Why Tina Fey’s Racial Humor Is So Controversial

One of the side effects of Netflix’s full-season release model is that it allows the viewing public, including critics, to evaluate shows at hyper-speed. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the cult-member-to-New-Yorker transition comedy starring Ellie Kemper, has only been on the streaming service for a week, and the dialogue has already shifted from initial impressions, almost entirely favorable, to more considered meditations, many of which are… less favorable. And most of those broader commentaries on the show have focused on a subject that, for better or for worse, has a long history in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s co-creator, co-executive producer, and most recognizable name Tina Fey’s creative output: race.

What’s Up with the Native American Subplot on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?” asked Vulture’s Libby Hill (who is also a Flavorwire contributor). Hill’s concerns about the storyline in question, which traces blonde and blue-eyed trophy wife Jacqueline Voorhees’ origins to a South Dakota reservation, were supplemented by Gabe Bergado at the Daily Beast, who identified what he termed the show’s “Dong Problem”: an Asian-American character who may defy stereotypes in some respects (becoming Kimmy’s love interest), but conforms to them in others (being good at math, speaking flawed English, delivering food for a living).

In yet another testimony to how drastically Netflix accelerates the criticism cycle, rebuttals soon followed. National Review‘s Reihan Salam defended the show on both counts, concluding that, if anything, the show is far more classist than racist. Decider’s Tyler Coates reversed the accusations by positing the series’ “straight white male problem.” Costar Tituss Burgess has even addressed the conversation in an interview, saying it’s “ridiculous” to call Dong’s or Jacqueline’s character “mildly racist.”

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, however, is only the latest of Tina Fey’s attempts to address race, and only the latest of said attempts to provoke controversy. Fey’s deeply cynical worldview and scathing, mildly absurdist approach to illustrating it with comedy are mostly associated with sexism — “Mom Jeans: Give her something that says, ‘I’m not a woman anymore; I’m a mom!'” — but they’ve also frequently translated into racial satire, putting Fey in the odd position of a white comedian who’s made racism one of her primary targets. And because the act of mocking something automatically implies that the comedian has, or thinks she has, the authority, objectivity, and distance needed to mock it, Fey’s harshest critics have often focused on race as her biggest blind spot.

Though the backlash didn’t begin in earnest until Fey stepped in front of the camera with 30 Rock, some of her best-known SNL sketches incorporated or even centered on racial humor. “Excedrin Racial Tension,” one of the best-beloved fake commercials in recent memory, is a Fey creation; her version of The View, which mostly featured demeaning questions-of-the-day and Cheri Oteri’s brilliant, attention-hogging Barbara Walters, also included future co-star Tracy Morgan as Star Jones, delivering lines like, “Why the only black Spice Girl called Scary?” and “If this country had a decent justice system, I’d beat that little white bitch [Debbie Matenopolous] myself!” Like current writer Mike O’Brien, whose “Whites” and “The Jay Z Story” are among the best sketches of this season, Fey frequently lampooned racism, albeit with a sharper, less cerebral approach. And unlike O’Brien, Fey often did so by writing for non-white actors, an approach that’s invited scrutiny of her projects every since.

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Then came 30 Rock, an extraordinarily ambitious show that featured a character named “Toofer” on account of being black and a Harvard alum, an entire episode centered around Jenna Maroney’s horrifically misguided adventure in blackface, and the immortal Angie Jordan one-liner, “Did you just try to control my body with your white hand?” Like Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock flirted with the tightrope-thin line between depicting stereotypes and subverting them; the show’s only black lead may have been a childlike buffoon, but he was still shrewd enough to sarcastically thank Liz Lemon for solving apartheid with her collegiate hunger strike. Others can write entire essays about 30 Rock’s identity politics (and have), but the point here is that the show, and Fey’s comedy in general, defy easy categorization as simply racist or anti-racist. Fey regularly demonstrates awareness about whiteness and its perks, but to do so she gives herself license, as every satirist must, to play with some very subjective fire.

What’s frustrating to both Fey’s defenders and her critics is that her work passes the most basic test of jokes involving any kind of power imbalance. The intended object of ridicule is the newscaster who relegates “Hispanic Woman Also Found” to a subhead, or the passersby who treat a fake werewolf better than a real black man, or the girl who laughs at a friend named “Dong,” only to find out that her name also means penis — to use a handful of examples from Kimmy Schmidt. But this measure of jokes is the bare minimum for a reason; whether those jokes succeed at their objective is ultimately in the eye of the binge-watcher, reducing most debates about Kimmy Schmidt specifically or Fey’s approach in general to an unproductive shouting match faster than you can block someone on Twitter.

There are times when Fey undeniably misses the mark, as with this Bossypants quote that’s probably being used a negative example of intersectional feminism in a gender studies seminar as I type. They’re far outnumbered, however, by gags whose ultimate success relies on whether Fey’s bought enough goodwill with signs of self-awareness — “But he’s really good at math!”; “I don’t make the rules, Kimmy” — to convince the viewer that even non-meta stereotypes, like the lone Latina captive’s pre-cult life as a maid, are written with a greater goal in mind.

This approach to race also differs from other comedies with white creators and notably non-white casts. The most obvious contrast is with Parks and Recreation, a sitcom that went cheerily optimistic where 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt went wickedly pessimistic. At times, Parks seemed to exist in a post-racist utopia; its jokes about whiteness were often made in the abstract and not at its heroes’ expense. The exceptions, like Leslie tactlessly asking Tom Haverford where he’s really from, occurred early on, before the show developed into its defiantly sweet self. Fey’s comic universe, on the other hand, doubles down on real-world problems — which is arguably why people of color in 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt often hold menial jobs, like janitor Subhas or housekeeper Vera.

Tina Fey is a comedian who consistently jokes about race and racism, meaning she’s consistently asserting her right to make those jokes, even when they casually reinforce stereotypes. It’s an approach that’s simultaneously an improvement over the countless lily-white shows that pretend that people of color, and their problems, simply don’t exist; it’s also an approach fraught with its own set of issues. 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt’s satire shouldn’t be accepted at face value because Fey made the effort, nor can they be dismissed as the work of yet another white creator blind to her own privilege. They’re messy, complicated, and inevitably provocative — all the hallmarks of a lasting comic legacy, if not a clear-cut one.