Saturday, December 4, 2010

Neo-cons misinterpret Tina Fey, take Fey to task for misinterpreting Mark Twain

Tina Fey, accepting the Mark Twain Prize:
I hope that, like Mark Twain, a hundred years from now people will see my work and think, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist."
 Pretty funny, right? Wrong! say the neo-conservative pundits.

Aaron Goldstein in The American Spectator:
Well, what do you know? Tina Fey still isn't funny.
Philip Terzian in The Weekly Standard:
You can say a lot of things about Mark Twain, and a lot of critical things, but calling his writings racist is plain ignorance. Which, considering Tina Fey’s cerebral reputation, and the glittering credentials of her Kennedy Center audience, makes her joke -- and the attendant laughter and self-congratulatory applause -- more depressing than anything Mark Twain ever wrote or said.
The Spectator blog is pretty easy to absorb and dismiss, so I'll get that out of the way first. Goldstein, one of those post-9/11 neo-conservatives, was naturally too busy "watching Sarah Palin on TLC" to bother with the Mark Twain Prize.

The "still not funny" comment refers to a blog he wrote back in June after the Kennedy Center announced that Fey would win the Mark Twain Prize. It's worth a perusal, if only for his delusional idea of Palin as a good sport and his hilarious list of comics better than Fey. Who did Goldstein prefer? Bill Cosby. Carol Burnett. Robin Williams. Thank you, sir, for pointing out three of the funniest comedians of the Johnny Carson era. Perhaps next you can explain how Tina Fey just doesn't match up to the high standards of Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin or, hell, Mark Twain.

Goldstein's bah-humbuggery, by the way, immediately reminded me of Jarem--one of those amazing, random, non-recurring 30 Rock characters.

---

I have a bit more to say about Philip Terzian's comments in the Weekly Standard. While Goldstein's harumphing can be lightly dismissed with an eye-roll, Terzian's assumption and claim that Fey calls Twain's works racist bears a little more scrutiny.

By way of disclaimer: Bear in mind that such scrutiny involves taking Fey's joke too seriously, but I want to show how, even if, like Terzian, you are inclined to treat the joke with all the seriousness of an audience at a White House Correspondents Dinner, Terzian's conclusion remains dead wrong.

On a technical level it's simply not true. She doesn't call his writing racist. She suggests that now, a hundred years on, people read his stuff and say, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist." And what do you know?

"Technicality!" the neo-cons shout. "Side-stepping the issue!" because obviously she's implying that his writing are racist. She's not. Because Terzian completely fails to understand what Fey's joke is saying and implying, he tears into Fey for failing to understand Twain's writing. Which is, I do believe, truly ironic.

[I think that's ironic, right? Speaking of which, check out Twain's "ironic" mustache. What a hipster!]

Three notes:

1. If Tina Fey is calling Twain's writing racist, she's calling her own work racist too. [Here you might say that it's a joke. Good point. Since you understand that it's a joke and not to be taken too seriously, why are you still reading? You can't arbitrarily decide she's joking about her own work being racist but serious about Twain's work being racist. You should have stopped reading after the disclaimer.]

2. If she's calling Twain's work racist, she's implying that whatever anyone calls racist is racist. And if Tina Fey thought that, she certainly wouldn't be making the show she is making.
 
3. If Terzian actually watched Tina Fey's work outside of her ubiquitous Palin impersonations, he might not have misunderstood Fey. Rather than accusing Twain of racism, Fey actually made an ambitious statement about her work's interaction and engagement with racism. He might see that her comment is not the back-handed compliment it seems at first but is instead a nod to Twain's legacy.

30 Rock (which I'll take here as the high point of Fey's work) often portrays stereotypes about race in ways that are funny and slightly uncomfortable. The scenes on race offer a look into our society's foibles and weaknesses. Tina Fey plays with racial assumptions, and she rarely, if ever, gives her audience the relief of immediately dismissing or destroying the stereotypes. By embodying our cultural preconceptions about race, she is--in a healthy and generally hilarious way--engaging in a racist dialogue. That she does so without the acceptable Dead Serious Face opens her up to charges of racism from small minds.

Consider: if we today have problems discerning whether 30 Rock is racist, imagine how much more difficult this would be in a century. When people with inevitably different perspectives from another culture with it's own constructions of race and society attempts to parse commentary, humor, and racism within 30 Rock, some of them are likely to think, wrongly, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist." And if, in one hundred years, that discussion actually is occurring, Tina Fey's work and legacy will have approached Mark Twain's.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, Mark. The Norm MacDonald clip had me rolling. Hope you're doing well -

    ReplyDelete