From Writer Christopher ZF at thestake.org in his article Can 30 Rock Explain The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Race Problem? Thestake’s take is that the celebrated comedy writer Tina Fey has done more in discussing race, gender, class, and privilege through the interactions of characters on 30 Rock than she has done damage by also engaging and representing them (again) in mass media.
There is an Asian character: Dong, who speaks poor English, is good at math, and is an illegal immigrant. That his name is a euphemism for penis is a joke the show takes on without pause or embarrassment. Though with the added bonus that where Dong comes from, Kimmy means penis, too. Back in the 1980s, the penis/Asian name joke was played for similar laughs in Sixteen Candles.
Then there is the show’s biggest controversy: Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakwoski). Jacqueline is married to an absent wealthy businessman who she suspects is cheating on her. She is lonely and isolated and friendless and mean to the help. In the show’s third episode, it is revealed that Jacqueline is not originally an east coast elite but is actually a Lakota woman from South Dakota, named Jackie Lynn.
“Discussing” race might be a generous description though not entirely inaccurate. It’s the forum of quick quip t.v. comedy that gives me some pause. Seeing blackface, a common occurence on 30 Rock, will always make me cringe with embarrassment at belonging to humanity because it stands for a time when it was not enough to enslave, torture, exploit, rape, murder, mutilate, and terrorize a dark skinned person. Society had to dress up on weekends and make it their entertainment too. Leading actors dressed up and donned caricatured makeup to look like the socially and racially victimized, and the sole purpose of the enterprise was to make money off of and entertain people by presenting contorted versions of these people.
Does it matter whether we present the stereotypes even if we make fun of them? Apart from the question of whether it reinforces a subconscious belief, what I find troubling is the choice presented to the viewer – it’s binary and collapses a person down to a trait or lack thereof.
Then there is the character Jackie Lynn…
Jackie Lynn wants to make something of herself, and “if you want to get anywhere,” she tells her parents, ‘you have to be blonde and white.” So she dies [sic] her hair blonde, gets blue contacts, changes her name, and heads to New York.
This backstory has created real controversy for Kimmy Schmidt. A white actress (Jane Krakowski), playing a Native American woman who was so unhappy as a Native American woman that she became a white woman.
Libby Hill at Vulture describes Jacqueline’s backstory like this:
“We are laughing at a Native American woman who felt so uncomfortable in her skin and in not being a member of the dominant culture, she sold her soul to look the way she thought she should. That’s not funny; it’s disturbing. Not just because the pressure to Anglicize exists for so many cultures in America today, but because of how this very country systematically stripped the Native American people not only of their culture, but of their lands, too, not so very long ago.”
Libby Hill is not alone in her assessment. Megan O’Dea at Medium thinks that the show has a race problem. While Molly Sanchez thinks it has Big Race Problem. As the AV Club’s Kalya Kumari Upadhyaya puts it: “It feels off.”
The best response, and probably most representative of how I feel came from Alex Alvarez at Buzzfeed. She said:
AA: One thought I kept having as I was watching Kimmy Schmidt was, This feels like a very white writers room. I have no idea whether every person in that room was actually white, but the writing felt like it was written from a perspective that didn’t feel as if we’re all talking about a communal experience together. I think satire is an extremely important tool in discussing race and the status quo, but I think the person PROVIDING that commentary is an important factor for the success of that satire.
With 30 Rock, the setting was also so crucial, because a lot of time was devoted to skewering media and this sort of self-congratulatory New York liberal attitude, which is great. Those are fine targets. I’m not sure an undocumented Vietnamese delivery dude trying to put his way through school or a Native American woman who feels the need to change her identity to fit in is as great of a target for that sort of skewering. And it very much felt that the joke was more about them and less about the systems within which they’re performing.
Still, I do generally like Tina Fey, and I hope she navigates these waters well enough to take us someplace with a little more depth.