Knives Out in which members of the white, upper-class Thrombey family repeatedly mislabel the ethnicity of their Latina caretaker, with whom they claim to have a familial bond. While Latinx critics have complained about this bit making them incredibly uncomfortable, writer-director Rian Johnson would almost certainly argue that the intent of the joke is to lampoon “racially tolerant” white people rather than support the racist claim that all Latin cultures are practically the same.
Likewise, Fey’s obsession with presenting overtly racist images and characterizations in her work, from “unfriendly Black hotties” in Mean Girls to an Asian man named Dong in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to all four incidents of blackface in 30 Rock—but ironically—is protected by a built-in deniability of actual racism. Fey’s status as a college-educated liberal whose work is associated with a culturally diverse city and features non-white actors may also embolden her to dodge these accusations. Beyond that, though, and what women of color have always been able to recognize about white, female comedians like Fey, is how much her image as a powerful woman and feminist icon—terms that society views as interchangeable—has absolved her of wrongdoing when it comes to race.
Fey’s feminist politics have never been perfect—at times, in fact, she appears quite conservative, as demonstrated by the slut-shaming jokes in 30 Rock and critiques of fourth-wave feminism in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—but she’s always been outspoken and unapologetic in discussing the sexism that pervades comedy establishments and keeps women from receiving the same opportunities as men. On top of that, many credit her with ushering in a new wave of female comedians and auteurs like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Issa Rae. However, as a white woman, Fey has both been able to posture herself as an enlightened and boundary-pushing figure in regards to feminism while also silencing and dismissing her non-white critics. It’s easy to infer that, for a long time, Fey, like many white feminists, assumed her knowledge and wit regarding gender translated to an understanding of race and class. This is evident in an interview with Net-a-Porter from 2015 in which she frames racial humor as something that needed to be “explain[ed]” to people of color and not an area she would have a huge blind spot in as a white person.
But Fey is far from the only white woman whose career has operated this way. Sarah Silverman immediately comes to mind for her infamous “I hate chinks” bit on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2001 and how she, to this day, still struggles to take full responsibility for her blackface sketch from 2007 despite rebranding as an informed, progressive voice. Much of Amy Schumer’s early stand-up work consists of the comic doing an “ironic” impression of a racist white woman, a “Becky” or a “Karen,” as we would now call them. Along with calling Latina women “crazy” and objectifying Black men, she’s been called out for saying, “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.” Despite apologizing for this joke in 2015, she went on to star in and revise the script for the 2017 film Snatched, which features retrograde portrayals of Brown men as aggressive criminals and white women as helpless victims. It certainly makes her sudden decision to become an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and participate in panels run by Diddy on racism befuddling and laughable.
Then there’s Pamela Adlon, whose FX show Better Things I deeply enjoy. While the show beautifully depicts the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships and captures the experiences of multiple generations of women and girls, it has a tendency to use race solely for laughs. Early episodes of the show, written by its co-creator (and admitted sexual harasser) Louis C.K., are especially cringeworthy as the N-word, in true C.K. fashion, is thrown about recklessly, like when one of Adlon’s daughters in the series repeats the title of the John Lennon song “Woman is the N***r of the World” obliviously. There’s also an episode, guest-starring Lenny Kravitz, in which Adlon’s mother uses the term “n****r brown” multiple times in front of him to describe the color of her pantyhose. Not to mention, white characters are always pointing out when other characters are Black—but, of course, these moments are acceptable and shouldn’t offend because the audience is presumably aware of how absurd they are. The show’s fascination with race as a punchline has definitely declined over the years, but Adlon’s insistence on telling “whatever story [she] wants to tell” still worries me as a viewer.
Who’s to say if the Black Lives Matter movement, which is slowly trickling into entertainment, will improve the vetting of white self-proclaimed feminist comedians—or at least pressure them into listening to the complaints of people they desperately want to include in their work? With less prolific but still notable improv comedians like Megan Amram and Catherine Cohen coming under fire for racist tweets and comedy videos, there seems to be fewer people letting these jokes slide by in the name of satire. The optimal outcome, of course, would be for Black women and women of color to occupy the same space as their white, female counterparts—or, preferably, more. For now, it’ll be interesting to see how creators like Tina Fey, who have made ironic racism a part of their comedy DNA, will function without it.