Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ableism in 30 Rock [Television Tuesday on Wednesday]

Photo: Marceline Hugot as Kathy Geiss, a white woman with a bowl haircut in a green blazer and pink shirt eating at a broad oak desk. A portrait of a white man in a suit and lamps are behind her.

A lot of feminists love 30 Rock. As they should: it’s a funny show, and a rarity for television – a women-fueled enterprise with a two main female characters, written and conceived of by a woman. That is Cool, full stop. And 30 Rock has many deft explorations of the many facets of being a white, middle-class, straight, woman with able privilege. But persons with disabilities don’t fare quite as well.

30 Rock trades on ableism on an almost episodic basis. The show’s disrespect towards folks with disabilites, particularly those with visible disabilities, is constant and unrelenting from side gags to b-plots to regular characters. 30 Rock constantly places bodies with able privilege in a position of supremacy above bodies with visible disabilities through humiliation and devaluation. Its abuse of persons with disabilities in the name of comedy goes beyond the casual ableist language like “lame” or “retarded”. Such language is unfortunately ubiquitous to even shows that have been critical of ableism (eg, The Office has critiqued ableism through Michael Scott’s typical obliviousness on a couple of occasions, but, as in life, "lame" and occasionally “retarded” is still a consistent presence) but 30 Rock's ableism is constant, humiliating, and dehumanizing.

The most consistent use of a person with visible disabilities for the purposes of comedy and comedy alone is Kathy Geiss. Kathy Geiss is the mentally disabled daughter of NBC head Don Geiss, Jack Doneghy’s hero and boss. She makes her entry into the series when she is wooed by Will Arnett’s character, who is gay. Later on, she becomes the titular head of NBC when her father goes into a coma, with Arnett as the power behind the throne. She also sexually harrasses Jack. [Hulu doesn't have second-season clips - which is what I get for writing about television two years after it airs - but you can watch a recap below for some evidence.]

Kathy Geiss’ appearance in the series dehumanizes, unsexes, and generally robs persons with mental/learning disabilities of any agency or life. She is first presented as a preposterous romantic figure, only valued for her father by a man who is not interested in women and a man who also only wants her ill-deserved power. This adult woman, with grey hair and a unisex wardrobe, is essentially viewed as a child – she plays with toys and cannot dictate her romantic life beyond serving a purpose for a man with no romantic interest in women. Furthermore, she is framed as incompetent and unable to do anything effectively; she has no professional identity, but only serves as a puppet for a man with able privileges. The idea of a woman with visible mental disabilities is so beyond the realm of 30 Rock’s conception of what a woman or person is that they frame her as absolutely nothing but a joke, someone inconsequential who only serves as juxtaposition for the traditionally smart, sexy, competent main characters.

The visibility of her disability is heightened at every turn, though her desexed dress to her blank and uncomprehending expression to the toys that are sometimes in her mouth. Kathy is literally silenced - she says one word in her entire multi-episode arc ("kiss"). Having served her purpose as a punchline, she subsequently disappears from the series and is never mention again, effectively erasing any chance she could have had to be a redeeming character (as Jordan has). On 30 Rock, disabilities are tolerable as long as you can’t immediately tell.

In a first-season episode, a character with physical but not mental disabilities is similarly used to set in contrast another character’s sexual power while his life is understood to be valueless. Liz, Jack, and Jenna attend a birthday party for a foreign prince (othering much?) who is confined to a wheelchair due to inbreeding (hilarious, right?). The prince is attracted to the narcissistic and insecure Jenna and makes her his companion for the evening. Since wheelchair users clearly cannot enjoy their own body, he live vicariously through Jenna. Jenna’s dancing, while physically funny, is at the cost of the prince’s bodily agency. Later on, he literally kills himself after exchanging affections with Jenna. [Again, no clips on Hulu/YouTube. Sorry.)

It’s understood that the lives of those in wheelchairs are valueless and unworthy of living; once they achieve some minor romantic or social success, they’ve clearly hit all the highs that someone like them can hit, and it’s no use carrying on.

30 Rock confronts mental disabilities in every single episode with the character of Tracy Jordan. Tracy is defined as “mentally ill” from the pilot episode, but that does not interfere with his ability to be a fully functioning human being. His disability is never specifically defined, but it’s a part of his character and is usually portrayed as value-neutral (sometimes negative, sometimes positive - as when he challenges the value of normal in a third season episode). Like other major characters, his narcissism, ego, and drinking problem are as likely to provide a crux for an episode as any other character traits. His disability is a variation, not a handicap. Tracy is not unintelligent, or lazy, or incapable – he’s just who he is, and who he is is valuable and funny and moving.

This is not to say that the framing of Tracy’s disability on the show is universally positive or respectful – there are many problematic episodes that problematically portray his disability. And of course, I'm looking at Tracy from a currently able privileged point of view, and could be totally wrong. But it remains that the only disabled characters shown regularly and treated as consequential are those with invisible disabilities. 30 Rock viciously positions characters with able privilege above persons with disabilities in its language, ongoing plotlines, and minor jokes.*

30 Rock is a feminist show. But like feminism, it is soaking in ableism. Able privilege and discrimination against persons with disabilities Tina Fey’s show negates the experiences of agent and vibrant people with visible disabilities, turning them into sexless, lifeless, inconsequential punchlines.

*The examples detailed above don’t even begin to cover it. There's also the episode in which Kenneth and Tracy deceive a blind girl for a Cyrano de Bergerac type story. In another episode, Jack forces a deaf woman into his office under false pretenses and forces her to lip-read for him. In another, Jenna portrays Janis Joplin, whom she believes walked with crutches.


  1. Great post - I haven't seen the program in question though, and unfortunately your video is only viewable by those in the USA.

  2. My wife has MS and is in a wheelchair full time. We both enjoy 30 Rock and have not a clue what you are talking about.

    You seem to think that my wife should be offended that Jenna danced for the Prince in the wheelchair, that is how I dance with my wife! If there is a better, more non-offensive way please tell me.

    Seriously, please stop.

  3. It's not comedy unless someone, somewhere, is offended.

  4. Interestingly what you see as ableism in the show, to me, is the exact opposite. It shows the many of the main characters interacting with those differently abled characters as over-the-top expressions of how many people treat those differently abled from themselves. The humor in Jenna's interactions, in particular, do not come from the less abled characters she interacts with, but rather her own ridiculous response to them, IMHO. I think you might be a bit off-base on this.

  5. Sorry you had a troll attack, RMJ; I had one earlier this month and I know how they really can put you on edge and make you doubt yourself. HANG IN THERE and I love you!

    Word verification--makedish


  6. wow, don't feed the trolls, that's for sure. think of more creative derailing statements than "LOL is this the Onion?"

    i, for one, think this is a great analysis. lately i find the best thing about 30 rock is all the awesome feminist critiques that come thanks to all of their blunders and shortcomings. yes, it's funny, but in that kind of white liberal pat yourself on the back brand of feminism, and that is important for us to acknowledge.

    it is so acceptable in so many different kinds of humour (which might be why i gravitate towards dark humour and parody) to mock the "defenseless" (which i am aware is in and of itself an ableist word) and oppressed. and then when anyone raises criticisms is told they are "taking it too seriously." if we're ever going to reach a point where we have some disability justice happening in any real way, we NEED to keep raising these concerns.

    and to those saying they think 30 rock is doing the opposite, i strongly suggest you rent Arrested Development instead.


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