by: Raechel T
Like most viewers of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, I rationalize my appreciation of the show — because I’m “in on the joke.” Racism, sexism, and homophobia are fairly common themes, whether it’s perpetuated by capitalism’s #1 fan, Jack Donaghy, or the self-centered and naïve Jenna Maroney, or the totally absurd-but-occasionally-lovable Tracy Jordan. All of these characters get away with saying offensive comments because it’s “ironic.” “We know that they know that we know that they’re not really racist, sexist, or homophobic…so it’s funny!”
I’m usually a critic of this kind of humor for the simple fact that not everyone is in on the joke, and some of those people laughing actually are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Additionally, this is a popular form of comedy in the current conjuncture because it appeals to our apathetic culture that refuses to take things seriously. But most of the time, I think 30 Rock does irony in a way that is smarter and more aware than a lot of other failed attempts at this style of humor. So, I keep watching.
When news broke out over the summer about Tracy Morgan’s — who plays Tracy Jordan on the show — homophobic stand-up routine, I was curious to see whether or not the show would address it. According to reports, after Jordan went on a rant against the belief that gays are “Born This Way” (referring to Lady Gaga’s single), he said “if [his] son[…]was gay, he better come home and talk to [him] like a man” and not like (he mimicked a gay, high pitched voice), or he would “pull out a knife and stab that little n****r to death” . Not exactly cleverly delivered, and not exactly dripping with irony.
After a fall hiatus, 30 Rock returned to NBC, and last week’s episode addressed Morgan’s scandal by creating a similar storyline for the Tracy Jordan character. In it, we find out that Jordan is being publicly criticized for a stand-up routine in which he says, “Being gay is stupid. If you wanna see a penis, take off your pants. If I got turned into a gay, I’d sit around all day and look at my own junk.”
The gay community is aghast and protesting outside the NBC studios — which we discover in a scene when two painfully stereotypical flamboyant gay men chant and picket, then proceed to give Liz Lemon (Tina Fey’s character) fashion advice. Jack quickly tells Liz to deal with the repercussions and save TGS (an SNL-style show that the characters on the show work on) from a boycott that would lead to low ratings.
To ameliorate the situation, Liz releases a statement saying that Jordan isn’t hateful, “he’s just an idiot.” And in response to that, Jordan stages a protest against Liz and TGS for offending the “idiot community,” of which he, Denise Richards, strippers, stay-at-home moms and scuba divers are all a part.
The first glaring problem with the show’s effort to address the situation is that it equates a comment about literally murdering someone for being gay to a comment about how being gay is “stupid.” In a poignant response to Jordan’s routine, Max Gordon argues that this kind of violence is very real and thus cannot be forgiven as a rant from an “equal opportunity offender.” He reminds us,“There was the story just in the news last week of Kirk Andrew Murphy, experimented on in a study as a child for being ‘overly feminine,’ and who recently killed himself.” I winced, but I turned the page, like I’ll turn the page with Morgan.
Just like I turned the page in 2000 when I read about Steen Fenrich, a 19-year-old black gay man from Bayside, Queens, who was murdered and dismembered by his stepfather. I wonder how Steen walked when he came in the house the day he died. Was he swishing, or limp wristed, or “manly enough?” Probably not. I guess that’s why his stepfather decided to “stab that little n****r to death.” 
The fact that Tracy Morgan’s comments were violent and that Tracy Jordan’s were not is a significant erasure and turns a problem of structural violence into interpersonal disagreement.
But I was also dismayed with the Liz Lemon response and the whole “ironic protest by the community of “idiots” thing. This plot move was based in the idea that offending “idiots” would be so absurd that it would distract from the old controversy with a ridiculous/unrealistic controversy.
What 30 Rock didn’t realize is that the word “idiot” is absolutely worthy of a real response, since it is a form of ableist language. Ableist language is “the devaluation of disability” that “results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids” .
According to a blogger on disabledfeminist.com, the term “idiot” in particular is a
word which is commonly used to denote low intelligence, and it’s also a word which many people are unaware is ableist in nature. “Idiot” is also closely tied to ideas about intellectual worth, and attitudes that people with intelligence which does not meet an arbitrary standard are somehow lesser human beings. 
In the attempt to distance itself from a “legitimate” offense by creating an ostensibly nonsensical one, 30 Rock managed to do more harm.
Of course, what both the mainstream press after Morgan’s remarks, and 30 Rock after Jordan’s remarks failed to address is how race shapes this story. As a black man, Morgan is socially constructed to reflect the archetype of violent, homophobic masculinity. And his race absolutely contributed to the types of response the scandal received from the press.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying Morgan should not have been publicly called out for what he said, and as I stated above, his comments do contribute to a culture that normalizes violence against the LGBTQ community. However, it’s important to reflect on the different responses different people receive after controversies of a similar nature. For example, why did a convicted wife-beater, Charlie Sheen, turn into a hero in the media after saying a bunch of inane shit? Did no one remember that he physically abused women in real life? Or what about the T.R. Knight/Isaiah Washington fiasco, in which Washington allegedly called Knight a “faggot?”
In a brilliant analysis of the media response, Courtney Bailey argues that Washington was treated as a savage black man and an “unfit neoliberal citizen,” whereas Knight remained a gay-but-not-too-gay victim . Bailey wasn’t defending Washington’s comments, and again, nor am I defending Morgan’s, but as writers/activists/educators/etc. committed to social justice, we can’t talk about these realities in isolation from one another, and we can’t conveniently ignore race when it ostensibly serves an LGBT struggle—the struggle is one in the same.
As disappointed as I was with the 30 Rock episode, I will continue to watch the show. Mostly because I know that personal boycotts that are not backed by collective, organized resistance don’t do much. And, also because, well, it’s usually really hilarious. But I will continue to use these instances of media failure as a pedagogical moment for talking about what is at stake for marginalized communities in the real world.
Raechel T is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include: critical media studies, queer studies, rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the labor movement. She’s a long-time labor activist and a full-time cat lady. You can read more of Raechel’s thoughts at rebelgrrlacademy.wordpress.com, and you can follow her adventures with vegan food and healthy living at rebelgrrlkitchen.wordpress.com.
 Bailey, C.W. (2011). Coming out as homophobic: Isaiah Washington and the
Grey’s Anatomy scandal. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, (8), 1.