One of the things I love most about the sitcom 30 Rock is that Tina Fey isn’t afraid to push boundaries to make a point. In the episode “Believe in the Stars,” Fey attacks two controversial topics head-on: gender and racial equality.
Let me give you a brief summary of this episode – Jenna (a white woman) and Tracy (a black man) get into an argument about Jenna’s compensation as a voice actor in Tracy’s video game because she was paid less than his friends (who happen to be black males). This then leads to an argument over who is treated more unfairly in America, women or African-Americans. In true 30 Rock fashion, the two take this argument to the extreme by doing a “social experiment” in which Tracy dresses as a white woman and Jenna as a black man. Jenna tells Liz (Tina Fey’s character) that the goal of this experiment is simple: “We’re trying to prove who has it hardest in America – women or black men.”
Stills from 30 Rock, “Believe in the Stars” (Season 3, Episode 2, 2008.)
While the use of blackface (and maybe whiteface) has been and still is highly controversial, I think the way in which it is used in this episode works. I believe that the point isn’t to perpetuate stereotypes, but to bring awareness in a very explicit way to problems regarding equality – both racial and gender – which still exist today. One of my favorite lines is from the scene pictured above when Jack Donaghy (white man and CEO) says: “I’ll tell you who has it worst. White men. We make the unpopular difficult decisions, the tough choices. We land on the moon and Normandy Beach and yet they resent us…men like me have to step in and clean up messes like this.” Because this line is so ridiculous, the joke works because it exemplifies white male privilege.
Both gender and racial equality are two issues that are still very much alive today. Some may argue that using these issues in a comedic fashion may take away from the seriousness of them. I, however, think Tina Fey does an excellent job of using humor to bring awareness to social issues while not turning the issues themselves into a joke.
Christopher ZF’s article on The Stake talks about how Tina Fey approaches the problems of race, gender, and sexual orientation in both 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (two shows I highly recommend if you haven’t watched them already! They’re both on Netflix.)