Last weekend, Charlottesville erupted in violence and hateful white nationalist rhetoric. It was a shameful moment, and a reminder of just how much the racist ideologies that shaped our history continue to haunt our present.
Amidst anti-Semitic chants and racialized violence, there was also heroism from anti-racist protestors, one of whom, Heather Heyer, was murdered by a white supremacist.
There are many “good” responses to this tragedy, especially for white people. We can follow Heyer’s lead and show up at counter-protests and rallies. We can provide financial support for victims and organizers and pay activists’ legal fees. We can make calls, sign petitions, and out Nazis and white supremacists in our communities. We can educate ourselves and attempt to dismantle white supremacy in our daily lives. In spite of all of these possible avenues for action, Tina Fey went on Weekend Update on Thursday to trademark her own approach: staying home and binging on baked goods with a side of biting political commentary. Quite literally, let them eat cake.
While Fey appeared to be tapping into a long history of tone-deaf white women, she was also adding to her own “problematic white feminist” portfolio. The beloved comedian has been criticized for repeatedly employing racist stereotypes, like when she crafts Asian caricatures for laughs. She’s come under fire for jokes that appear to have crossed the line—rape jokes, using sex workers as punchlines, and blackface gags, to name just a few examples. She also starred in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a war correspondent comedy (?) that, among other questionable decisions, cast two white actors in major Afghan roles.
Fey’s response to all this criticism has been to publicly “opt out” of internet scrutiny. In a 2015 interview, the SNL alum explained, “We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist’, but my new goal is not to explain jokes…I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.” Of course, you can’t please everyone, but choosing to ignore the haters when said haters are trying to point out and correct your racial blind spots will probably just lead to more fuck-ups in the future.
Fey’s years of consistently missing the mark and refusing to reckon with these failures have inevitably brought us here. It takes a stunning lack of self-awareness to recommend carbo-loading and sitting this one out, as if white women’s collective apathy didn’t put us in this position in the first place. Now, if 53 percent of white women hadn’t voted for Donald Trump, we probably wouldn’t have to be chasing a wide-reaching network of white nationalist rallies out of our major cities. But they did, and we are, and Tina Fey is inexplicably congratulating herself for staying out of a fight that she has the privilege to be able to opt out of. This entire rant ignores the fact that when white supremacists come to town spouting racist hate, people of color don’t get to “choose” safety—especially if no one else is showing up to beat back the mob.
Fey’s instantly viral segment, which included digs at Trump and Paul Ryan, culminated with the comic urging of “good sane Americans” to “treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads…don’t show up.” There’s no better encapsulation of the white feminist humor that Fey has repeatedly been called out for—pairing a witty critique of the patriarchy with an apparent unwillingness to acknowledge or support non-white Americans.
Obviously, Tina Fey is just a comedian. We don’t need to look to her for activism tips, and no one expects the 30 Rock creator to have all the answers. But Fey’s Weekend Update appearance doesn’t just reflect poorly on the comic; it also illustrates a widening cultural and political divide, and places the failures of liberal outrage comedy into focus. As the Weekend Update clip quickly circulated online, reactions were intensely polarized. A huge swathe of Twitter users greeted Fey and her #sheetcaking movement with all of the enthusiasm of the second coming, making sweeping statements like “All is temporarily right with the world” and “Tina Fey on SNL Weekend Update rn is literally all of us in America rn.”
And then there was the backlash: “Tina fey telling people who historically don't show up to fight white supremacy not to show up is...well, it's consistent.” “Heather Heyer's mom pleads with us to respond to her daughter's murder with action. Tina Fey says stay home, eat cake.” “Tina Fey adapts ‘don't show up’ as an anti-fascism strategy from her years of doing the same for people of color, queer people, lower-clas—”
Critics aren’t just reacting to Fey’s fucked-up advice. They’re pushing back against the general trend of masturbatory political comedy—Trump insults and Kushner jabs, funny rants that are passed around on Twitter and pushed out via congratulatory clickbait. At a time when action is no longer optional, when apathy is sure to facilitate even more injustice, it’s painful to watch people with #Resistance in their Twitter bios celebrate Fey’s pseudo-progressive passivity.
As long as we all acknowledge that clever takedowns of the Trump administration won’t actually take down the Trump administration, there’s nothing wrong with finding something to laugh about while we still can. The problem arises when performativity replaces the real work, and there’s no better illustration of that concept than a headline that credits Fey with “absolutely destroying Nazis” after she literally just told folks to stay home instead of fighting back.
Biting political commentary will never be enough, especially if it’s advocating cowardice and complacency. The last thing we need right now is a liberal comic urging us all to do less.