30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS

Alyssa didn’t just respond to my criticism of 30 Rock’s racial humor, she responded with a level of detail and erudition about the show I will not attempt to match. Alyssa is right to say that the show can’t be judged fully on one episode, and I agree that some of the others do better on the topic. But I chose that one – “The Given Order” – because it was the moment in watching 30 Rock when I said to myself, “This is what’s so frustrating about this otherwise great show!” Her response didn’t fully salve my misgivings, either about that episode or about the show in general. Consider this a partial response.

Defending the episode in question, Alyssa says (emphasis added, Yglesias-style):

Seriously, dude? There is a serious and substantial debate over business functions held at strip clubs (tax-deductable according to the IRS, at least as of 2006. Woo!), whether women should feel obligated to attend, whether it’s sexual harrassment, and whether it’s a sign of empowerment (or of a pragmatic sucking it up) to be able to go on a guy’s-night-out events in order to ingratiate yourself in the workplace. I think mocking the self-deception of that latter motivation is pretty funny. There’s a huge difference between equal standards for work performance and rigid equal treatment-and-experience feminism that refuses to acknowledge sexism and different styles, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch that carried to slightly absurdist ends. But most importantly, the episode isn’t really about race! It’s about a famous person doing a non-famous person’s work, about someone who’s pretty quiet taking on the hard-partying identity that another person works to maintain. And ultimately, it’s about the fact that everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.

Alyssa seems to be making a few points here: first that the use of strip clubs for business functions is a real-life issue, second that feeling like you’re not a strong woman unless you go along to a strip club is problematic, and third that this episode “isn’t really about race!” I agree with those first two points, but I don’t see how they exonerate the episode. And I don’t see how this episode is not about race.

This is the episode where Tracy hands Liz a literal race card. Which could be funny in another context. But the context here is Tracy wanting to get away with being late to work and unreliable because he’s Black. The whole plot is borne out of Liz’s attempt to get Tracy to be more disciplined about his job. She tells him to show up to work on time and prepared, and he hands her the race card. Then he calls her a racist. Then – in a scheme to prove her wrong – he says since we’re in a post-racial Obama era, he doesn’t want any more special treatment. And the moral of the story is that Liz has to go back to letting him be unreliable because he’s Black if she wants to be excused from strip club outings because she’s a woman. So he gets his special treatment back.

Alyssa points out that Tracy is also a celebrity, and certainly I doubt that even in the 30 Rock universe we’re supposed to think that a working class Black guy could get away with Tracy’s shenanigans. But what Tracy the celebrity leverages over Liz for why she should fear holding him to the same standard as everyone else is his race (relatedly, I don’t think Tracy’s self-description in the pilot as “straight-up mentally ill” softens the racial angle of his plotlines). And he gets her to back down by ostensibly proving that staying out of strip clubs is also special treatment. That’s the message Alyssa describes as “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.” But being Black doesn’t make you come into work late, while being a woman does change your experience of a strip club – and of your co-workers in that environment. What if the episode were about a gay character whose Mexican co-worker equates making a Mexican work hard to making a gay man have sex with a woman? Would that be clever?

The “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege” argument in and of itself is logically undeniable. But in the world of 30 Rock, and on most TV sitcoms with mostly white casts, it tends to manifest as a series of scenarios of extortion of the majority by the minority. It bothers me that a show with writers as clever as 30 Rock so often choose to mine the vein of Black people (et al) getting away with stuff, and White people (et al) being burdened with the fear of seeming prejudiced. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember anything “utterly brilliant” about the episode with “Tracy’s business manager exploiting Liz’s fear of being perceived as racist to keep him dating her.” Didn’t that already happen on Seinfeld and Frasier? Ditto for the one where “Liz’s then-boyfriend Floyd loses a promotion to an African-American guy in a wheelchair.”

That’s why I was surprised to see Alyssa close by saying

But what I think 30 Rock does that is subversive and extremely effective is to puncture the idea that when it comes to race, good intentions will save us, that we can really understand what other people experience, and that race and sex can only be disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female. Is the show universally applicable? Of course not. This is a series about relatively wealthy, privileged people who work in an extraordinarily strange, distorting industry. But in 2009, are those truths that people have a hard time accepting? If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, I think they’ve demonstrated that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

I think there are ups and downs to emphasizing the limits of racial empathy. But what strikes me most is the last truth Alyssa lists. If a major thrust of 30 Rock’s humor on identity is demonstrating the advantages Blacks and women can get over Whites and men, that helps explain why I often find that humor annoying.

What confuses me most is why Alyssa would say that this truth – that “race and sex” are not just “disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female” – is one that “the last few weeks” have shown us “people have a hard time accepting.” What’s happened in the last few weeks?

The mainstream of the Republican party took the position that our first Latina Supreme Court nominee would favor women and people of color over White men and for that reason should not be confirmed. She was pilloried for supposedly having depended on affirmative action each step of her career and mainstream journalists stated as fact that she was chosen based on race and gender. Mark Halperin declared “White Men Need Not Apply” (to say nothing of Pat Buchannan). Her confirmation hearing and its coverage centered on whether or not this Latina woman could be fair to White men. Some left-of-center journalists joined conservatives in denouncing the injustice that White firefighters didn’t get a promotion because none of them were Black.

Meanwhile, a Black professor was arrested in his own home after showing ID for being “disorderly” in loudly questioning the police officer’s motives. The first Black President opined that making such an arrest was stupid. Much of the media questioned why the President was siding with the Black guy, forcing him to retrench. And the President and the Professor both were accused of using their power as Black guys to ruin the reputation of the White police officer.

(Meanwhile, on a lighter note, charges were traded regarding cinematic sexism by the star of a comedy where a woman is involuntarily brought to orgasm by electronic underwear in a business meeting, and the star of a comedy where a woman is raped while drunk enough to pass out.)

What about the events of these past weeks has shown Americans to be not willing enough to chalk things up to the advantages people get from being a woman or a person of color?

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12 thoughts on “30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS

  1. Thanks for taking the time to talk through this with Alyssa. Tracy Jordan’s character is the only reason why I don’t watch the show. What at first registered as a visceral distaste for everything that he says and does has taken me a long time to try to put into reasons. This discourse is helping a lot!

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