“Ooh, the bitch,” Jenny said. “Just let me get my hands on her. That’s real immoral, is that … They get us girls a bad name, they do, bitches like that. Ooh, that bloody bitch, I can’t get her out of my head.” Graham smiled at her, a lovely smile she had not seen before.
—”Take a Girl Like You,” Kingsley Amis
I love to play strippers and to imitate them. I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.
—Tina Fey, Vanity Fair (2008)
In a 1976 interview, Betty Friedan suggested to Simone de Beauvoir that women who wanted to stay home and raise their children had a right to do so. De Beauvoir disagreed: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children … because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” Given the multiple levels of female self-surveillance, with women being watched by other women, women being watched by men, women being watched by women being watched by men — a sorority house built in the shape of a panopticon — De Beauvoir’s patronizing sentiment remains alluring to some ostensible feminists who want to protect women from the harmful effects of a scopophilic culture that doesn’t permit them to flourish.
New York magazine writer Ariel Levy’s 2005 cultural study Female Chauvinist Pigs described a new kind of misogyny perpetrated by women who curry favor by “Uncle Tomming” mainstream frat behavior in the guise of sexual empowerment. Chelsea Handler, whose raunchy essay collections My Horizontal Life and Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea sold 1.7 million copies and spawned a number of Chelsea Lites, is one offender. The so-called Fempire — the Hollywood woman-screenwriter foursome of Diablo Cody, Lorene Scafaria (now dating Ashton Kutcher), Dana Fox (writer of big-budget rom-coms What Happens in Vegas and The Wedding Date), and Elizabeth Meriwether — is another. A 2009 New York Times article brought most of the backlash on ringleader Cody, who taught us that there is such a thing as “stripping ironically,” for her smug attitude. There wasn’t an ounce of “everywoman” among them. They were a female Entourage without a chubby Turtle.
Such female chauvinist pigs are supposedly guilty of play, and Levy admonishes them: “If you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress.” But it’s less the Fempire and the Handlerites who need to heed this advice then the likes of Tina Fey, whose “nerdy” onscreen persona and adamant faux feminism masks a Thatcherite morality and tendency to slut-shame. In Baby Mama, for example, Amy Poehler’s character finds redemption after the Fey character shows her how to be less “working class” and “trashy,” two inexorably linked traits in the Fey slambook.
Some viewers seem to believe that it’s progressive to appreciate a weird, nerdy female loser, but there is nothing especially new about Fey’s attractive, upwardly mobile, wealthy, white, college-educated Liz Lemon: only a mashup of existing formulas. 30 Rock is one gourmet food montage short of a Nora Ephron movie. Her relationship with Jack Donaghy borrows liberally from the Sam-and-Diane model (over-educated, cerebral woman versus chauvinistic prig, the cerebral equivalent of “hot wives and chubby husbands”) and the Mary Richards–Lou Grant dynamic, in which an infantilized Liz asks Jack to approve her boyfriends.
Sady Doyle’s 2010 essay “13 Ways Of Looking At Liz Lemon” frames Fey’s character as one who has read Ariel Levy’s book and taken it so much to heart that she shares Simone de Beauvoir’s opinion of limiting women’s choices for their own good. Because they all need to be better than that. “The twist of Lemon, basically,” Doyle writes, “makes it possible for the hissing girls to cloak it in something political. Something about ‘beauty standards,’ maybe. Or ‘raunch culture.’ ”
Fey and company responded to this vein of “girl-on-girl crime” critique — with an Emmy-winning episode of 30 Rock called “TGS Hates Women,” in which Liz Lemon launches a vendetta against a baby-voiced comedienne with an oversexualized image only to learn that the woman has adopted the persona to escape an abusive husband. But why does the woman’s choice have to justified by a weirdly solemn, male-made deus ex machina? What would be wrong with her doing it just because she felt like it?
Fey’s hissing is not limited to her Liz Lemon mouthpiece. When Fey returned to host Saturday Night Live in April 2010, she ranted about Jesse James’s mistress Michelle McGee, for whom James dumped Sandra Bullock. Fey was disputing the idea that infidelity was a curse visited upon female Oscar winners:
It’s not an Oscar problem, it’s a lady problem. The problem is there are girls like Bombshell McGee out there. For every Sandra Bullock there’s a woman who got a tatoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia. For every Elin Nordegren there’s a Hooters waitress who spells Jamee with two Es and a star. You could be the woman who cures cancer and you would still be up against some skank, rocking giant veiny fake boobs where the nipples point in different directions like an old Buick. Seth, the world has always been full of whores.
She frames herself as a gender informant for Seth Meyers, the man, hammering home the fact that she is the loophole woman, the exception. Later, Fey gives her support to the only women who she feels deserve it: “Wives, you’re not the losers in these situations. You are the winners.”
“Winning” in Tina Fey’s playbook means being immensely attractive but safe from being marginalized thanks to a smart sense of self-deprecation as well as the compulsion to slam other women who don’t feel the need to sublimate their looks or their sexuality. Fey has built a career on feministy bon mots like “Women are called crazy in Hollywood when they’re still talking after nobody wants to fuck them anymore.” But there is no reasonable argument that movie star and Vogue cover model Tina Fey is not, in fact, attractive. She is currently in a Garnier Nutrisse shampoo commercial in which she tosses her glossy mane without a trace of irony. Still, much of 30 Rock is devoted to depicting other “aware” attractive women as self-obsessed bimbos, like the show’s Jenna and Cerie, while Fey tries to pass for a nebbish loser.
While Fey may play at being dumpy on 30 Rock, the fate of her peers who are actually considered unattractive by the entertainment business is markedly more dismal. Her SNL castmate and friend Rachel Dratch was often used on the show for desexualized and unappealing characters, like an inbred freak or pre-adolescent boy. In 2008 she left Saturday Night Life after 11 years to commit full-time to her role on 30 Rock as Jenna Maroney. After the pilot taping, Fey and producer Lorne Michaels fired Dratch and replaced her with Jane Krakowski. At the time Michaels said the change was made because Dratch would “be able to portray many more characters and get more screen time,” but actually she appeared on 30 Rock three times in small parts and was not asked back after 2009. “I am offered solely the parts that I like to refer to as The Unfuckables,” Dratch deadpanned to Slate. “If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t point at me and recoil and throw up and hide behind a shrub. But by Hollywood standards, I’m a troll.”
What of the comedians who won’t Uncle Tom for Fey’s shame-based version of “Ladies, you’re better than that” feminism? What of the women who don’t pretend to be ugly when they’re not, but instead work like hell for recognition and never stop calling attention to the unfair fight? Some 50 years ago, Joan Rivers appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in an understated black dress to defend the kind of women that Fey would slut-shame today, with a performance that feels more like a sermon than a stand-up routine: “I feel sorry for all the single girls today. The whole society is not for single girls. A girl—you’re 30 years old, you’re not married, you’re an old maid. A man? He’s single and 90 years old—he’s a catch! It kills me!”
She laid out her version of sexual and domestic liberation for single women one furious punchline at a time, shouting “Yes! Yes!”, unsmiling, after each wave of laughter. She was one of the first comedians to acknowledge abortion in her act. Her willingness to stick up for the Bombshell McGees in a far less hospitable cultural climate emphasizes Fey’s cattiness by comparison, her willingness to sell her gender down the river to come off as the smart, funny, above-it-all one.
Fellow “loser” Kathy Griffin’s career trajectory has a lot in common with Rivers’s. Both are compulsive workhorses, unwilling — really, pathologically unable— to turn down anything regardless of how distasteful, sauntering onto stages in the farthest outreaches of some podunk town, decked out in feather boas and fake eyelashes. The joke becomes meta: How low can I go? Where Fey carefully curates the facets of herself that should be presented, Griffin and Rivers expose their whole selves: desperate, intentionally-unrelatable losers who are hard to swallow: After Rivers’s second marriage ended in the suicide of her husband in 1987, she made the incomprehensible choice to produce, write and star in an autobiographical TV movie with her daughter called Tears & Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Story. These are not the neat, normalized gags of the uptight career woman eating ice cream on a treadmill. This is something far more complicated.
Whereas Fey’s image is pretty and undersexed (the wife), the likes of Rivers and Griffin are, on a visceral level, grotesque and oversexed (the whores). The most intimate details of these comedians’ lives and bodies are slashed up and cannibalized for comedy. Both are frank about their extreme plastic surgery. Rivers jokes about her low-hanging vagina. Griffin’s book contains pictures of her botched full-body liposuction. I’ve found through personal experience that Griffin’s Bravo show My Life on the D-List is considered gauche by the kind of liberal-artsy audience that’s drawn to NBC comedies. Although much of their humor derives from lampooning others on the stage or the red carpet, it is never anti-women-in-general. Anti-certain-actresses, sure. But where Griffin attacks millionaire untouchables like Nicole Kidman for a poor fashion choice, Fey goes for the little people: Internet commenters, obscure mistresses, strippers. Would you rather have another woman insult your dress or call you a whore?
Sarah Silverman, who was part of Griffin’s outer circle in the 1990s, was among the first of the female comedians to figure out the benefits of swimming against the current of your conventional hotness. Her 2007 Maxim cover, on which she slips out of a gorilla suit, wearing very little clothing and arching her back seductively, is a thematic template of sorts for Fey’s Bossypants cover, with her Photoshopped man arms. Because both women present the acceptable canvas, the blank conventionally attractive look, they can add a cute layer of visual masculinity to illustrate that they’re different from all the other pretty girls and therefore their comedy is more accessible to male (i.e. more “general”) audiences.
As Levy complained of the female chauvinists, they are exceptions that prove the rule. The only funny women who are free to cross over to mainstream audiences are the ones who are free from the beauty hang-ups that limit their jokes to female audiences. The game, then, is how effortlessly and subliminally someone like Fey can convey her exceptionalism using ironic male touches and the feminism as an alibi for their looks advantage, reinforcing the patriarchal standards she often pretends to critique.
If a politician applied Fey’s feminist rationale to public policy, he would be one of those blinders-wearing classists to the point of fascism. He would launch a vicious attack on the sort of parents who fed McDonalds food to their children, and, if he could, he would shut down every McDonalds in the country without instating an affordable dietary alternative–because as far as he is concerned, those people don’t deserve to eat. Frankly, if someone found this heartless and militant idea of human (and female) worth agreeable, you can’t help but wonder what makes them laugh the hardest.