The XX Factor

Tracy Morgan’s Moment of Subversive Feminist Media Criticism

I have deep love for anyone who subverts the constant stream of mediocrity that constitues our media environment, particularly with regard to the brainless patter that makes up most of TV, even if they subvert it unintentionally, like Kanye West does with his big mouth.  But I suspect that when Tracy Morgan says scandalous things and causes much feigned horror, he’s doing it on purpose, and just playing it off like an oops, which expands the joke to make fun of everyone who invests too much in the world of polite TV stupidity.

And so it goes with Morgan’s latest non-scandal .  The headlines claim he was “objectifying” perennial wannabe victim Sarah Palin, but if you actually watch the exchange on TNT’s NBA program, Palin wasn’t really the object of his mockery. Kenny Smith asked him, “Tina Fey or Sarah Palin?” and Morgan said, “I think Sarah Palin is good masturbation material! The glasses and all of that … great masturbation material!”  The joke is on the question; by taking it to the next level, Morgan was exposing how objectfying the question is.  The potshot at Palin—and the way she exploits right wing hunger for attractive female validation of anti-feminist beliefs—is secondary, at best.

I’m not suggesting that Tracy Morgan is some subversive feminist comic. I have no idea if he cares one way or another about the objectification of women in the public eye.  But the question put to him was the lowest form of casual dudebro silliness, and it involved a woman who is basically his boss in both the fictional and real world, and who has almost nothing in common with Palin except for her glasses. To make it worse, it had an irritating “wink wink” quality to it, where everyone is supposed to pretend the question being asked is something it’s not because no one brings sex up directly.  The job of comedians is to puncture illusions just like that one, and you can’t just lay bait out like that for a swift puncturer of illusions like Tracy Morgan, and then get offended when he takes a giant bite.

Photograph of Tracy Morgan by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images; Photograph of Sarah Palin by by Eric Thayer/Getty Images