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

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.”

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.


10 thoughts on “Tina Fey’s Bossypants may rescue her reputation as a feminist

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  1. Sorry, but I cannot read this blog anymore. “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. ” Good God! This is why people don’t like feminists.

    Why does Tina Fey have to live up to your expectations as to what a feminist looks like? If you are a “better” feminist than she, why aren’t you out there producing your own TV show that lives up to your standards? Why aren’t you doing “more” than writing a blog?

    Maybe the reason people don’t want to identify as feminists is because of this holier-than-thou attitude. I do call myself a feminist because I truly believe in the beauty and power of femininity. I truly think it’s time for women to once again make the important decisions in the world. (That’s one of the major reasons I voted for Hillary Clinton, while every single one of my “feminist” friends voted for Obama and stood idly by as the democratic party threw Clinton under the bus at every opportunity). However, I can’t stand when people who don’t seem to live in the real world – not mine, at least – judge everyone else for not doing “enough”. I think there’s a difference between critiquing people and throwing down a huge amount of judgement. If women stuck together, I think we could repair this world. Instead, you’re ripping another woman apart because she doesn’t meet your expectations. This is exactly what the writers on this blog are constantly harping on, yet you’re doing it yourself. What is the difference between a blog calling someone fat and you calling someone “not feminist enough”? Nothing that I can see, though I may not have paid enough attention in Feminist Theory.

  2. There’s no blatant negative portrayal of women in 30 Rock, it’s a negative portrayal of people. A reoccurring conflict Liz Lemon (and probably Tina Fey) faces is dealing with stupid people, not exclusively women. If women should be upset about unlucky-in-love Liz, air-headed Cerie and narcissist Jenna, then men should be equally upset about underachiever Pete, gross Frank, naive Kenneth, pretentious Jack, and of course crazy Tracy. But to do so, would be a failure to accept humanity as it is. Being upset about less-than-perfect female characters is absurd, considering there are plenty less-than-perfect females in society. To put only admirable female characters in any show is to say that women are perfect, when we are not. If we don’t shed light on the infallibility of women, we are cheating ourselves.

    Also, “Tina Fey portrays single women in an offensive way”?! I’m a 20-year-old life-long single girl and I’m proud to call both Liz Lemon and Tina Fey my heros. How are single women portrayed negatively in 30 Rock? Liz stays true to herself during the chaos that is her hopeless dating life. She doesn’t complain that she’s not fancy or sexy enough for the men available, and she puts her career in front of everything, including romantic relationships. She broke up with Dennis because he was an idiot (a “rat king”), she chose her career over Floyd, Dr. Baird was also an idiot and lived in a “bubble,” she refused to settle for Wesley the Brit, airline pilot Carol (yes, named after Carol Burnett) was too similar to her (a “double-edged sword”), and her relationship with Criss is currently working out. She refuses to settle no matter how quickly her biological clock is ticking. More people should model Liz Lemon’s behavior since she ultimately puts her dream career above casual relationships.

    To complain about Liz Lemon’s (or Tina Fey’s) imperfections and to demand more respectable female characters represents an inability to accept the absurdities of daily life and an inability to laugh at one’s self. Just take a deep breath and laugh at the wonderfully crafted comedy Tina Fey brings us every Thursday.

  3. Wow, I’m very sorry this affected you so negatively. I was actually trying to do the opposite with this post of what you’re describing. I was attempting to respond to the pervasive criticism of Tina Fey (which I did not make up or start—see the collection of links near the beginning of the post) and argue that it was counter-productive because she IS doing feminist work. Right before the phrase you singled out, I said, “However, Bossypants really made me re-evaluate my stance on this hyper-conscious policing.” I think we’re making the same argument. My thesis for this post was that everyone gets so caught up in criticizing Tina Fey for not being perfect, that they miss the fact that she is out there helping real women and representing feminism in the world. Unless I’m misreading you, that sounds like something we can agree on. I am not calling Tina Fey “not feminist enough”. I am arguing against the people that say that.

    You say, “I think there’s a difference between critiquing people and throwing down a huge amount of judgement.” I agree. When I said that people have the right to criticize anyone, I was talking about the kind of critique that we do here at About-Face. I do think that no person or topic is off-limits for thoughtful analysis, and I think that analysis is important. I hope the wording of that doesn’t put you off About-Face forever.

  4. Oh my goodness, I agree. I was quoting her detractors. I was definitely not trying to write a post that criticizes Tina Fey or her show. In fact, just the opposite.

  5. Magdalena, I read your post in the way you say it was intended. I agree with you that it seems that you and Kim are making the same point!

    I think that unfortunately, Kim is taking one flippant sentence out of context.

    Kim, while you make very valid points, I feel that you may have mis-read Magdalena’s intentions with the piece. I didn’t see any evidence of her “ripping another woman apart” at all. Rather, she presented an overview of the criticisms against Fey, and presented her own point of view and the change in her own opinion. I didn’t see anywhere that she called Fey “not feminist enough.”

  6. Aubrey, I agree with you! But your comments seem to be directed at the articles quoted in this blog article, rather than this article itself.

  7. This book has been on my bookshelf since I received it for Christmas, and I stare at it every day, wishing I wasn’t weighed down with required reading for school. I can’t wait until I can finally crack it open! But it will probably have to wait until May. Maybe I’ll revisit this post in 3 months or so. Haha.

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