Tina Fey occupies a special place in the contemporary American cultural imagination: it’s hard to know where her characters end and she begins. She is, as a character, not only the most famous working woman on television but a role model to many as she navigates the Sturm und Drang of singlehood, corporate intrigue, and irresistible food. But is that really Tina Fey?
This tension between her comedy and her actual beliefs is on full display in her latest effort, the memoir Bossypants, which purports to be a book “about how she got here.” The only daughter of a solidly middle-class family from suburban Philadelphia, Fey begins her tale in typical self-deprecating fashion, relating amusing anecdotes about body-hair removal, first periods (“nowhere in the pamphlet did anyone say it wasn’t a blue liquid”), and run-ins with specula (she fainted). From there we follow our plucky heroine as she goes from a summer theater program to a preppy Southern university, and then to Chicago, where she performs with the fabled Second City company and scores a job as a writer on Saturday Night Live. As Liz Lemon herself would say, “I want to go to there.”
Except there isn’t much “there” to be had. Fey treats Bossypants as an extension of her television alter ego. Edging up to difficult truths and skipping away may make for sophisticated sitcoms, but it doesn’t make for satisfying memoir writing. The most successful autobiographies demand a certain amount of psychic heavy lifting, risk taking, and interrogation of one’s ideas; Fey will have none of it, which contributes to the nagging feeling that, despite her prodigious talents, she can be a little too clever by half.
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.
The episode, titled “TGS Hates Women,” was a direct commentary on, among other things, the challenges facing women in comedy, gender politics, sexuality as cultural currency, and guilt-free cheesecake recipes. It was also a strange and wonderful display. Here we had a prominent female comedian mocking a feminist website that had agitated against gender disparity in the comedy world. Entertaining and incisive, the episode was a bundle of shifting assumptions and allegiances, much like Fey herself.
As a woman, Fey seems to get what it is to be an ambitious, anxious, modern female without the built-in safety nets that so many men take for granted. As a comedian, she has the unique ability to explicate contemporary gender politics without coming across as overtly political. As a writer, she’s able to sidle up and deal a stunning blow to silly bulls--t with a lacerating one-liner or perfectly timed pause. As an icon, her ugly-duckling outsider turned gorgeous tough-girl shtick, while overplayed, is an aspirational siren call to many: the American Dream writ small-screen. But 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. (“There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV” is Fey’s version of “Those weren’t crosshairs, those were surveyors’ symbols.”) As a person, she never emerges.
This is the way comedy works. But this is a memoir, not a humor sketch, and 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. (I can go on.) If a woman with Fey’s measure of success and cultural influence won’t give us the straight dope, who will? Part of me suspects that this is unfair to expect of her, that because of her prominence (and the relative paucity of other females at her level) Fey has become the go-to girl to represent and illuminate the hopes, fears, and dreams of generations of women. I imagine that she’s aware of this, and finds it both flattering and annoying. I imagine she wishes she could do better. Maybe next time.