“Steer clear of the internet and you’ll live forever,” Fey told Net-a-Porter as part of a fashion spread she shot for the fashion website. “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.”
The Net-a-Porter piece isn’t a real article; it’s more just a collection of quotes arranged under taglines, which is a shame. This would have been a great subject for a reportorial conversation, and it would be useful to see the context in which Fey said this. But this being the Internet, these few lines were enough to spawn the inevitable pieces from across the political spectrum.
Vox’s Caroline Framke labeled Fey’s stance a cop-out, suggesting that “it’s important to recognize the distinction between holding someone accountable for veering into racist and/or sexist territory and berating her just for the sake of it. It’s just too bad that Fey, in swearing off the entire internet, will never know the difference.” And the folks at Breitbart just as predictably championed Fey for standing up to “the politically correct, oversensitive television audiences of today.”
What both of these reactions from very different outlets have in common is the idea that by swearing off apologies, Fey is suggesting that criticism doesn’t matter. To Breitbart, that makes her a bold bucker of trends, while to Vox, it makes Fey a wannabe progressive who can’t stand up to legitimate critiques of her work. In both cases, this seems like something of a leap; Fey isn’t saying that people can’t disagree with her or have strong reactions to her. In fact, Fey is saying that while criticism is inevitable, she’s not going to try to break down her jokes to persuade people to find them funny, or to take those jokes back.
And I think Fey is right to make this decision. These increasingly meaningless public rituals almost never do anything to actually change pop culture. And they certainly don’t encourage a vigorous engagement with art and artists. Instead, they preserve a highly profitable illusion that artists and their fans agree on everything, that they’re part of the same team, when in fact they’re nothing of the sort.
I’ve written many times before about what flimsy things apologies often are. Saying you’re sorry for making a remark or an artistic choice (or even more weakly, saying you’re sorry people were upset) doesn’t erase your turn of phrase or undo your decision. An apology doesn’t give people who might feel upset by a comment, depiction or practice anything substantive in recompense the way that a director donating time to make public service announcements or a showrunner committing to hiring more women or people of color might. And an apology definitely doesn’t mean that an artist will tread differently in the future.
What an apology does do is preserve the convenient sense that artists and the critics who love them but are disturbed by an element of their work are on the same page. I say illusion, because I think requests that artists apologize for their work often proceed from the assumption that the artist didn’t know they might be venturing into risky territory. And more than that, these calls for repentance often treat artists as if they’re not making conscious decisions about their work. As Framke put it at Vox, “I understand that it’s frustrating to feel like you have to carefully consider everything you say and do, lest someone call you out online.”
Presuming that artists have caused offense unintentionally may make it easier for fans to forgive their idols. But it also diminishes artists to treat them as though their work isn’t the result of a conscious and deliberate process, and though they’re too dumb to think about the content of their storytelling. It’s incoherent to think of Tina Fey as a genius when she’s espousing popular feminist sentiments but a vacant dummy when she leans into a complex storyline about racial politics that some people don’t like. The Tina Fey who dreamed up the Native American storyline on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and who created “30 Rock” icon Liz Lemon are one and the same.
Framke may feel that “The jokes [on ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’] did speak for themselves; they just didn’t say anything worthwhile.” That’s an opinion, though, not a settled fact. Fey’s decision not to apologize for her jokes doesn’t prevent Framke or anyone else from holding opinions about Fey’s work. What it does deny them is the satisfaction of hearing that Fey agrees with them. It might be uncomfortable to reckon with the full range of Fey’s opinions. But it’s more sophisticated and interesting to do that than to try to make some of Fey’s opinions disappear, blurring her into a more politically compliant but less interesting artist.
It’s also, frankly, more honest. Watching an artist apologize for a decision may feel emotionally satisfying. But it can be easy to mistake insincere regret for a meaningful political gesture rather than a necessary move to preserve someone’s brand and marketability. When artists say they’re sorry, they may feel genuine sorrow for causing hurt. They may also be, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” “in the exact position of a thief who’s been caught red handed and isn’t sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail.” This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t apologize if they feel genuine shame or remorse. But a genuine dialogue between an artist and her constituency and a public relations gambit that soothes fans into feeling that their faves are unproblematic so they can go back to consuming without guilt or angst are very different things.
By opting out of that cycle, Fey may be refusing to engage in a dialogue that fans increasingly demand of their artists. She’s also refusing to dupe them, either, by pretending an agreement about what’s good and valuable in her work that she actually doesn’t feel. That may not be comfortable. But it’s a whole lot closer to respect.