“NERD RAGE!” Tina Fey bellowed on Thursday’s episode of 30 Rock, and just like that, my heart grew a thousand sizes. I love Fey and 30 Rock. But as I’ve complained before, I sometimes have problems with her show on the gender-femiladyism front. I agree with Laura Bennett that Fey’s self-deprecation, both in and out of character, sometimes seems like a ploy to make her ambition, intelligence, sexuality, and razor-sharp wit less threatening. I like Fey best when she’s all about threats and throwing serious fire. Which is why “Stride of Pride,” a hilarious response to the ridiculous, insulting, I-can’t-believe-we’re-even-talking-about-this question of whether women are funny, was the triumphant throw-down of my dreams.
Liz’s nerd rage kicks off in response to Tracy Jordan and Stephen Hawking’s faux Twitter exchange. “Women aren’t funny, never have been and never will be,” the world’s most famous theoretical physicist announces (hashtag: #plotpoint). Tracy retweets that he agrees. Over the course of the episode, Liz faces an internal struggle familiar to anyone who’s faced an overtly sexist question: to engage or not to engage?
“Do something funny right now!” Tracy demands when Liz confronts him, and Liz automatically starts to oblige before she remembers that she doesn’t have to prove anything. She refuses to list funny women for the same reason. She tries to make the argument that perhaps men and women like different things (monkeys and “really daaaark superhero movies” aren’t everyone’s cup of tea). But Tracy doesn’t buy it, and the cheap laughs he successfully provokes while showing off a monkey in a tiny suit finally get Liz to take a stand.
“Engaging!” she announces, swinging forward like a terminator whose destroy button has finally been activated. She mounts an impromptu comedy show with Jenna to prove, once and for all, that women are funny—and succeeds! But sexism can sour any victory: Tracy thinks the show is funny because she plays a woman doctor, not because of her actual jokes.
“Stride of Pride” is packed with pointed retorts to the shoddy constructs of arguments against women in comedy. “Some things just aren’t funny, like females and listing only two things,” Tracy says. And while I’m not on board with the idea that women and men necessarily like different things (there are plenty of women who dig monkeys and The Dark Knight), I think it’s very true that our culture has a lot invested in persuading us that men have dibs on humor. Take, for example, the preposterous reporting about a recent study that showed that men’s jokes got far more laughs than women. Most articles assumed that men got more laughs because their jokes were objectively funnier–rather than considering the fact that we’re all socialized to chortle when men crack wise and to expect women to serve as decorative affirmation-machines rather than as independent beings with their own stock of puns and barbs and rubber chickens and silly walks.
But while I appreciated all of 30 Rock‘s witty comebacks, my favorite part of the episode was seeing Tina Fey firing on all engines. I get why she might not want to engage in the are-women-funny debate: It is insulting to even talk about. It’s the same reason why Jami Attenberg recently told Michelle Dean that she dreams of a world where she didn’t have to field questions about herself as a Woman Writer. The song that plays over Liz’s comedy show reveals her frustration at being drawn into a debate that’s un-winnable because the other side is just being dumb: “Women are funny we can all agree / Carol Burnett. Lucille Ball / No we’re not gonna do it / it’s beneath us all!” But Fey is one of the most visible and high-powered comedians out there, which can make staying silent on a controversial matter seem like a response in itself. With “Stride of Pride,” Fey found a way to engage without lending a stupid, outdated, sexist argument any legitimacy. By the time her thirty minutes were up, she’d poked more holes in Christopher Hitchen‘s article (and the ensuing yes-man chorus) than there are in the Swiss cheese on Liz’s beloved sandwiches. And that, friends, deserves a stride of pride for the ages.