There is a whole universe of television shows that cater to white women -- and that I love. These shows, mostly comedies, have writers rooms filled with women. They are usually executive produced by women. And those executive producers are often also the stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer.
Over the last several years, these women and their series have been lauded for leading what seems to be (at least on the surface) a new "feminist" era of TV.
On Comedy Central, Schumer tackles ageism and rape culture. On "Girls" and "Broad City," we get a glimpse at the lives of 20-something year-old women who are unapologetic about their bodies, their sexuality, and not having it all figured out. And of course, Fey and Poehler offer up two versions of independent women in their 40s, with the ornery but brilliant Liz Lemon and the ambitious, unstoppable, and deeply principled Leslie Knope.
It's impossible to really quantify all the ways in which a television show can be "feminist," but for most of these shows, "feminist" is a descriptor used frequently by both fans and critics. But while empowering on many levels, these shows have all been called out, at one time or other, for being racist -- either by perpetuating stereotypes about people of color, or excluding people of color all together.
It's White Feminist TV.
If White Feminism is feminism that isn't intersectional, then White Feminist TV is television that filters the world through the prism of the white female experience in a way that suggests it is not just an experience, but the only experience. On White Feminist TV, whiteness is universal. On White Feminist TV, llana's rampant use of AAVE on "Broad City" is quirky and hilarious, blackface-as-satire is a frequent plot point (as on "30 Rock"), and New York City can be the land of a million white folks, where black and brown people are almost always on the periphery (as on "Girls").
Now, what do you do with that, when you're a fan of these shows, but you're also a conscious woman of color? How do you reconcile your issues with the flawed ways these shows approach race, no matter how benign, with the fact that you're also entertained by them? Are you a hypocrite? Are you a sell-out? Are you just overreacting?
When it comes to this particular slate of female-led comedies, this internal conflict women of color may feel when watching is probably most applicable to the work of Tina Fey, patron saint of "smart, funny women." An appraisal of Fey and her history with race makes one thing very clear: she doesn't give a f**k.
Like, at all.
Her level of not giving a f**k is part of what has always makes her admirable as a comedy writer -- the conviction, the lack of apology, the belief in her own abilities and tastes. But Tina Fey has what I like to call a "weird race thing." It's weird because she has a knack for making spot-on observances about race (like in season 1 of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," when Titus Andromedon realizes he's treated better as a werewolf than a black man), but they're almost always undercut by bizarrely tone-deaf moments that include everything from blackface to Geisha garb to sassy-black-female stereotypes. Add to that a few healthy dashes of transphobia and rape jokes, and you've got yourself a certified problematic fave.
“Inclusivity isn't just visual representation -- it's subtext, it's tone, it's content.”
Season 1 of "Kimmy Schmidt" was almost universally beloved, and for good reason. It's a hilarious, surprisingly poignant exploration of healing and survival. It's full of heart, and it's downright silly. But the show also got some criticism for moments when Fey's "weird race thing" reared its ugly head. Jane Krakowski's character, Jacqueline Voorhies, is revealed to be a Native American woman from South Dakota, who has reinvented herself as a rich, white, blonde-haired socialite. And of course, in real life, Krakowski is a rich,white, blonde lady.
Jacqueline's story is actually pretty heartfelt and endearing in certain respects, especially when she decides to stop pretending to be white and reconnect with her family and her people. But, still. Much of the conflict between Jacqueline's old and new lives seems to hinge on money and class, not race. Couldn't the story arc have worked just as well if the character was from a white, working class family? Again, weird race thing.
In Season 2 of "Kimmy Schmidt," Fey responded subtlety to criticism of the Native American storyline with an episode titled"Kimmy Goes To A Play!" Here, the show's sole black lead, the fabulous Tituss Burgess, is sacrificed to absolve Fey for her apparent sins. Titus puts on a one-man show as a Geisha (from a past life), in full yellowface. An online Asian-American group protests him -- until Kimmy convinces them to see the show. They leave with their hearts and minds changed, moved by Titus's beautiful performance.
On May 3rd, "Fresh Off The Boat" star Constance Wu took the episode to task, tweeting:
Wu makes a valid point, one more than worthy of consideration. But, again, Tina Fey doesn't care. The storyline itself is one big declaration of "I don't care what you think or who I alienate in the process."
In a 2015 interview with Net-A-Porter, Fey's take on the Native American storyline controversy was:
...The Internet was in a whirlwind, calling it "racist," but my new goal is not to explain jokes. 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.
Except this isn't about apologies. There's this idea that to not to find some of these racially-charged jokes funny is to be deeply offended by them or, even more egregious, to not "get" them.
I "get" the joke. As a black person consuming media in a society built to accommodate white people, you learn to "get" the joke quickly. I can reach out and touch the low-hanging fruit that Fey offers up, the pseudo-satire that attempts to edgily poke holes in gender and race. That's not the issue. The issue is that it's not clever enough to rise above the entirely off-putting concept it's based in.
I don't see blackface and think "I am so offended! This is racist! Omg!" I see it and just think, "Why was this even necessary? Does this elevate the show? Does it say anything interesting about race? About the characters? About Tina Fey?" The answer, invariably, is always "no."
I'm becoming numb to buzzwords like representation, cultural appropriation, and diversity. We constantly circle this idea of "diversity" -- the fantasy that if these shows just had a couple more POC writers or more POC characters, they'd be fixed. Women like Tina Fey hiring people of color in front of and behind the camera is obviously hugely important, but in the age of Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Mara Brock Akil, and Issa Rae, we're past asking for a seat at the table. We are now demanding the whole damn table. We are actively creating a space for ourselves, despite it still being an uphill battle.
Ultimately my frustration with Fey and other shows that center on white women comes down to one question: "Is it unrealistic to want White Feminist Television to consider me?"
The trap of the feminist "representation" gospel is that we (women of color) need to see other women of color on screen in order for us to feel represented. This is false. Seeing Donald Glover for all of ten minutes on Season 2 of "Girls" didn't make any black person think, "Damn! Lena gets it!" Nor does she have to. Diversity for diversity's sake isn't the goal.
Inclusivity isn't just visual representation -- it's subtext, it's tone, it's content.
When the content reflects a point-of-view that seems to say, "Not only do I not care what some people of color think about the way I approach race, I think they're downright trolls," there's only so much you can do as a black girl who loves singing "Peeeeeenoooooo Nuh-waaaaar" at the top of her lungs.
At some point, you stop caring. You train yourself not to expect much. You gloss over the off-color moments that make you sigh, or cringe, or raise an eyebrow. You decide, like Tina Fey, to stop giving a f**k. But there comes a frustration in letting go, because you understand that part of letting go means conceding.
"So what if this show has racially off-color jokes?" some might argue. "So what if there are little to no fully realized women of color characters, though there are many allusions to black culture? Make your own show. Stop asking for white people to validate you."
But that's one of the biggest problems with how we approach inclusion on television, especially when it comes to White Feminist TV. By all means, there need to be more shows written, produced by, and starring people of color. But we also should be able to hold women like Tina Fey to a higher standard. A comedy writer and actress with as much ability as she possesses should expect -- and desire -- no less.
This isn't about censorship, or asking women like Tina Fey not to take chances. Imperfection, and even mistakes, are a part of what makes art great. But art that cannot withstand dialogue isn't so great. And when one of the most powerful white women in TV refuses to even engage, it casts a shadow on the entire "feminist" TV landscape.
If we operate under the assumption that art has the capacity to be feminist, then it also has the capacity to be intersectional. And if it has the capacity to be intersectional, then "White Feminist TV" has the capacity to change. Case in point, a moment in the Season 3 credits of "Broad City," where Jaime (Arturo Castro) is helping Ilana pop her back acne. Jaime confronts Ilana about her "ironic" Latina bamboo earrings, saying:
It's a tiny, brilliant moment -- it isn't much, but it demonstrates that the show is at least self-aware, acknowledging that Ilana has a "weird race thing" of her own and in doing so, presenting a more complex, fully realized character.
This kind of approach to humor about race works because it isn't an apology, it isn't a dismissal of criticism, and it isn't a clear cut solution to the problem. It's merely an acknowledgement that there are other perspectives, even if these aren't the perspectives central to the characters of the show.
That's interesting, that's funny, that's creating space for me.