thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Rebound: 30 Rock’s Live Show & Why Misogyny is not Funny

In feminism, misogyny, race on April 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Phoebe B.

Last night, 30 Rock did a live episode as a shout-out to the pleasures and pitfalls of live TV. As a bit of a TV nerd, I was pretty pumped about this phenomenon—particularly with Amy Poehler’s guest appearance (I love you, Leslie Knope!), Troy from Community as a young Tracy Jordan (Yes!), and Kim Kardashian as, well, Kim Kardashian. But in the first segment of the show and the first flashback to NBC’s early days, 30 Rock did an entire schtick making fun of domestic violence. It seems to me that violence against women, and domestic violence more generally, is simply not funny.

The skit, supposedly a Kraft comedy hour, featured Jack and Liz as a 1950s married couple. Jack comes home from work and starts comically threatening his wife with quick one-liners. Their back-and-forth banter is made up of his threats and her rebuttals. He says that he is going to shoot her in the face and to take her outside and feed her to the dogs—the list goes on. Liz’s character naturally has a comic response to each threat: “That’ll be first time you’ve ever taken me out to dinner,” she responds. While this bit might be a riff on the Honeymooners, it highlights the misogyny of TV past and present but doesn’t really appear to critique it.

A few minutes later, Jenna invokes Roe v. Wade in order to assert her right to choose to have her marriage proposal from Paul on live TV. The joke, at least for me, fell flat in a moment where a woman’s right to choose, and her control over her body, are actually under threat. Other jokes, as Sarah pointed out last week, create humor at Liz’s expense. In the sketch about Jamie Garnett as a reporter, Brian Williams as himself and Jack as a news anchor cannot comprehend that Jamie is indeed a woman reporter. A female reporter, it appears to them, is absurd. They even suggest sending a search party for the missing male Jamie Garnett. Granted, the news was male-dominated for some time and this brand of sexism is likely not too far from the truth. However, once again it seems like Liz is the butt of the joke.

The sexism and racism in much of TV history, and in the present, are the underlying jokes in most of these sketches. But the sketches are not really overtly critical of past, or current, sexism and racism. The jokes, perhaps, aren’t over the top enough. They hit far too close to home. Indeed, they feel plausibly offensive rather than like meta-parodies about how offensive TV history actually is. Perhaps the jokes that tried to point out past misogyny and racism (Jon Hamm’s blackface, for example) needed more of a twist in order to function well as critiques. And Kenneth’s comment that present NBC is a whitewashed landscape was not funny because it’s true (at least for this viewer). I see you pointing at the misogyny and racism of television, 30 Rock, but I feel like you only reiterated it rather than questioning or challenging it.

Earlier this week, Jezebel’s Lindy West called out the hipster/ironic racism afoot in Girls, and the commentary surrounding it (including Lesley Arfin’s racist tweets). It seems to me that last night’s 30 Rock episode embraced a kind of hipster sexism. To paraphrase West, this episode of 30 Rock seems to argue that while you can’t say sexist things anymore, you can pretend to say them jokingly, “which it turns out is pretty much the same thing.” Granted, sexism and racism are different. But, they are also often interlocking modes of oppression, and West’s formulation appears at play, albeit perhaps in different ways, here.

In a moment when the female body is a major site of political controversy and women’s right to choose is in danger of being violently taken away, joking about domestic violence is not so funny. Also, it is never funny. As last night’s Take Back the Night across college campuses shouted loud and clear, the kind of violence that the 30 Rock skits joked about is not funny and all too real.

What say you, GLG readers and 30 Rock viewers?

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  1. I didn’t see it – and now I’m glad. Nicely articulated. There’s a place for humor, but it needs to be handled more carefully.

    • Thanks! This season of 30 Rock has definitely been lacking (for me at least) in the funny department. And, this episode was particularly unfunny I thought …

  2. I don’t think I found it as concerning as you but, rather, obnoxiously smug. Mad Men makes a lot of hay out of “how far we’ve come” to varying degrees of success and relevancy. I felt that 30 Rock was aiming for the same thing but, in the comedic vein, it fell even flatter. But, as you say, the limitations behind that approach stem directly from “how far we have not come.” While we’re on the subject, I get a kick out of the Jenna/Paul relationship in some respects but I’m also intrigued by how their non-normative sex life merely veils their entirely normative heterosexual relationship–now culiminating in marriage! so original! Any thoughts out there?

    • I definitely agree, Sarah! Particularly in the way the jokes fell flat because of, as you say, “how far we have not come.” And, I think the Jenna/Paul relationship is also really interesting but also agree with the ways in which their non-normative relationship is being wrapped into heteronormative standards with marriage. I don’t really have more thoughts at the moment but have definitely been thinking about this since I watched last week’s episode.

  3. Completely disagree. This is satire. If you’re not old enough to have heard Ralph’s “pow, right in the kisser” threats on the Honeymooners or to recall when 60 Minutes was all white and all male, you might not get it.

    • Hi Roberta! Thanks for your comment. I just wanted to respond to a couple things you said … I have been watching 30 Rock since its beginning and have been a fan of the show for just as long. I definitely understand that it is satire, and don’t think my age has anything to do with my understanding of the program’s intent. But as I say in the post, for me the humor fell flat because it hit too close to home. Good and even great satire functions through some distancing, I think, which wasn’t really happening. For me the comedy based on the ‘how far we’ve come’ didn’t work, because while there are more white women and both men and women of color on television and in TV production, the TV landscape is still predominantly dominated by white men (http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2012/04/20/468432/women-of-color-in-television-part-1-the-numbers/).

  4. First: I want to say that I’m all for loving who you want, when you want, being whichever sex you want, being a strong woman, etc! Also, I love 30 Rock! However, 30 Rock has *never* attempted to break down stereotypes or aspired to be anything more than a funny, slightly racist/woman-bashing show, in my opinion. Liz and company are ALWAYS cracking jokes at the expense of the black characters on the show–Tracy Jordan does it too! (I guess that’s supposed to make it okay?) Liz (baby-crazy, relationships ‘bum her out’) and Jenna (blonde?, too many stereotypes to list here) are whacked-out females that clearly don’t quite have their lives together. Jack and his mother and racists and misogynists, gays are nuts and ‘fairies’ (all of Rachel Dratch’s characters, Devon Banks, D’Fwan).. Shows that play on stereotypes can’t be expected to change the world. I’m not saying that 30 Rock dredging up old TV memories was totally kosher, but.. that’s pretty much the way TV was back then. They turned reality into comedy, for better or worse. I really don’t think that the type of person who’d tune in to 30 Rock would be the same one cheering on the husband threatening his wife. Call me insensitive, but.. I dunno.

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