Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bossypants: What Tina Fey DID Do

Photo courtesy of Flickr user amatern under Creative Commons 3.0


Bossypants, Sarah Palin's Tina Fey's uproarious memoir, has officially landed on bookshelves everywhere. Readers are devouring its pages and the feminist reviews are already in-- with very different verdicts.

Audrey Bilger, the Ms. authority on laughing, applauds the way Fey addresses gender in the workplace, her own body image, and sneaking feminism into Saturday Night Live.
Bilger recounts Fey's encouragement to see through the bullshit-- "You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone"-- wise words to live and succeed by.

Over at NPR, fellow comedian Janeane Garofalo had the honor of passing judgement on Fey's autobiography. Like a cranky CD realizing it's irrelevant in the age of the ipod, Garofalo sings Fey's praises while confessing her own career is practically over.

After an endless list of accomplishments, Garofalo considers Fey's notorious Palin impersonation-- "it's always been easy to marshal cultural hostility toward women. Especially in politics, where double standards and misogyny tend to dominate the conversation"-- remembering Dan Aykroyd's "Nixon" or Dana Carvey's "Perot," was never critiqued in quite the same way.

But Jezebel-founder Anna Holmes voiced less appreciation and more grievances in her review, appearing in Newsweek and over at the Daily Beast

Encouraging others to wonder "What's Tina Hiding," Holmes said "it's hard to know where her characters end and she begins." Fey's comedic style "has the unique ability to explicate contemporary gender politics without coming across as overtly political" and  "as an author, Fey takes such careful pains not to commit to a position or offend anyone's sensibilities that she comes off like one of the politicians she and her colleagues so roundly mock."

Holmes is concerned the first lady of funny is neglecting her power and influence. "Fey is in the unique and enviable position to say something important and definitive: about being a woman, about boys' clubs, about contemporary feminism and female representations in pop culture." But she doesn't-- at least not in a way satisfactory to Holmes.


Following Fey's travels from Second City to SNL to 30 Rock, Holmes is disappointed. The author on trial doesn't dig deep enough in her book-- or anywhere else. And then the truth rears its ugly head. 

'Twas was an episode of 30 Rock that rubbed Holmes the wrong way:


This past February, NBC aired an episode of 30 Rock in which Fey's character is prompted to hire a baby-voiced, busty female comic after an influential women's website, JoanOfSnark.com, criticizes Liz for the paucity of her show's female writers and performers. That site was a spot-on parody of Jezebel.com, the pop-culture-and-politics blog I created in 2007.



Could it be, the original “Joan of Snark” is still peeling from the burn?

This isn't the first time Jezebel has ruffled the feathers of a likable, progressive media bird.  Last summer, Daily Show criticisms inspired Jon Stewart's ladies to pen a hilarious, yet firm response to allegations the fake news program was sexist.

And Jezebel's own feminist credentials have been openly questioned. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent with Fey's contributions to television. 
In fact, the predictable dismay of a true Jezzie touched on a larger issue in feminist pop culture. Even Holmes suspects her expectations of Tina Fey are unfair-- and I couldn't agree more.

For whatever reason, Fey has always been held to a higher standard than the rest-- including her right-hand woman, Amy Poehler. When it comes to Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, most viewers prefer the overly-confident, waffle-loving leader of the parks department.

Slutty Feminist contributor Anthony Betori tweeted in agreement. "Liz lives in contention with patriarchy, Leslie lives in spite of patriarchy." Apparently spite is easier to support.


There's other reasons: Ron's relationship with Leslie is less paternal than Jack's relationship with Liz. Leslie is portrayed as winning, where Liz is a chronic loser. Leslie is optimistically single, while Liz personifies the hopeless spinster-- even when she's dating.

The list goes on and on. 

Poehler is effortlessly adorable, while Fey embodies all kinds of awkward. I was attempting to explain this when my brilliant colleague, Shayna Noonen (another adorable feminist) made an astute observation:
Fey is a trail-blazer. Liz Lemon opened the door for Leslie Knope. Parks and Recreation premiered three years after 30 Rock established the waters were safe for strong women on prime time NBC. And those who come later are always capable of more.
Progress is a process. Fey proved a show about a feminist-minded woman could be funny and problematizing gender norms with farce is wildly entertaining. She laid the groundwork so others could reap the benefits.
It’s not perfect. She’s still the butt of “cat-lady” jokes. And she walks around with lettuce in her hair. 


But Fey is funny the same way Vag Mag is funny. And we have to be able to laugh at ourselves. Otherwise we'll become the humorless shrews anti-feminists already believe us to be.




While Fey doesn't explicitly say anything "about being a woman, about boys' clubs, about contemporary feminism [or] female representations in pop culture," she made room for these conversations in a public forum that appeals to a wider audience. 

Rather than wonder when Fey's going to do more for women in comedy, we should be wondering when more women are going to use the space she claimed for more exaggerated gender antics.

*** Update

I just finished reading Bossypants and for the record, Fey says plenty about the sexism she encountered throughout her career. Each chapter made me laugh out loud. And as someone who's received an angry letter or two, I especially enjoyed the responses to her hate mail.

So here's the thing; Tina Fey didn't write a feminist book about comedy. She wrote a funny book about being a feminist, as well as a working mom and a hopelessly awkward girl. It's located in the "humor" section of Barnes and Noble, not "social sciences."

And if Anna Holmes wants Fey to write a more thorough feminist analysis, why doesn't she invite her to write a guest post for Joan of Snark Jezebel?

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