Tina Fey is dazzlingly smart about certain tropes. After reading this sly excerpt from Bossypants, I don't think I can ever again confront the word "witch" without seeing a working woman who's just misunderstood. Or see "crazy" when applied by men to an older working woman and not read code for "keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore." These tropes urged her to lean in for the good of younger women in the industry even as she grappled with her own worries—the book her daughter brought home with a witch on the cover, called My Working Mommy; the fear that she'd missed her chance to have another kid. That choice to value invisible women made me feel seen.
If it were possible to bet on such things, I'd bet her strength is what's working against her now. Fey never reads about herself—or so she said in a talk I attended earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Having watched all of season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I wish she would repent, even just a little. This month's premiere fed a sad new part of Fey's mythology: how defiantly she clings to Hollywood's last acceptable forms of racism.
When last year critics saw problems with her handling of characters from groups low on the totem pole of Hollywood representation, she went on record as simply opting out of the need to respond. Then, this season, she produced a retaliation to her critics so petty, the consensus across the internet was that Fey betrays herself. For all her claims to ignore criticism, she seems to be in an unhealthy relationship with it, based on the weakest episode of an at-turns brilliant season: "Kimmy Goes to a Play!" a.k.a. the one where stupid critics stupidly protest stupid yellowface. (It's hard not to imagine Tina with her fingers in her ears shouting "LALALA" while you watch it.)
The episode features a one-man show, Kimono She Didn't, staged by Titus Andromedon, a black man convinced he was a geisha in his past life. The villains of the episode, a group of Asian bloggers, are humiliated over the course of the episode; in the end, they realize they're wrong to protest Titus's yellowface—so moving is he onstage. One girl, overwhelmed by the task of being forever outraged, actually offends herself, and a beam of light promptly whisks her away. (The group's name, seen by some critics as a joke taken too far, is Respectful Asian Portrayals in Entertainment, or RAPE.)
The episode has been widely acknowledged as an expression of the frustration Fey voiced last season over complaints about her portrayal of Asian and Native American characters. (Dong, Kimmy's love interest, fields penis jokes and loves math, while the most prominent Native character is played by a white actress). Essays arguing these points are often longer than ones concerning the show itself, extending a general narrative about the series. "Why Does Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Keep Choosing Race as a Hill to Die On?" asked a Vox headline last week. Writing on Medium last spring, one fan warned viewers of the first season to prepare for "a case of the cringes you haven't felt since you last watched Sixteen Candles." Meanwhile, Slate held up the show Selfie as a lesson on how to write Asian men—surely the only time the shelved ABC series has come ahead of a Tina Fey production.
"I 'George W. Bush' it," quipped Fey. Such a clever joke; such an awful role model when it comes to dealing with criticism.
Then again, this is now standard terrain for the queen of smart comedy. Somewhere in the last few years, Fey has transformed into a reliable source of outrage. Her blind spot incites it in the Twitter era: She descends to lazy comedy of a sort people don't shrug off anymore. Moreover, she rejects thoughts on the matter, whether the culprit is UKS, or her recent Afghanistan-set movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which was taken to task for, among other missteps, whitewashing and brownface. When called out, Fey's response was a clever-by-a-half justification to do with Afghans being Caucasians.
But then, we know Tina is clever. It's precisely that she's so smart that this resistance of hers confuses the senses, keeps the internet humming. That vision that made me feel seen, so clear at times, makes her willful blindness to criticism worse somehow. How can someone so smart at evening the playing field for women be so dumb about other poorly represented people? She was expansive at Tribeca about the show's triumphs—the white-haired landlord played by Carol Kane, who subverts the witch trope so expertly; the joy she felt in realizing a particular scene's director, writer, stunt director, and characters were all women. Other underrepresented folks, not so much. "I 'George W. Bush' it," she quipped, when the interviewer soft-balled her on her refusal to engage with detractors. Such a clever joke, such an awful role model when it comes to dealing with criticism.
The fangirl in me thinks she just needs time. She's above all a professional. And the episode everyone is reading into isn't ultimately very good TV. While the rest of the season merges dark and light ideas to tell a singular story—of the unassailable joy of a girl who suffered at the hands of a deranged man— this one transcends nothing. It feels petty and dishonest. It punishes critics of Fey's most insipid characters with vicarious retribution.
Zadie Smith has called writers physically unsuited for criticism because of how closely the act of creation ties up to the self. To publicly admit the flaws in a work is to imply the recognition of private flaws, buried deep. But if Fey ever relents and goes down an internet spiral, I hope she finds a glimmer of her own brilliance in the criticisms too. She said it herself as I watched her onstage, explaining why she decided to play Kimmy's therapist this season. "You have to love your characters." So real is her love for Kimmy, she told the interviewer, she just wanted to hang out with her.
I think that's all we're asking, we who thought she saw us too: that she love her characters—all of them.
Follow Mallika Rao on Twitter.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.