’30 Rock’ goes over the racial edgePosted: April 29, 2011
What I’ve loved about 30 Rock when it delves into racial territory is that it’s not afraid to go there. It’s not afraid to be offensive and gratifying at the same time. Liz’s classic white liberal racial fumbles (thinking her Arab neighbor was a terrorist, saying she voted for Barack Obama when she didn’t, her odd, tension-filled relationship with Wayne Brady) are hilarious and make viewers uncomfortable in a very realistic way.
In the past, a few critics have brought up issues they’ve had with Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Jordan, a spoiled, infantile man with a love of strip clubs and a penchant for over-enunciation. I’ve always justified Morgan’s character by saying that all characters on 30 Rock are crazy, and are occasionally exaggerated stereotypes, or purposeful un-stereotypes like John Cho in his brief, but hilarious cameo in one of my favorite episodes of the season, “Double-Edged Sword.”
So for the most part, as much as I’m torn between laughing at Sherri Shepherd’s loudmouthed depiction of Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie, and cringing at all the stereotypes of the ‘sassy black woman’ she seems to be confirming, I remember that 30 Rock creates a weird, uncomfortable tension for everybody. Not even the gravelly-toned Jack Donaghy is safe from satire.
But this week’s episode of 30 Rock, “Everything Sunny All the Time Always” was not only subpar comedically speaking, but indulged in some major stereotyping that made me so uncomfortable, I’m wondering if it went too far.
In “Everything Sunny All the Time Always,” Jack Donaghy’s wife, Avery, is on assignment in Asia only to be captured by Kim Jong-il, played by Korean comedienne Margeret Cho, who it should be noted, has been criticized in the past for her stereotypical portrayals of her family members. ‘Kim Jong-il’ speaks horrible, broken English and is clearly supposed to be crazy. Stereotypical ‘Oriental’ music plays in the background as he talks about how he is the world’s best director and was best man at Tom Brady’s wedding. Cheap jokes about the country’s food production ensue.
Now Kim Jong-il has committed egregious crimes against humanity, but the way that 30 Rock lampoons him is steeped in such racialized baggage. Asian men have historically been depicted as asexual and effeminate. They’re also frequently portrayed as weird like Ken Jeong on Community. Many times it seems like the media uses awful dictators as an excuse to indulge in the worse kind of broad stereotyping. These dictators, often people of color in third world countries, are caricatured as crazy and irrational. Idi Amin was a savage black cannibal. Kim Jong-il is a crazy, effeminate weirdo. Hugo Chavez is a hotheaded, crazed commie.
Now I’m not denying that these people are, to put it very simply, bad. It’s common for American popular culture to satirize political figures from around the world, but the line between satirizing actual character traits and imagined, stereotypical ones is a thin line. Last night, 30 Rock crossed it.
The worst thing about painting world dictators as irrational/crazy/weird/effeminate/savage/hotheaded/heartless is that we cast them in a state of alterity. We distance ourselves, acting as if Americans are incapable of being cruel, of being savage, of being heartless, which is of course, untrue.