Last night, Tina Fey appeared on Weekend Update: Summer Edition (created specifically to address Trump times while its parent-show Saturday Night Live is not filming) to talk about the violence in Charlottesville from the perspective of a University of Virginia alum.
It was a mess.
We convened an all-Bitch roundtable to dig into it.
Was she really advocating for people to stay home?
Soraya Membreno: It’s difficult enough to get (white) people to go out and do something even slightly uncomfortable. This is an easy way out. It’s prioritizing self care over actual work, in a way that is going to make people feel good about it too. Like they’re doing something radical instead of just something comfortable. And the thing is, this is just days after protesters in Durham, North Carolina pulled confederate statues down THEMSELVES. She said this on the same day that dozens of people showed up at a courthouse in Durham to turn themselves in as a show of solidarity and support for the protesters who were arrested for taking the statue down. These have been highly visible and inspiring moments in light of the horror of this weekend and the news of caches of weapons that had been stashed all over Charlottesville by Unite The Right and Trump’s dumbass comments. So for this to be what she has to offer? Do nothing? Maybe she should have stayed home instead of doing this skit.
Andi Zeisler: I want to give Fey the benefit of the doubt here and say that she was dunking on herself, but even if that’s true, she really failed at reading the room. This week was just not the time. We all know that it’s not an either/or situation where either you’ve got your face in baked goods or you’re out in the street at protests, but there was so much to cringe about in this segment, from the cake to the drag-queen joke to the Thomas Jefferson reference. It cancelled out any good points she made through a mouthful of cake. I mean, I don’t expect her to be a paragon of wokeness, but it did feel like she was giving permission to neurotic white women to be like UGH I JUST CAN’T EVEN. And clearly plenty of media outlets cosigned that, with headlines like “Tina Fey starts a grassroots movement with ‘sheetcaking.’” It’s telling that last night on Twitter, everyone I saw reacting positively to the bit was white.
Kate Lesniak: That’s like asking “Could she have known that if she had yelled #AllLivesMatter she was spewing racist garbage, even if it’s a joke?” Even if just one person takes her address as literal advice, that’s too many. Fey should have considered that she’d reach an already dangerously complacent audience and she should have known to look directly into the camera and tell fellow white people to—in all seriousness—get the fuck up, get out of the house, and take action. IMHO there’s no time for white safety, and there’s no time to joke about it.
Lisa Factora-Borchers: Tina Fey? Just no. White feminists and safety is a thing that needs to be deconstructed and if she’s going to use humor, it has to be a better joke than this. #WhiteHumor
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze: Hey, Tina. Guess what. There are people staying home and eating cake instead of doing anything about Nazis. Maybe that’s why it’s not funny to joke about it? Get it?
Evette Dionne: I’m just not here for Tina Fey—period. She’s representative of scores of women—many of whom are white—who deem themselves “woke,” but don’t have a grasp on oppressions as systems. It’s just ignorant of facts. There are people of color who stay home and are still faced with racial terror. I’m thinking of Medgar Evers, shot and killed at the door of his home. Or Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by police officers while sleeping on her grandmother’s couch. There’s just a blindness there that’s inexcusable.
Fallon has been widely acknowledged as an enabler, but there’s also been a sympathetic tone to coverage of his neutrality, like, “Poor kid, he just wants to be liked by everyone!”
SM: The “poor kid” is FORTY-TWO.
AZ: Jimmy Fallon is on the same shit list as Susan Sarandon, for me: I know they didn’t single-handedly cause the election to go where it did, but they were incredibly unhelpful in different ways. The fact that it took someone actually getting killed for Fallon to make any kind of a statement is depressing—no more depressing than the apparently zillion other white people who are given space to publicly handwring about their choices, but still. Saying that your show isn’t political seems like a huge cop-out in these times: Seth Meyers, for instance, is in the same position as Fallon and he’s managed to make strong statements about racism and bigotry in Trump’s administration for months. If you can’t make an unequivocal statement against Trump now, you’ve chosen your side.
DGH: Jimmy Fallon is a coward and all I have to do is think about him playfully rumpling Orange’s hair to put him on my shit list forever.
LFB: All I can say is that I have ZERO time or tolerance for more white male father tears shed on primetime. My TV is soaked in white daddy tears. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Fallon-esque people can only comprehend the destruction of white supremacy when they look at their own children. His monologue pulled out the age old, “Remember! Kids of all different backgrounds play together in the playground!” Let’s be real: the majority of white children learn white supremacy not from news like Charlottesville, but from their parents who love their privilege and power. It is another strand of white supremacy to only care about something when it directly impacts you—your family, your suburbia, your property, your kids. It’s not an anti-racist perspective at all. It’s more white man mediocrity getting primetime focus.
Q. Has Fey been outspoken about Trump before?
KL: I can only remember Tina Fey being outspoken about Sarah Palin.
DGH: If she really wanted to rattle some cages, she would have asked NBC to release The Apprentice tapes.
ED: Of course she is. I call it the “Hillary Clinton lost, now what?” effect. Clinton’s loss spurred many people into action because she’s been perceived as the culmination of feminist activism. My aims are different. Whether or not we had a white woman president, there are still inequities that would persist. Focusing attention on undoing and dismantling those systems deserves Fey’s attention. The rest is just fluff, designed to make herself feel good and look involved.
We’re definitely seeing a lot of reaction that’s like, “But it’s comedy! She’s not actually giving advice!” But we hold comedians accountable all the time! How does this compare to stuff like criticizing Dave Chappelle for his lazy jokes about trans people, or Bill Maher for any number of racist and Islamophobic comments he’s made over the years?
AZ: I’m definitely mystified by seeing this response from people who definitely did not give Bill Maher a pass for his “House N****r” comment recently, and from people who generally acknowledge that comedy carries a ton of cultural power. Saturday Night Live has been producing these Thursday-night Weekend Update shows precisely because there is so much bananas political stuff going on during its off season, so the idea that one of its bits should get a pass because it wasn’t supposed to be political seems disingenuous.
DGH: It felt like Tina Fey circa 2001 when she hosted Weekend Update came back to do the same “women love to eat” bits she always does without considering the climate we now live in. Yeah, it’s comedy, but you came back onto this show as a UVA alumna to do this bit?
SM: Exactly! I never realized she was a UVA alum, so when they said that I thought she would say… something even kind of substantial?
KL: There are lots of white people looking for permission to not take tangible action anywhere it can be found. And you better believe white folks are willing to take comedy as liturgy if it delivers that permission. In terms of comparison to Chapelle and Maher, Fey’s remark about drag queens still identifying as men when they’re not in drag (which she doesn’t explain) is violence. Most folks don’t take the time to understand how those in the queer community identify and/or express those identities, and so validation on national television that characterizes anything that’s not heteronormative as dangerous or violent—especially when she’s talking specifically about black bodies—is only going to perpetuate violence. It’s just as bad as Maher and Chapelle, and it’s inexcusable.
ED: Comedy should not be used as a cover for tasteless, offensive jokes, no matter who the comedian is. Dave Chapelle’s jokes about trans people are wrong—period. It’s the same for Fey. It’s not as if they’re new comedians either. They’re both well established, successful, and in the upper echelon of comedy. At this point, you should know when it’s worth using your voice differently.
Q. Was she making a subtextual “let them eat cake” reference?
AZ: That’s definitely a subtext that came through for me. But again: Even if it wasn’t intentional, you have to know that people will read it that way. Assuming that this isn’t something she ad-libbed, that it was something that she wrote with at least one other person, it’s really disturbing that no one was like, “Hold up, is cake really the way to go here?”
KL: I didn’t even think about that. Probably. Jesus.
LFB: I mean we’re living in a time where the President of the United States is passing along memes as historical facts. It’d be helpful if Tina Fey just used a clear, undeniable metaphor.
Stress eating is relatable, though, right?
SM: Totally. We’re all at that point of exhausted outrage, with shit hitting the fan so fast and from so many angles that I get that. There’s been a permanent stash of ice cream in my fridge for the past three months. But the jump from ‘let me cope by dumping a grilled cheese sandwich into a sheet cake’ to ‘do this instead of protesting literal Nazis is just… honestly it’s not even that surprising but it is disappointing and draining. Why not just take your sheet cake to the protest!
ED: Yes, stress eating is relatable as hell. I tend to eat more when I’m anxious or depressed, and since January 20, that’s been my go-to mechanism. But I just don’t think stress eating is as worth discussing as racial terror. Yes, scream into a sheet cake all you want while Nazis are attacking people in the streets. It’s just illogical.
AZ: Now I want to go to protests and hand out cake. Or something less messy than cake. Not cake pops, though, those suck.
KL: I just kept thinking about how gross that cake probably was. Have you ever tried to slam that much sugary frosting into your mouth that fast? Vom central.
LFB: You should see me when I watch the news at night. It’s all crumbs and nervousness.
Q. What should have SNL aired instead?
DGH: The Apprentice tapes!
KL: Plus one for Dahlia’s idea. Way to stick with it, Dahlia. You’re hired. Get those tapes on national TV please!
DGH: Ready and waiting for those tapes! I know they exist! Making fun of the news on TV is hard—I would know—and striking the right tone is half the battle. This was the wrong tone covered up in cake icing. Andi is totally right that there are folks doing this right—Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, John Oliver—and after SNL was nailing it last season, this just seems like off-season drivel.
ED: I agree with Dahlia. We’re still waiting. Release the tapes.
How can we hold Tina Fey and the SNL writers room accountable for this kind of stuff?
KL: For one thing, we can stop laughing so hard (actually, are people even laughing at SNL?) at her other jokes. I would say asking Lorne Michaels to step down is a good start—because SNL is just a hotbed for pushing more white comedians onto our national radar, and that starts at the top. Our editorial director, Lisa Factora-Borchers, has a lot more to say about holding white late nite hosts accountable. I’d point you in her direction in the coming weeks.
ED: Seeing as SNL just lost one of its few Black women comedians, maybe hiring more talent of color would be helpful. Writer’s rooms should also be more reflective of the comedy SNL prides itself on, like the hilarious Sean Spicer and Jeff Sessions sketches. Public pressure is also important. The more pressure, the better.
LFB: Are you reading this, SNL? Hire more writers of color. Let’s start there.