Strip Tina Fey of her Mark Twain Award. The prestigious comedy prize has been awarded to the wrong person. Not because Fey isn't funny -- at times, she is roaringly so -- but rather because she has failed, catastrophically, in creating a popular comedy that comments on American race relations in a manner appropriate for 2010. As a matter of fact, Fey may be the head of one of the most backwards projects in popular culture.
A few weeks ago, Fey was nominated for an honor named after one of our nation's most iconic writers, because "as a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain's birth name] was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly."
The only problem is that one of Tina Fey's greatest bodies of work, the juggernaut of a show known as 30 Rock, is terribly racist. The character of Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) is an unsightly amalgamation of every nefarious trope about African Americans conceived of in the past two centuries in the history of our republic. Tracy Jordan is a caricature's caricature; his role in 30 Rock is almost as if the writers earnestly studied minstrelsy, and then went about extending the tradition in the most ambitious manner possible. Given that the show received a record-breaking 22 Emmy Award nominations in 2009 alone, this may be reason for concern.
Before the people who disdain cultural theory attempt to dismiss this analysis on the grounds that entertainment should be divorced from social critique, it should be noted: Fey's award is at its essence about social commentary, and it is inarguable that Fey's show deliberately and enthusiastically wrestles with issues of race, class, and gender. On race, she is firmly pinned under the weight of her own monster.
In 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan is the lead actor on a fictional live sketch comedy series depicted as airing on NBC, which is loosely inspired by Fey's experience as a writer at SNL. Tracy is the star of the show and a blight on its production. He is a "horny child" who needs "supervision" and "coddling," for he is "wired" to make trouble for everyone else who runs the show if left to his own devices. Only when alternately coaxed and controlled can Jordan be an actor; unattended, he only "acts out." Tracy, the only black protagonist of the show, is invariably depicted as a hyper-sexual, mentally challenged, violent, emotionally unstable, irresponsible man-child. Jordan is textbook: He serves as an exhaustive and educational catalogue of the feared and loathed qualities of "blackness" accumulated over the course of American history.
Tracy Jordan's character is so consummately "Other" that it's conceivable that the writers of the show were checking off boxes on a list of types of deviance. On various occasions, it is revealed that Jordan is illiterate; a negligent husband; prone to drug use; a negligent father; slothful; lecherous; prodigal; jealous; covetous; corrupt; corruptive; godless; anti-empirical; birth certificateless; tax evading; superstitious; gullible; uncontrollably foul mouthed; an exhibitionist; interested in all kinds of sodomy, including bestiality and pedophilia; dresses in drag; steals things; chronically succumbs to conspiracy theories; is tricked into thinking he's been launched into space; harms himself with an electric dog collar; dresses as a clown; and physically harms the handicapped. In his scarce moments of ingenuity, he only expands the meaning of taboo, by doing things like inventing the world's first pornographic video game.
While most of the shows character's are deeply flawed and have stereotypical elements, Tracy hosts a unique medley of racialized defects that places him on a different plane of existence than the others. Tracy's characteristics draw from the political history of slavery and segregation, and the accompanying cultural history of minstrelsy -- something all the other exaggerated identities of the show cannot draw from. In other words, his caricature has far deeper and more tragic roots than the others (unless someone can show me 200 years of a codified mockery of Irish people in popular comedy). It's unsurprising that the rate at which he is laughed at eclipses the rate at which he is laughed with. Tracy isn't as much a comic as he is a joke, he isn't as much a star as he is a centerpiece.
At his core, Tracy is a child. He is primal and he is poor at distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and thus always out of place on a set run by adults. In 80 episodes of 30 Rock, unlike the other multidimensional characters, Tracy is not praised for anything other than generating laughter, except maybe on one occasion: He gives an inspirational speech about his daughter's struggle with diabetes at a fundraiser. In an exceptional moment, Jack comes up to Tracy and says "Congratulations Tracy -- welcome to the grown-up world." Tracy then reveals that he lied about having a daughter.
The writers of 30 Rock are aware that they have diligently stuffed scores of stereotypes and racially loaded qualities into one character. It's likely that their response to the claims of this essay, if they took them seriously, would be that the character is entirely ironic, and that it is foolish and inherently unprogressive to look to a character as representation of an ethnic community. (There is also the argument that Tracy Jordan is an extension of Tracy Morgan, which is unpersuasive for many reasons.*) But attempting to play with stereotypes, ironically or not, is playing with fire. And playing haphazardly with the raging flame under the great American melting pot means you're likely to get scorched.
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