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Tina Fey’s Bossypants may rescue her reputation as a feminist

By February 14, 2012 10 Comments

Is Liz Lemon feminist enough?

If you identify yourself as a feminist, you probably already have an opinion on Tina Fey. Around the time 30 Rock debuted, everyone I knew was a huge Tina Fey fan. “She’s so gorgeous and smart and a feminist,” my friends would gush, holding their copies of the Tina Fey issue of Bust. (I am of course talking here about the maybe two other feminists I knew in high school.)

Then, as Tina got more and more exposure, something changed. Friends started making faces at the sound of her name, uncertain of how to feel. People started talking about the problems with 30 Rock’s female characters, especially Liz Lemon’s pretty, brainless assistant, Cerie. Complaints began to rise, particularly from the feminist segment of the population, who, in case you haven’t noticed, kind of expects a lot from its media.

Tina Fey portrays single women in an offensive way, the detractors said. Liz Lemon represents bad feminism. Liz Lemon’s feminism is crippling her career life, and therefore 30 Rock is saying that leftist politics are bad. Tina Fey’s SNL sketches enforce gender stereotypes. In fact, everything she writes is misogynist.

I myself briefly stopped watching 30 Rock in disgust after a particularly offensive rape joke. (Slate reporter Rebecca Traister collected many more such examples in her article “The Tina Fey Backlash”.) Suddenly, everyone was disappointed with Tina Fey. She wasn’t feminist enough. She wasn’t doing things right.

After enough of this talk, I grew to see Tina Fey as someone who never quite lived up to the potential that the feminist community had anticipated. “Oh, Tina Fey,” my friends would sigh (more of them now, because now I was in college and had met more people who were willing to talk to me about gendered slurs and Margaret Atwood). “She’s just really not that progressive.”

Bossypants… feminist salvation?

Imagine my surprise when I picked up Bossypants, Tina’s memoir — really more of a collection of thoughts and memories — and found it to be the most feminist popular book I’ve read in a long time. In it, Tina discusses institutionalized sexism at her job with the Second City improv troupe, and the secret feminist agenda of the infamous Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton sketch.

“You all watched a sketch about feminism,” she says, “and you didn’t even realize it because of all the jokes. It’s like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids’ brownies. Suckers!” She continues by saying, “That night’s show was watched by ten million people, so I guess that director at The Second City who said the audience ‘didn’t want to see a sketch with two women’ can go [creatively vulgar phrase that I don’t think I’m allowed to write on this blog].”

Tina’s feminism in Bossypants is explicit and unapologetic. There’s no “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but…” hedging. There’s no compromising. In fact, Tina encourages the opposite of compromise, advising women, “Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.” She makes bold claims, not afraid to offend: “I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to [have sexual relations with] her anymore.”

Make no mistake—this is a radical book. (My personal favorite moment comes when Tina talks about the unsavory habits of some of her co-workers at SNL. She says, “Any time there’s a bad female stand-up somewhere, some [different creatively vulgar phrase] Interblogger will deduce that ‘women aren’t funny.’ Using that same math, I can state: Male comedy writers piss in cups.”)

And yet, I still see what was bothering all those people who were disappointed in Tina Fey and 30 Rock. Tina’s brand of feminism is not the attitude of someone who spent years in Women’s Studies classes. As far as I know, she does not have a background in feminist theory. She probably doesn’t read lots of cool feminist blogs. Her feminism is the attitude of someone who sees what’s happening in her world, and thinks it’s unfair to women. She’s not a gender studies scholar; she’s just pissed off.

The Tina Fey backlash seems to suggest a hostility towards this attitude among the feminist community. It’s understandable. Because so few celebrities are willing to identify as feminists, the ones who do are held up to represent the entire community. So when Tina Fey does or says something that not everyone in the feminist community agrees with, it’s a big deal.

However, Bossypants really made me re-evaluate my stance on this hyper-conscious policing. Do people have the right to criticize anyone, including Tina Fey, for not living up to feminist standards? Um, of course! That’s basically all I do with my life. But do we really want to say that women who don’t spend 100% of their time educating themselves on feminist theory aren’t allowed to be feminists? I don’t know about that.

For me, the most touching part of Bossypants is when Tina talks about her future. “Even if you would never sleep with or even flirt with anyone to get ahead,” she confides, “you are being sexually adjudicated by these LA creeps. … It seems to me that the fastest remedy for this ‘Women Are Crazy’ situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others.

Other people may be more careful about what they say, but Tina is doing real work to forward the cause and help other women. And anyone who’s willing to do that is certainly welcome in my feminist community, gendered jokes or no.