Here’s My Problem With Tina Fey’s Mean-Girl “Philly” Accent

It's not that it's off (although it is — Upper Darby is not Philly). It's that it's snobby.


Tina Fey on SNL (left), and at the opening of Sisters in New York (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Before we start, let’s get a couple important things out of the way.

1) Tina Fey is annoyingly talented and outrageously funny. There are a few seasons of 30 Rock that I’d argue are as good as anything that ever happened on TV, and if I made smart weekend choices, I would have seen Sisters. I don’t, so I saw The Night Before and kept wondering if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler could have saved it.

2) No one should apologize for jokes, least of all Tina Fey. She already warned us that she will not be held responsible for the loss of any PC angel wings, and for that I salute her.

3) Can I say that she looked amazing in that leather mini dress? Or is that anti-feminist? Screw it — as a woman who would sell the remainder of her soul for an ass like that, I’m saying Tina Fey looked amazing. While we’re at it, Hillary is having a great hair week. Well done, ladies.

This all said, I could have done without that now-viral “Bronx Beatsegment on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. In case you live under a beautiful Internet rock, here’s the idea: Basic Bronx housewives Poehler and Maya Rudolph host a talk show, while Fey plays their heavily accented guest, Cousin Karen from the violent hellhole that is Philly.

Now, if I was being picky, I’d point out that Fey’s Philly accent isn’t actually all that good. True, there are a couple different accents floating around these parts, but she’s pretty clearly going for the Northeast classic here, and she’s missing the mark. Although Fey does nail certain aspects and drops “wooter” like a pro, the overall effect is more garden-variety bumpkin meets Pittsburgh sinus infection. (My credentials: Depending on how excited I get, I’m almost unintelligible outside Mayfair. How many “w”s can I sneak into “coffee”? Try me.)

If was being really picky, I’d point out that Fey isn’t actually from Philly but nearby Upper Darby, so it’s no real surprise that her accent is off.

But a few symbolic miles aren’t the issue. And neither are a couple wonky vowels. As It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia proved, you certainly don’t have to be from here to poke fun at us, and there’s no need to perfect the accent, either. (In fact, I’d caution against it.) In one of my favorite episodes, the Gang proves that you can both butcher the South Philly mumble and maul Santa Claus while still preserving the local Christmas spirit.

What I just can’t seem to shake are the snobby mean-girl undercurrents to Fey’s character. Because while Cousin Karen is a joke and jokes deserve some degree of protection, she’s a joke at the expense of not just Philly, but a very specific segment of Philly: working class, blue collar, presumably lesser-than Philly. That’s a group Fey was never a part of to start with, and is even further from understanding these days. Just as her I’m-A-Messy-Nerd schtick is getting hard to buy as she rocks hot pants as deftly as some just-legal Disney star, her Cousin Karen feels a little Regina George as she rips Philly in a borrowed, lower-class patois.

But again, I agree with Fey: Jokes, by their very definition, don’t require apologies. And I’ll admit that I’m a little (or perhaps a lot) overly defensive of the Philly accent and the years of knee socks, block parties and beef-and-beers layered into its wacky rhythms. It doesn’t really matter anyway. What matters is that it’s three days before Christmas, and Cousin Karen, God bless her, never shows up without a buttercake.

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