The Anti-Mamet: On Tina Fey’s Men




THERE’S A MOMENT late in the first season of Tina Fey’s new sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when Kimmy’s former captor, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (played by Jon Hamm), recounts the story of Adam and Eve during trial proceedings for which he stands accused of abducting four women and holding them captive in a doomsday bunker for 15 years.

“Oh, the Big Apple,” Wayne smirks. “Just like the one Eve gave Adam, and that’s when all of our earthly suffering began: mortality, shame in our nakedness, burning your tongue on cocoa, junk mail. Mondays!”

He pauses to survey the courtroom now in thrall to his condensed, though sadly no less accurate, telling of “the fall.”

“But that’s not why Kimmy Schmidt is on trial,” he breezily waves off the fawning jury.

Wayne is a composite modern-day cult-leader whose defense is so inane yet so evidently impervious to real-world demands as to be the ultimate symbol of traditional, poisonous masculinity. He glides amid his spectators, unhindered by his villainy, or worse, simply unaware of it, and the jury appears willing to reward him for this very cluelessness.

It’s a wonderful piece of social satire in extremis, brilliantly played up by Hamm; in the hearing of a religious psychopath like Rev. Wayne, our society still insists that the woman — his victim — stand trial.

The scene, a careful layering of sharp criticism beneath soft humor, represents the comedic project that has long been at the heart of Fey’s work. That the show’s villain — hinted at in darkly humorous flashbacks but not revealed until the antepenultimate episode — evokes the biblical birthplace of misogyny is no coincidence: Fey has placed the foundational sexism of Adam and Eve in her sights with the sole aim of splitting it open. And while much has already been written about Kimmy Schmidt’s brave and inventive exploration of sexual assault and life afterward for its survivors — no doubt part of Kimmy Schmidt’s subversive project — the show’s treatment of masculinity is equally compelling. To fully appreciate this treatment, it’s important we first revisit Fey’s earlier sitcom, 30 Rock.

¤

Fey must’ve written Jack Donaghy with David Mamet in mind; his cool, smooth-talking, corporate-golf-swing machismo is an unmistakable if comically exaggerated extension of a character (Blake) Baldwin played nearly 15 years before embodying Donaghy in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross. In fact it wasn’t the first time Fey had a hand in poking fun at Mamet’s creation — in the 2005 SNL skit Glengarry Glen Christmas Baldwin reprised Blake — but in Donaghy, Fey began to fully explore the project.

In the film, Baldwin’s Blake is a tornado of toxic masculinity, swirling around the gloomy office, emasculating and embarrassing his lowly counterparts until they can no longer smirk in disbelief or look away in disgust.

When quietly challenged, Blake coolly rebuts:

I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing.

Nice guy? I don’t give a shit.

Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. 

Mamet has Blake willfully conflate masculinity with money, which he in turn ultimately conflates with his very being.[1] The very essence of these men and their world, then, is reduced to a poisonous cocktail of equal parts capitalism and masculinity. And it is this mix that will spell their destruction.

Yet, Blake suffers no such fate. Instead, he is frozen in this one brilliantly brutal salvo, never forced to realize the consequences of his being, never having to answer for the state in which he thrives and his counterparts suffer. He’s the crystalized ideal of a heartless rant without its half-lives, the patron saint of guiltless cynicism, the paragon of masculinity on corporate carpet.

Mamet’s Blake, a character exclusively written for the screen adaptation, has managed to live on as a timeless terror. Blake endures, and his salvo has become somewhat of a Wall Street hymn. Which is to say that in 2006, nearly 15 years after he first appeared on screen, Blake, and his baggage, still needed to be addressed.

And what better way to address his lingering presence than for a few comedians led by a brilliant woman with nearly 15 years of post-Blake material to simply ask: Where’s Blake now, and what would he look like?

Thankfully, Fey could think of no funnier situation to thrust her Blake surrogate into than the very world she knew well as a showrunner at 30 Rockefeller Center — another boys’ club — and to subject him to a direct report, her personal surrogate, Liz Lemon.

By design, then, 30 Rock should be a satire of absurdist masculinity and immoral capitalism in the face of a not so post-feminist reality. If the effects of capitalism and masculinity amounted to tragedy in Glengarry Glen Ross, then in 30 Rock they would be exposed as farce. Quite simply, it could not be taken seriously; it was stupid, and in Donaghy, we’d have the paragon of that stupidity. For much of the show he was just that. We watch Donaghy go to great, and often idiotic, extremes to assert himself, his “manhood,” as Mamet’s Blake might say. He will say and do almost anything to please his superiors, including using his sexual charisma,[2] irrespective of gender, for his gain. For God’s sake, he worships Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan — two figures intimate with the amorality (or immorality) of capitalism and the great cover provided by masculinity.

But with 30 Rock, Fey appeared to be just as interested in turning her crushing gaze on herself. Donaghy was as much the embodiment of runaway capitalism and masculinity Mamet dramatized in his Reagan-era play as he was a mirror for Lemon’s own career aspirations. Sure, he’s the corporate asshole we should mock with glee, the show offers, but he’s also the little voice in Lemon’s head — a sort of cynical Jiminy Cricket — and the mirror for her deeply held ambitions.

This blurred focus on masculinity and gender politics at large (for a primetime network sitcom no less) would soon pose problems, however, as Fey’s iconoclasm would be confused with iconography. Just because Fey could mock the hypermasculine didn’t mean the feminine was safe from scrutiny. On the contrary, this shifting gaze between the absolute idiocies of masculinity and the assumed responsibilities of femininity meant that Fey’s Lemon would also be made a caricature, not an idol.

Fey’s project, then, was also focused on subverting the expectations of those viewers who had decided Lemon must be a stand-in for all career women. Unperturbed by such expectations, Fey allowed her comedic female characters the same sometimes asperous traits long afforded to, and celebrated in, their male counterparts. In her defense of Liz Lemon in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum pinpointed Fey’s constant balancing act:

That was why the show worked: it rarely made Liz an empowering role model, although many women certainly identified with her. The show let her be the George Costanza, not the Mary Richards.

In this way, Donaghy’s role as a mirror for Liz’s ambitions became his character’s most dominant function; he embodied the cost of subsuming masculinity’s most toxic traits in order to succeed in corporate life, and it was hilarious to watch Liz both rejoice and recoil in horror to those realities. But this structural design, coupled with Baldwin’s centrifugal charm, over time, shifted the satirical focus of the show. As Jonah Weiner astutely observed during season three, the scales tipped toward Donaghy the patriarch and softened the show’s original Swiftian promise:

More often, though, […] we seem meant to accept Liz’s Jack-ward drift, if not cheer it on outright, as part of her maturation. Jack is a target of the show’s ridicule, but even as his worldview is satirized, it’s often presented as inevitable.

Out of that tension a classic comedic duo was born, but the hopes for a full-fledged satirical serration of masculinity and its inexhaustible stench died.

No such balancing act seems in the offing with Fey’s new and more focused sitcom, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; there is no male equal — no Jack Donaghy to Liz Lemon — worthy of the show’s central role. Instead, masculinity takes on a more abstract function.

¤

In Kimmy Schmidt, Donaghy-esque masculinity is not considered a viable trait for our hero. Instead, it is simply a fact of life to be dealt with, confronted, and eventually overcome. Its imprint is unmistakable and all around us, from the luxurious-but-suffocating Upper East Side town house to the dingy doomsday bunker. No longer taking on a central physical form, as it did in Donaghy, now it lingers like an apparition or a stain. That stain, that pallor cast over the show’s otherwise “neon pink and Peeps yellow” presentation, as Nussbaum aptly describes it, is the subject of sexual violence and abuse — male perpetration.

Its presence, always there but easily forgotten, is highlighted by another presentation of traditional toxic masculinity, or lack thereof: importantly, as Sady Doyle observes in The Baffler, “there’s not a single central role for a white man on Kimmy Schmidt. When one does appear, he’s invariably unmasked as a villain.”

The show’s single central male role, instead, is reserved for Titus, a theatrical black gay man, whose character’s satirical project appears intent on both subverting and redefining traditional masculine motifs. In fact, one Titus-driven episode is dedicated to addressing the subject head on: Dean Norris’s wonderful cameo as Titus’s masculinity coach, “M Le Loup,” explicitly exposes the true absurdity and theatricality of the masculine construct. Titus is also the only male character honored with the roundness seen in most of the show’s female characters. He’s granted a backstory (his repressed and runaway past in Mississippi), ambitions (to star in The Lion King on Broadway), and flaws (a shameless desire for fame).

The same cannot be said for the rest of the show’s men. Consider the lesser male characters: Logan, the “daddy’s boy” from Connecticut with a school-bought British accent; Charles, the Voorhees’ ephemeral math tutor who thoughtlessly declares love for a fellow gamer but squirms at the proposition before Kimmy; Dong, the good-hearted but no less needy love interest whose impending deportation requires Kimmy’s attention; Randy, the hapless stepfather whose ineptitude, played to Wile E. Coyote extremes, is partly to blame for the Mole Women going long undiscovered; Tristafé, the cultlike spin instructor whom Kimmy ultimately unmasks as a fraudulent icon who requires the 21st-century equivalent of smoke and mirrors to disguise his in-class bowel movements; and finally Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, whose trial defense is ultimately undone by a recorded video application for Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. [3]

These male characters are one-dimensional caricatures, masquerading as something more to their female counterparts — though there’s reason for hope with the Dong character — and they all reveal the same thing: masculinity as farce, an empty promise, a ruse.

“The idea that society is falling apart is one shared by many of Mamet’s male characters,” Carla J. McDonough wrote in her essay “Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet’s Drama,” “and like him, they seem to connect this apocalyptic view to women’s changing positions in society.”

In Kimmy Schmidt, then, we are situated post-apocalypse, viewing it from the other side. Here the women must suffer the men as they accept their “changing positions.” Despite masculinity’s lingering and damaging presence, the women are the victors here, from Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) finally breaking free of her philandering and indifferent billionaire husband to Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), Kimmy and Titus’s single and irreverent landlady. Yet, no character appears more valiant and “unbreakable” than the title role played with girl-scout energy by Ellie Kemper. She approaches problems with unusual cheer, overcomes hurdles with a steely resiliency, and consistently chooses optimism in the face of arbitrary cruelty. Whether having her Mole Women money stolen her first day in New York City or being forced to confront her monstrous captor, she simply refuses to allow the world to deter her.

Fittingly, in her essay on Herland, the utopian classic about a civilization without men, Lindy West asks:

What is a “woman”? Who gets to be one? Who gets to decide who “counts”? In our quest for equality, should feminists strive for the right to embody even the toxic aspects of masculinity, or should we focus on dismantling it before reaching for equality at all?

The female characters in 30 Rock might have contemplated the potential cost-benefit of “embody[ing] […] the toxic aspects of masculinity”; Kimmy Schmidt, on the other hand, appears hell-bent, with bubbly demeanor no less, in dismantling it, and in the process demonstrating its ever-apparent irrelevance.

¤

[1] This conflation ultimately leads GGR’s central character, Shelley “The Machine” Levene, to his downfall.

[2] This trait could be attributed to another Mamet character: Ricky Roma.

[3] The Trump reference is its own wonderful jab at corporate masculinity.

¤

Nicholas Miriello is an editor and writer in New York.


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT