Open Thread: Feminism, Fey, and Funny Ladies

OK, so I guess I was sort of under a rock the past few days, because I kind of missed the Tina Fey mega-freakout that blew up all over the feminist blogosphere. I have only watched a few clips from the episode, and I think I've yammered on (in blog form as well) about Tina Fey enough already, so I won't say anything about SNL here. (Except that I thought the Brownie Husband skit was kinda funny. There. I said it.)

Anywho, getting to the point, all this Tina Fey jibber jabber has me thinking: What DO we want from a feminist comedic actor? What ARE our expectations for our fellow funny feminists? Because of course we don't want to see ladies bashing other ladies, and we don't want to see ladies objectifying themselves in order to get laughs, and we don't want offensive humor that caters to the lowest common denominator (hell, we don't want to see dudes do that either). But what is it that we do want? And is anyone currently giving it to us? Let's discuss.

Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't call Tina Fey out if we think she's trashing on women, because that's bogus and she should get called on it, just like any actor should get called out for the bogus trashing of women. But is there a possibility, also, that we are so starved for smart, funny women in mass media that we've pinned too many hopes on Fey? Why do we expect so much from her?

I was listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest yesterday and Stephen Metcalf suggested that feminists wouldn't be satisfied with a comedian until the Sigourney Weaver character from Working Girl comes to life and starts a career in stand up (I'm paraphrasing). At first I was all like, "Oh no you didn't Stephen Metcalf." But the I was all like, "Is he right? Are our expectations so high that we won't be satisfied until bell freakin' hooks has an HBO comedy special and every feminist can feel like a unique and beautiful snowflake?" (That comedy special maybe would rule, though.)

So yeah, I'm perplexed. I am leaning toward a solution here that involves more hilarious women becoming famous, so that we don't have to turn all of our adoring and analyzing and snarking and reviewing skills onto one or two ladies. However, there is probably a discussion to be had here about our expectations and who might be able to meet them. So if you've got any feminist comediennes you've been loving lately, let us know about them. If you've got any thoughts about our expectations as feminists when it comes to comedy, let us know about them. You get the idea.

by Kelsey Wallace
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16 Comments Have Been Posted

I think it takes a lot of

I think it takes a lot of self-centeredness to be able to make it in showbiz. I think that Sady Doyle is perfectly right that Fey's "Feminism" is actually "Feyism". What do to about this, I have no frickin' clue.

But I do wish that Fey would listen to her own advice that she gave in Mean Girls.
"Ok, so we're all here 'cause of this book, right? Well, I don't know who wrote this book, but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores."

Shaming "sluts" just comes back to bite you in the ass any way.

mean girls quote

you know that's funny, because the part you quoted was actually my biggest problem with mean girls. it made me rise from my seat (the couch), i was so angry. because i think that sentiment is so backwards: girls/women calling each other sluts and whores does NOT make it okay for guys/men to call girls sluts and whores. it in no way does, and i don't really believe that those two things really have all that much to do with each other. i thought that was a really poor platform for her to balance her argument on. it's not okay. it's not okay either way, and comparing the two in this way assumes a few things that i think are really crappy.

On Tina Fey and Liz Lemon.

I feel like I'm calling in to NPR and I should announce, "Hello, I'm a longtime listener, first time caller," except that I'm a longtime Bitch blogs reader, first time commenter. And it's EXCITING. :)

I'm coming at this question as a fiction writer and a feminist. The trouble, as I see it, is the desire of a writer (Tina Fey) to create a character (Liz Lemon) that intrigues her on account of the complexities, contradictions, vulnerabilities, and comedy inherent within that person, and not because that female character embodies a feminist ideal. I try to imagine how limiting it would feel as a writer to feel like any female character I created had a responsibility to be a symbol or good example of feminism because I am a feminist. I look at the characters I've created, and while they can be considered feminists, they are also melodramatic, overly self-critical, longing for love, etc. It's not because that's how women are--it is because that's how one flawed individual I've created is. It's how people are. My primary goal is telling a good story that gets at something true about people. They're messed up.

Writers are all about flaws. Any human drama, any comedy, arises out of flaws. So, to me, now, it is a nonissue that Liz Lemon is flawed. Whenever I see Tina Fey interviewed, she is incredibly sharp, articulate, self-possessed, and happy--she makes me proud to be a woman. Her character is not so sharp, articulate, or happy, and I guess that as a writer, and her viewer, I've got no problem making that distinction.

But maybe the issue with critics is that Liz Lemon is becoming a caricature of "female" neediness and slovenliness. I'm not convinced, but I understand the concern. If she becomes caricature, then she loses her complexity, and the audience may lose interest, and hopefully the writer figures out right quick that we like compelling characters, not easy jokes.

I love how you framed this

I love how you framed this in terms of writers, and women writers.

Why do we need her to be perfect?

I like the other point you make here, too, which is that we human beings are flawed, not just characters in movies and television. None of us are perfect, and none of us are perfect feminists, and I keep wondering why we expect our heroines to be perfect. Tina Fey is a sharp, successful, feminist woman. Is she going to hit every note, every joke, right in the feminist sweet spot? Is everything she does going to live up to our high feminist ideals? No. Does that mean we get to trash her and decide for ourselves that she's not feminist enough? What's that all about?

We keep wondering why people are hesitant to call themselves feminist, and then when people do we force them to try to live up to unrealistic ideals. I get that we should all strive to perfectly realize feminism in our lives, but we are not always going to achieve that, none of us. We are all sometimes going to make jokes or think things or say things that are--oops!--kind of shitty. I just don't understand why we expect Tina Fey to never do that.

Also, some of the jokes that people find the most anti-feminist or whatever I consider pretty freakin' funny. The Bombshell McGee thing made me laugh, and struck something that is painfully true in my personal experience. Oops, sometimes I'm an imperfect feminist. But I'm still a feminist.

Thank you! Yes, this is how

Thank you! Yes, this is how I feel.

I'm coming at this as a

I'm coming at this as a feminist and aspiring comedian, so this issue is really important to me. Once I become incredibly famous I will do a lot more for feminist comedy, promise. :)

But seriously, I've been disappointed in Tina Fey recently, too. I want to defend her because I love Mean Girls, I love her career as head writer of SNL, and for the most part, despite its flaws, I really love 30 Rock.

And yet, we have fiascos like Tina Fey's "Women's News", where she spends the majority of her segment trashing another woman because she....has tattoos and doesn't dress like a business woman.

I also think it's hard to separate Liz Lemon/Tina Fey because Fey herself has said that the character is a sort of exaggerated version of herself, but at the same time, Liz Lemon is NOT Tina Fey. Tina Fey is famous, wildly successful, married, an actress and a cover model. Liz Lemon is a relatively unknown, single writer who has no desire to become famous, and she is also a character on television who is bound to have some flaws. Each 30 Rock episode has to function as a kind of advertisement for itself, so if Lemon was the perfect feminist, she wouldn't be interesting.

Fey has briefly mentioned that she is a feminist, but that's it! Moreover, she's borderline conservative about her feminist sensibilities. She's not the model for feminist comedy or even feminism in general, because she never said she was. I think we should feel free to criticize her politics but we have to remember that these politics do not carry any responsibility for feminism.

Someone like Amy Poehler, on the other hand, is an amazing, amazing feminist comedian (with a career very similar to Fey's) who pointedly mentions it in countless interviews and even hosts her own web series for young girls about the importance of feminism. Her show Parks and Rec. has a lot of gender satire and it always leaves you with the feeling that feminism, even if its an easy-to-swallow version, matters to Poehler and the writers. I could name a lot of other names, but Amy Poehler keeps sticking out because she is pretty famous as well.

Amy Poehler's the best

I agree, and Amy Poehler is my feminist comedienne heroine...she has actually said the "f" word on several of the episodes of parks and rec (in a positive way that shows her character considers feminism to be an important part of her identity), and I've seen her web series on feminism for girls as well. I never really considered Tina Fey to be as feminist as Amy Poehler- for the reasons mentioned in other comments above. Therefore I might actually feel shocked and disappointed if Amy Poehler was found to be trashing other women or being anti-feminist in some way, but somehow I am neither shocked or disappointed in Tina Fey.

feminism and Showbiz Feminism

I hesitate to join in any kind of pile-on, partly because I am so happy Tina Fey exists and is as huge as she is, and partly because I worry that this kind of stuff simply furthers the reputation much of feminism has for nitpicking and complaining that even the best of what we've got will never be good enough. Is TF above reproach? Of course not. But is it fair to expect someone who does define herself as a feminist to be everything EVERY feminist pop-culture fan wants her to be? Not at all.

It seems important to make the distinction between "feminist" and "showbiz feminist." I've never been in the showbiz world, but I know people who are, and by all accounts it is far worse even than most of us imagine it to be when it comes to sexism and expectations for women. Women that lots of us would consider unimaginably beautiful are inspected and told to change the one feature that isn't perfect. Feminism that many of us here don't think twice about enacting in daily life is verboten if you want to work. It sounds like a crappy way to live, but people do it, and want to do it.

So the fact that Tina Fey has been able to make feminism visible AT ALL within such a generally inhospitable environment seems worth something. Many have not been able to. Look at Janeane Garofalo, who was awesome and feminist and adorable in Reality Bites, and as she launched a bigger career was pressured to lose weight, to change her hair, to tone down her sarcasm -- and was STILL relegated to "ugly best friend" roles. (Garofalo is still awesome, don't get me wrong, but she wasn't able to bring her kind of individuality and feminist sensibility to as huge an audience as she might have.)

I don't think TF needs protecting from feminist criticism, but I also would not want to alienate such a potentially powerful pop-culture ally -- because honestly, I think Tina Fey has that potential. After all, Mean Girls was adapted from the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. Her next project could be a movie set at Girls Rock Camp. Would it be perfect? Probably not. But it could very likely sneak feminism into places that otherwise it would never be, and that seems really important.

For the record, it was one

For the record, it was one of the women on the Slate Culture Gabfest who made the crack about Sigourney Weaver, not Stephen Metcalf. I didn't catch which one.

Julia Turner, I think

You're right Anon, it was Julia Turner I think.

According to the Dorothy

According to the Dorothy Parker biopic starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Parker's bff Bob Benchley once said that something is funny when it's the truth wrapped in a laugh. I think there ARE feminist comedians doing this. Sarah Haskins is one of them -- she doesn't trash women, she trashes marketing techniques, and we laugh because she's pointing out absurdities that we already see in the way companies try to sell stuff to women.

I also LOVED the thunderAnt episode "Feminist Bookstore". I'm sure that Carrie Brownstein wholeheartedly supports women, so when she and Fred Armisen play stereotypical second wavers, I'm confident that they're making fun of the stereotypes, rather than trying to perpetuate them. I found myself laughing at that because I saw shades of my own extremism -- not at the actual feminist ideas.

The movie Itty Bitty Titty Committee does the same thing, but with stereotypical third-wavers instead. The movie managed to humorously point out how rigid and overly serious young activist women can get, and how we sometimes let it get in the way of working with other women. (And, also how we sometimes make poor choices when dating each other, and let that come between us as well.)

I agree that there aren't enough female comedians available to us. But I also think it's an issue of women comedians being able to joke about the mundane and every day things that are laughable in our lives.

Sarah Haskins is an awesome

Sarah Haskins is an awesome feminist comedian, she used to have a regular spot on the show Informania called "Target Women" which critiqued pop culture:
unfortunately she left the show earlier this year, but I'm hoping she will move on to something bigger and better!

Wanda Sykes?

While I'm not very familiar with Tina Fey (I've always been more prone to MadTV), I do notice that there really is a lack feminist comedians. And it's weird to think about what they would make jokes about because we all know that other people just love to take the 'F' word and turn it into personal humor (Breslin, cough, Breslin).

But, even so, there are some women who do stand up who they are, which I think is not only bold, but pretty feminist as well. Take Wanda Sykes for example. She is a lesbian and she is proud. And she makes jokes about how people react to someone being homosexaul. Now that's cool.

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