We Aren’t Asking Tina Fey To “Explain Jokes,” We’re Asking Her To Listen
Tina Fey is quitting the Internet. As the former 30 Rock actress, who is currently co-starring in the movie Sisters with frequent collaborator Amy Poehler, explained in an interview with Net-A-Porter, she doesn’t believe online outrage is productive. “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 said. “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.”
But what Fey is proposing here isn’t escaping the Internet (if that’s actually possible) as much as evading accountability for her comedy—even while continuing to make the exact same mistakes over and over again. If critics took issue with the Native American and Vietnamese subplots in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, they’re unlikely to be happy about Sisters, which doesn’t poke holes in stereotypes as much as reproduce them. Tina Fey has had a racial blind spot in her comedy for some time and simply shutting off the Internet won’t make it go away.
Tina Fey has long been obsessed with labels and stereotypes. Fey famously wrote the screenplay for 2004’s Mean Girls, which depicts high school as a labyrinthine maze of identity-based subgroups, including the “Asian Nerds,” “Cool Asians,” and “Sexually Active Band Geeks.” The film offers a knowing deconstruction of these cliques, as viewed through the lens of the outsider. Cady Heron is a new girl striving to find her place in an environment in which you have to pick a category in order to “fit in,” but as Cady discovers, conforming to these archetypes doesn’t make anyone any happier.
The issue that critics have taken with shows like 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, however, is that Tina Fey has brought identity politics out of the lunchroom without the nuance that made Mean Girls such an effective satire. If Fey’s comedy is about how stereotypes hold all of us back, she doesn’t recognize that the playing field isn’t level for all of her characters. For instance, Kimmy Schmidt introduces a Vietnamese love interest,“Dong,” whose name translates to the word for a male body part in English. However, the show also explains that in Vietnamese, “Kimmy” means the exact same thing.
It’s a sweet moment, but the problem is that only one of these jokes will be reinforced throughout the rest of the series. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is more than her name: The show routinely reminds us that Kimmy won’t let any single aspect of her life define her—let alone her past. (She was held in a bunker for over a decade.) But Dong never gets to escape being a caricature, and the show draws attention to Asian stereotypes without ever moving past them. Played by The Maze Runner’s Ki Hong Lee, Dong’s defining characteristics are that he speaks in broken English and is good at math. It’s nice to see Dong treated as a love interest instead of a wacky curiosity (ala Long Duk Dong), but the needle hasn’t moved that far yet.
And unfortunately, Sisters is more of the same, recycling Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s penis joke nearly verbatim. In the Jason Moore-directed film, the wonderfully deadpan Greta Lee (Inside Amy Schumer, Girls) plays “Hae-Won,” a Korean nail salon worker with a thick accent and a name that Amy Poehler’s character, Maura, struggles to pronounce correctly. As if to make it an equal opportunity moment, the screenplay—penned by Saturday Night Live’s Paula Pell—illustrates that Hae-Won can’t say Maura’s name either.
Although Lee was initially reticent when she read the script, because she didn’t want to fall into the trap of playing the “nail salon technician and dragon lady opium den worker,” she told the New York Times that her goal with the character was to show that you “have an accent and be a real person.” I wish the screenplay were as nuanced as Lee’s perspective. In the rest of the film, Hae Won is depicted as a party girl who dresses in loud clothing and travels with a band of mostly silent Asian women. During the finale, she’s paired off with the movie’s resident rich guy (Bobby Moynihan) and they move into his giant house. The depiction is about one degree away from mail order bride.
Greta Lee—who really deserves her own vehicle—steals the movie, but as Bitch magazine’s Andi Zeisler argues, it doesn’t make the writing less lazy. “Pell and Fey have gone down this road of broad racial characterizations before, and it doesn’t look any better now than it did then,” Zeisler writes. The same is true in how Sisters deals with sexual orientation: SNL’s Kate McKinnon plays a former classmate who is mostly on hand to be “the lesbian” and wear lots of flannel. As Dana Stevens points out at Slate, the film tries to “subvert its tropes,” but Sisters’ attempt to do so is “halfhearted.”
What’s sad is that Tina Fey’s comedy can be thoughtful and incisive—and it has in the past. Kimmy Schmidt was criticized for casting Jane Krakowski as a New York socialite and divorcee attempting to mask her Native American heritage, but the show also offered us one of the most fully realized characters of the year: Kimmy’s roommate and black gay confidant, Titus. An episode where Titus (played by Titus Burgess) discovers—after landing a job as a singing werewolf at a theme restaurant in New York—that he’s treated better as a creature of the night than a man of color was one of the year’s most powerfully funny commentaries on race.
But by treating her critics like nothing but Internet trolls, Tina Fey isn’t giving herself the opportunity to hold herself to that higher standard. Most of the people calling out the show’s shortcomings were longtime fans of her work, people who wanted to improve it by drawing attention to glaring issues that need to be addressed. No one is demanding that Tina Fey apologize. We want her to recognize that these voices and concerns matter and shouldn’t be dismissed as meaningless byproducts of the Internet. Instead of silencing her critics, she should be listening and learning.
Tina Fey’s fans don’t need to hear we’re sorry. What we deserve is better.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.