Her Own Foil
by DAYNA EVANS
by Tina Fey
Little, Brown and Company, 288 pp.
When the realization finally occurs to you at a near-adult age that the academic path you’ve chosen can only lead to four possibilities, you feel as if you have brought shame to your family and deserve to live in the sewers. And these sewers are not fun, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sewers with endless pizza and samurai swords — they are filthy and teeming with homeless people who also hold BAs in Whatever/Etc./Who Cares. This is where you will end up, and it is all your fault. Few of us, even the good-hearted charitable types, will escape this fate. Instead we will stagger forth in vigilant denial while we embody the qualities acquired from a liberal arts degree (self-hatred, love of free food), vowing to never stop until we've achieved critical acclaim for our novel/screenplay/artwork/who cares. And while we sneak beneath our potholes at night knowing that our success will only occur posthumously, there lives an exception to the rule. And thankfully, she has written a book.
Tina Fey — an idol for drab-haired, doughnut-loving women everywhere — chronicles her pigeon-toed walk (not run) to success in her new memoir Bossypants with a faux candor that reveals both a savvy, confident writer, and a self-effacing Dorito-muncher à la Liz Lemon. The pendulum swings between the two with impossible precision. In describing her "healthy body parts," Fey mentions her "droopy brown eyes designed to confuse predators into thinking I'm just on the verge of sleep and they should come back tomorrow to eat me." Or on the joy of matrimony: "There are plenty of positives to being married to me. I just can’t think of any of them right now." The writing is charming, and the tone is light, but what makes Bossypants memorable is that it isn’t a character telling us a story, it’s a story showing us a character. And with the wonderful plainness of her suburban background (Fey is from the town next door to mine and I believe we're soulmates — unified in mall appreciation), the character she has created is a foil that shines aggressively.
While any shmuck from a modest middle-class background can graduate college, get an entry-level, soul-sucking, endlessly thankless job vaguely related to their bullshit liberal arts degree for which their parents will never forgive them, very, very few will eventually make a creative empire out of it like Tina Fey has. Writer, actor, producer, comic, professional Sarah Palin lookalike — Fey has accomplished more than any of us could imagine doing, especially given our delusions of David Foster Wallace grandeur paired with a lack of people skills.
Alone in an expanse of memoirs that torture readers with turgid exploitation of unfortunate pasts, Tina Fey’s Bossypants stands apart from the tales of child neglect and drug abuse with what is essentially one part suburban barbecue, one part frat party, and one part episode of Sex In The City that ended up on the cutting room floor. Which all means to say that it is light, funny (“By nineteen, I had found my look. Oversize T-shirts, bike shorts, and wrestling shoes.”), and rife with insecurities. Tina at a photo shoot:
When you inevitably can’t fit into a garment, the stylist’s assistant will be sent in to help you. The stylist’s assistant will be a chic twenty-year-old Asian girl named Esther or Agnes or Lot’s Wife.
In a few years she’ll be running the editorial staff, but at this point in time her job is to stuff a middle-aged woman’s bare ass crack into a Prada dress and zip it up. In my case, Esther and I are always mutually frustrated when zipping up the tiny dress. Esther is disgusted by my dimply flesh and her low status. I’m annoyed that her tiny hands lack the strength to get Pandora’s plague back into the box. “How’s it going in there?” calls the stylist passive-aggressively. Reinforcements are called in to push on both sides of my ribcage until the zipper goes up. To avoid conflict, we all blame a third party. “It’s these damn invisible zippers!” we say in unison. “I don’t know why designers use them!"
The book also makes you want to get drunk and inappropriately touch someone.
Bossypants may afford you some bemused and/or disgusted looks should you choose to read it in public — the photo on its jacket (Fey posing sweetly with the arms of a hairy, overweight man) is as unsettling as mistaking your uncle’s cutlery drawer for his dildo drawer, an effect that Fey employs often in her writing. "I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency," she says in describing her entry into womanhood. "This wasn’t blue, so . . . I ignored it for a few hours." Her sense of humor is easy and relatable in context (Oh, of course Uncle Norm would have a dildo drawer — he's a free spirit), but honest in a way that we don’t necessarily want to admit to (I can never make eye contact with Uncle Norm again). Tina Fey, the memoirist, is just as much of a character as Liz Lemon, the slob.
Bossypants came under fire from Jezebel.com founder Anna Holmes, who claimed it doesn't take enough of a stance on "contemporary feminism and female representations in pop culture." Fey writes reluctantly about making definitive claims in almost everything, to the point of denouncing a call at home from former president Bill Clinton. But the truth is, just because Fey is a well-respected, influential woman who empowers women simply by existing, she's a celebrity, and her book isn't called The Struggle of Women in Comedy and the Battle We Must Fight for Enlightenment. It's called Bossypants and it's a memoir. I don't agree that we should expect her or any famous person to take a stance, mostly because I want to be famous and the only issue I care about is Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s.
It is bothersome, however, that Fey chooses to consistently devalue her intellect, appearance, and work. It becomes a tired act less than halfway through the book. Though Fey is consistently praised for being both winsome and accessible while remaining sharp and in charge, she rarely acknowledges the latter qualities in Bossypants, and it is positively infuriating. Why can't Fey take a moment off from the homely girl routine and write with pride about her numerous accomplishments?
Even when she brings up 30 Rock — the wildly popular TV show of Fey’s creation — her remarks are diminishing: "We premiered on Wednesday, October 11, 2006, at 8:00 p.m. and we were an instant hit — like figs for dessert or bringing your guitar out at a party." If Dane Cook (guh) were to write a memoir (if he could write) exposing even the slightest insecurity, it would elicit confusion similar to when a fitness trainer tells you to "soften your knees." (Does anyone actually know what that means?) Meekness in male comedians is preposterous to expect.
Tina was a product of a cozy suburban upbringing in which she was encouraged to pursue her creative passion, much like a lot of people I know, including myself. She has seamlessly melded her public image into a hybrid of slovenly wimp who enjoys cable TV and closed-toe shoes with a high-power, hard-working businesswoman who looks great in formal wear. Though she has an enormous following and success beyond our wildest dreams, Fey is entitled to create a persona because that is what writers do. However, it is disquieting to imagine that if she chose to channel the overconfident douchebaggery of Alec Baldwin instead of your 13-year-old cousin Kristen, she'd be lambasted for acting like a snobby bitch that takes all the credit. By writing her memoir as she has, Fey is able to establish some vague opinions on feminism without sacrificing the humor in stories about pee jars and breast milk. I only wish she had done it with more conviction and less downplaying; that way we would be able to distinguish the writer from the character, the human from the comic, and the boss from the bossypants.
Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here.
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