You might not always find her funny, but Tina Fey is an important — and valuable — figure in the world of television. The world is a better place for her on-point satire on SNL and her colorful and hopeful portrayal of survival on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. People pay attention to her and value her work, even when it is flawed. All the more reason, then, for her fans to hold her accountable when she makes a mistake.
In a recent interview with Net-a-Porter, Fey opened up about some of the criticism she received after the first season of Kimmy Schmidt premiered on Netflix last spring. Fey’s takeaway from the criticism? Ignore it and don’t offer any explanation or apology.
“Steer clear of the Internet and you’ll live forever,” said Fey. “We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and 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.”
Fey doesn’t specify in the interview the story line or episode to which she’s referring; some might read it as a comment about Jane Krakowski’s portrayal of Jacqueline/Jackie Lynn, a white-presenting Native American woman; others might assume that she’s referring to the stereotypical portrayal of Dong, the Vietnamese immigrant with whom Kimmy falls in love. The fact that she could be referring to either is indeed part of the problem — for all the show’s strengths, the portrayal of racial identity has routinely been one of Kimmy Schmidt‘s weak spots.
Not that any of us expect a sitcom or its showrunner to be perfect. Every single one of my favorite shows has run into issues of representation at one point or another, and rarely is that reason enough for me to swear off an entire series or body of work. I’m troubled, for example, by the fact that a cisgender man was cast as a trans woman in the leading role on Transparent; this doesn’t mean, however, that I do not appreciate the beauty with which the sexual identities of women (trans and cis alike) are portrayed on that show. Perfection is hard to come by in art, and I’m not convinced that it’s worth striving for.
That said, when a problem is brought to the attention of a showrunner, “opting out” of accountability isn’t really an option. Just as artists don’t owe their fans or viewers an explanation for their choices, fans don’t owe artists unwavering approval and acceptance. The fact that social media, blogging, and online journalism and media criticism has made it easier for the masses to communicate feedback to the artists they admire is really only a positive thing. Artists can pick and choose what feedback they act on, but at least they know how people are responding to their work. And when enough people respond critically to a plot point or characterization, it’s worthy of examination.
It’s possible that Fey truly doesn’t understand why people are bothered by the portrayals of Jacqueline and Dong on Kimmy Schmidt. But if she were to read the “whirlwind” on the Internet to which she refers, it probably wouldn’t be such a mystery. Why, then, is it so important to her to not apologize for hurting her fans with racially problematic portrayals? An apology doesn’t mean that her creative vision is irrelevant or meaningless. All it means is that she is exhibiting compassion and thoughtfulness when producing work for a diverse fan base.
Already, some are seeing Fey’s remark (and the remarks of those who are defending her) as a result of unexamined privilege, rather than as a bold act of defiance in the face of censorship or political correctness.
Enjoying white people congratulate Tina Fey for "bravely" opting out of apology culture for racial issues on her show.
— roxane gay (@rgay) December 21, 2015
I tend to agree with Gay. Fey’s powerful position in the entertainment industry ensures that she will be able to produce the kind of art that she wants to make for years to come. Certainly, even the most powerful women in Hollywood do not have it easy, and the challenges that Kimmy Schmidt underwent before making it to air on Netflix suggest that Fey is not immune to sexism or glass ceilings in the industry. But she is still a a writer and a producer with an enormous fan base and name recognition. She has power and she’s not at risk of being censored. And when she uses her power to shut down those who admit to feeling hurt by her work, she upholds the status quo rather than changing it.
My feelings on the first season of Kimmy Schmidt were mixed, but I’m looking forward to the second season. I’d like to see how Kimmy develops as a character. I’d like to see the continuation of Titus Andromedon, arguably the character of color who Fey handled the best in the Season 1. And I also want to see if — even if she refuses to apologize — Fey has decided to take any of the racial criticism seriously and reconsider her choices. If she doesn’t, I’m not likely to stick around for Season 3.