Tina Fey’s Tough Girl Feminism

The rough humor in Fey’s new book Bossypants is exactly what the movement needs.

Tina Fey, author of Bossypants

Regardless of whether you think Tina Fey’s new book, Bossypants, has an off-putting cover or title, regardless of whether you think it merited not one but two New Yorker excerpts, as if it were a long lost early manuscript of Lolita in which Humbert and Lo live happily ever after—you will have to concede that it offers a valuable insight into navigating gender politics. Fey’s strategy for dealing with everything from entrenched discrimination to garden-variety chauvinism is to write a joke, a better joke than the other people in the room. You see, some of us have forgotten this basic point: Responding to a situation with humor, as opposed to, say, dead-serious self-righteousness, is a rhetorically effective way to get a political point across.

Take Fey’s response to the anonymous (and possibly fictional) crackpot who posts on the Internet: “[I]n my opinion Tina Fey completely ruined SNL. The only reason she is celebrated is because she’s a woman and an outspoken liberal. She has not a single funny bone in her body.” Fey’s retort in her book:

Huzzah for the Truth Teller! Women in this country have been over-celebrated for too long. Just last night there was a story on my local news about a ‘missing girl’ … and I thought, “What is this, the News for Chicks?” Then there was some story about Hillary Clinton flying to some country because she’s secretary of state. Why do we keep talking about these dumdums? We are a society that constantly celebrates no one but women and it must stop!

At the letter’s end she adds, for good measure: “P.S. You know who does have a funny bone in her body? Your mom every night for a dollar.”

Part of what makes Fey’s good jokes into insightful commentaries is the way they draw on and expose an argument’s emotional or psychological underpinnings. In response to men who claim that women are not funny, as Christopher Hitchens notoriously argued in Vanity Fair, Fey writes, “My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.” Her buoyant, manic humor is sometimes the best way to expose and pin down the sheer absurdity of our current sexual politics. She has, for instance, a riff on frequently asked questions about 30 Rock: “Q: Has Tracy Morgan ever French kissed an NBC executive? A: Yes, but only at an official NBC event, and only against her will.”

One imagines that it must have been difficult for Fey to forge her career in the largely male-dominated world of comedy writing, and her manner of addressing this difficulty is a set piece on how many of her male comedy writing colleagues pee in cups in their office because they are too lazy to walk 12 steps to the bathroom. This recurring motif makes an eloquent point about both the sexism in the office and her transcendence of that sexism in a single running joke. Her attitude is not resentment or simmering or a boring, ordinary, low-grade victimhood, but rather a more accurate and nuanced portrait of the modern working woman. Take the following footnote, with its complicated intermingling of attitudes: “I say Harvard “Boys” because they are almost always male—but not exclusively; rock on Amy Ozols!—and because they are usually under twenty-five and have never done physical labor with their arms or legs. I love them very much.” This is pretty much the tenor of her stance toward the comedy establishment more generally: one of affectionate and complex mockery, love, and critical thinking. As Fey’s brushes with what she alternately calls “The Harvard Nerds” make clear, humor is power, and a sense of humor about yourself is even more power.

And by humor, I don’t mean the automatic-pilot snideness, or contentless cattiness, or jealous innuendo, or ironic jibberish that sometimes passes for humor in certain parts of the Internet and Internet-influenced culture. I am referring to Fey’s complex, spirited, intelligent kind of funniness, which has the effect of laying bare some of the more insidious, unspoken, ridiculous assumptions behind our standard pieties and official narratives. Here she is on the fashionable pressures on new mothers: “If you choose not to love your baby enough to breastfeed, you can pump your milk using a breast pump.”

If you look at strong women writers of the past who were writing in a very male world, you can trace a comic strain of tough girl feminism. Mary McCarthy’s brilliant 1953 essay “My Confession” comes to mind, with its critique of the self-serious communist young men of the day: “Marxism, I saw, from the learned young men I listened to at Committee meetings, was something you had to take up young, like ballet dancing.” Scathing to those serious young men, that “ballet dancing,” but elegant, somehow.

Or we could go further back still. In 1912, in The Freewoman, the young Rebecca West responds to a man who wrote that the solution to the “woman problem” was marriage. She imagines what would happen,

[I]f all we brazen hussies who are suffragettes and feminists became converted to Mr. Owen’s belief that every woman ought to throw up her economic independence and get some man to keep her! Think of us rushing about, trying with all that vitality we are at present misdirecting in clawing policemen and wrecking the home to attract men … We will paint the town red!

A childhood incident Tina Fey writes about in the book perfectly captures this tougher, funnier strain of feminism. When she is 13, someone shouts at her from a car, “Nice tits,” and she instinctively shouts back, “Suck my dick.” If the kind of smart talking-back on display here and elsewhere in the book caught hold, perhaps it would be more effective than the 14 sexual harassment seminars Fey says she sat through at NBC. If the feminist movement has work left to do, in other words, surely it could use a little more Tina Fey, and a little less paint-by-numbers punditry or bloggy smirking.