Saw the ’06 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated over the weekend – it’s a great expose of how a secret ratings cabal privileges studio movies over indies, violence over sex, bloodless violence over violence with consequences, and straight couples over gay ones. It’s also a good example of how social conservatism (rule by enfranchised cultural groups) can happily co-exist with economic conservatism (rule by the rich). Check it out.
“Honorable” Mention: Dove: Men + Care – This one got edged (barely) out of the misogyny top 5 because instead of going full-on essentialist it acknowledges that guys suffer from being socialized not to show the “sensitive side.” But you’ve still got the man saving the family from a bad tire while his ungrateful wife waits in the car – and the general “Life is harder cause you’re a man, but you triumph cause you’re a man” shtick.
#5: Dockers: Men Without Pants – What’s become of our society? If the men don’t “wear the pants” are we doomed to wander the fields forever? Have the trappings of modern civilization collapsed because of insufficiently dominant men, or have they just been abandoned?
#4: Mars’ Snickers: You’re Not You When You’re Hungry – Hunger makes young men play sports like old women. Get it?
#3: Bridgestone: Your Tires or Your Life – This time the wife gets thrown out of the car as bad-guy-bait so our protagonist can save his tires. “Man’s best friend” etc.
#2: FloTV: Injury Report – Like the pantless guys in the field, without the subtlety. A man who fails to boss his woman around enough might as well be wounded, or a woman (same thing?). Like the Moynihan Report, just less racist and more homophobic.
#1: Chrysler: Dodge Charger – The most interesting thing about this one is the way, like the Fight Club guy, it grafts a free spirit anti-corporate message onto a macho anti-woman one. Your wife is another boss, women crush men’s spirits etc. And don’t you want your wife to be civil to your mother?
Is it disturbing that some directors and writers treat violence against women as a joke, or as a form of glamor? Absolutely. But I’m not necessarily against all portrayals of women as under attack. If those portrayals illustrate and make clearer to people the hideousness of rape, of murder, of intimate partner violence, I’m hard-pressed to say they shouldn’t exist.
For me, the distinction here is really between exposure and endorsement. I think generally we liberals are more likely to criticize media for what they endorse (“that scene is a sympathetic portrayal or rape”), whereas conservatives are more likely to criticize media for what they expose us to (“that scene shows graphic sex”). I wrote more about this here. I’ll be the first to admit though that the distinction often becomes hazy in practice. Take Lars von Trier’s movie Antichrist: defenders claim its long graphic portrayal of extreme emotional and physical abuse of a woman really is sympathetic to her (or even that she is a stand-in for the male director); critics accuse the director of reveling in the misogyny and lacking irony when he has the victim say that maybe women deserve all their suffering because they are fundamentally evil. Personally I’ve found the criticisms more compelling, but I won’t come down strongly without seeing the movie. And I don’t want to see it.
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?
Somewhere in between catching up on Alyssa’s great (relatively) new blog and hearing that 30 Rock just got more Emmy nominations than anything ever, it occurred to me that among the proto-posts I’ve meant to write here is one disagreeing with Alyssa’s take that 30 Rock “has done a terrific job with ethnic humor”:
Ethnic humor is, I think, generally effective under a couple of fixed circumstances: a) when it comes from within the minority group being parodied, as with the best of Woody Allen and the Jews, b) it expresses something true that is difficult to say under polite or serious circumstances by carrying something far beyond its logical conclusion or realistic bounds, c) it subverts our expectations or understanding of the group in question, or of the teller. I think 30 Rock in particular has done a terrific job with ethnic humor, whether it’s Irish…or African-American (the running feud between Tracy and Twofer fulfills all three categories at once), especially in Tracy’s plans for a Thomas Jefferson movie, which refer to the former president as a “jungle-fever haver,” while also mocking African-American actors like Eddie Murphy
I’ll take Alyssa’s word for it that the racial humor about Blacks comes from Tracy Morgan, but I don’t think it tends to get at hard truths or subvert expectations. I watched all of 30 Rock in a short stretch a couple months ago, after having pretty much avoided it because I disliked the pilot so much when it first came out – largely because of the Tracy Jordan character. My boyfriend et al were right that it’s a great show and was worth a second chance. But I still think the racial humor is the weakest point – the most common trope seems to be “Black guy [Tracy] that gets away with stuff too much.”
The episode that epitomizes this for me (spoilers ahead, but they’re from memory so could be inaccurate) is the one in which Liz gets fed up with Tracy for never showing up to rehearsal on time and never learning his lines. Liz announces she’ll start holding everyone to the same standard, with the implication that she’s been letting him slide because he’s Black. She gets her comeuppance when Tracy starts being super-disciplined but announces Liz will no longer get special treatment because she’s a woman. That means she has to refill the water cooler and come to a strip club, which is enough to break her by the end of the episode and make her abandon her equal-standards project. In other words, women will get to keep abstaining from strip clubs and manual labor and Blacks will get to keep abstaining from punctuality and discipline.
What’s clever about this? It seems to me it’s hard get something good out of this without taking some kind of double-double negative/ “stereotype of a stereotype” position. What are they sending up in this episode? This is not a rhetorical question. Who or what is being satirized here? Is it satirizing people who believe that African-Americans are undisciplined? If so, why contrast that with the belief that hetero women object to being forced to strip clubs? Is it satirizing ostensible liberals who are willing to believe uncomplimentary things about Black people? Satirizing people who push for equal standards for everyone? People who push for special treatment for some people? Black people who “play the race card” to get out of showing up the work? Women who say they want to be treated equally but expect men to do the heavy lifting?
It’s provocative to joke that making a Black guy come to work on time is like making a woman come to a strip club, but I don’t see how it’s illuminating or even ironic.
I mention that episode because it’s the most flagrant example, but also because a lot of 30 Rock’s humor about race (Irish jokes excepted) seem to fall into that category. Edgy, but not really subversive. Based in stereotypes without really upending them. I agree with Alyssa that some of the jokes revolve around Tracy Morgan’s character (Tracy Jordan) trying to maintain a certain Black male image that’s not really him (pretending to be adulterous, or illiterate). But a lot of the jokes just come down to him being stupid or clowning around, him getting away with what others can’t, and more sympathetic characters having to put up with it.
Why did the Battlestar Galactica finale feel like a letdown? A big part of it was the reductionism of the pat ending, in which all the remaining narrative and character threads either lead to the colonization of Earth or are rendered irrelevant by it. Faiths that long conflicted – generating some of the tension and mystery of the show – are squeezed unconvincingly into harmony: Roslin’s faith in her destiny and her gods of sacrifice, Baltar’s faith in himself and his god of narcissism, Starbuck’s sense of dark and unavoidable purpose. Everything, we’re left to infer, was leading them to the same place. That conclusion rounds off the edges that made these beliefs interesting – the uncertainty of whether Roslin was prophetic or delusional, the outrageousness of Baltar’s spirituality of selfishness, the dread that Starbuck is trapped as an agent of collective doom. In the end, all of it was a way to get from A to B. They all meant the same thing, which leaves you with the sense that it didn’t mean that much.
Starbuck may have been dead, but she didn’t doom anybody after all. Baltar’s cult of self-love without consequences turns out not to have had any bad consequences. Not that a good ending would have required Baltar or anyone else to suffer for bad decisions – I just wanted the sense that somebody somewhere down the line is affected. Instead we’re left with an optimistic fatalism. It was an ending that reminded me of the movie Signs – no need to angst anymore about faith or the consequences of your choices, because it was all a plan and it worked out.
The difference is that Battlestar Galactica, unlike Signs, was often terrific, which is what makes the ending frustrating. It echoes a frustration I felt at a lot of points in the show: Battlestar Galactica is rightly praised as a dark show where textured characters face hard choices and make bad decisions with bad consequences. But too often, consequential decisions and revelations register a shock but then turn out not to have much consequence. These are the final four Cylons! But they didn’t know it themselves, so their friends can only hold it against them for so long, and they mostly still get to do what they were doing before. Gaius Baltar is still being manipulated by the Cylon that deceived him so they could conquer Earth! But they’re both angels (literally?) We are all descended from half-Cylon Hera (!) and we are now reenacting the history of our human ancestors (!). But don’t those two revelations sort of cancel each other out? If we’re are doing what the humans did an epoch ago, why did they need to save a hybrid baby to be our progenitor? Some of the relationships on the show, like between the two Adamas, also suffer from a sort of cataclysm fatigue – every half-season another betrayal or near-death experience sends the father-son relationship spinning off in another direction, partially negating the last one, to the point that their relationship, though compelling, feels like less rather than more than the sum of what’s happened to them.