Tina Fey is not a perfect poster daughter for feminism. She’s come under attack by feminist bloggers for many things, some of which are jokes that strike a feminist sensibility wrong. One of those was when she hosted Saturday Night Live and lit into Jesse James’ mistress of the time, Michelle McGee. Rather than go after Jesse James for cheating on Sandra Bullock, she laid the blame with his mistress and said her “body looks like a dirtbag’s binder from 7th grade metal shop.” Another came when 30 Rock character Pete related a one-line story in the show about how great the sex he had that morning was – with his sleeping, unconscious wife (which amounts to rape).
In some broader blogger takedowns, Sady Doyle has complained of Fey’s seemingly at least semi-autobiographical character, Liz Lemon, that she practices a brand of “white, coastal-city dwelling, fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered” feminism Doyle calls “Liz Lemonism.” In criticizing Fey’s white liberal feminism, Feministe blogger Constintina is slightly more kind in calling her a “feminist(ish) comic and writer.”
So is Fey a feminist or isn’t she? What’s going on with her meta critique of show business that includes off the cuff rape jokes? In her new memoir, Bossypants, she leaves at least one big hint. In the midst of relating some of the managing skills she’s picked up from boss Lorne Michaels over the years, she relates this bit of advice: “When hiring, mix Harvard Nerds with Chicago Improvisers and stir.” She goes on to explain what this means (my bold):
The writing staff of Saturday Night Live has always been a mix of hyperintelligent Harvard Boys… and gifted, visceral, fun performers… To generalize with abandon, if you had nothing but Harvard guys, the whole show would be commercial parodies about people wearing barrels after the 1929 stock market crash… If you had nothing but improvisers, the whole show would be loud drag characters named Vicki and Staci screaming their catchprase over and over, “YOU KISS YOUR MUTHA WITH THAT FACE?” Harvard Boys and Improv People think differently because their comedy upbringing is so different. If you’re at the Harvard Lampoon, sitting in a castle with your friends, you can perfect a piece of writing to be exactly what you want and you can avoid the feeling of red-hot flop sweat. Especially because you won’t even be there when someone reads it. But when you’re improvising eight shows a week in front of drunk meat-eating Chicagoans, you will experience highs and lows. You will be heckled, or, worse, you will hear your own heartbeat over the audience’s silence. You will be bombing so hard that you will be able to hear a lady in the back put her gum in a napkin. You may have a point to make about the health care system in America, but you’ll find out that you need to present that idea through a legally blind bus driver character or as an exotic dancer whose boobs are running for mayor. (I would like to see that sketch, actually.) Ultimately, you will do whatever it takes to win that audience over.
Fey isn’t a hypterintellectual Harvard Boy. [Side note: Fey explains her use of “Boy” in Harvard Boy thus: “I say Harvard ‘Boys’ because they are almost always male – but not exclusively; rock on, Amy Ozols!”] She’s an Improv Person whose main goal is to win an audience over. She is clearly a brilliant woman, but she’s not an academic, blogger, or pundit; she’s a comedian.
I agree that a rape joke is a rape joke and must be called out as such. As Constintina says in her piece, Fey should not be above criticism, and no one, no matter their status or lack thereof, should be when they do or say things publicly. But I’m also a Harvard Nerd. I’m not in the business of making jokes; I’m in the business of writing social critiques. We Harvard Nerds in the blogosphere need Improv People like Fey to help us use comedy to get out our messages (one of the best ways I know how). Fey and her comedian friends need the nerds of the world to keep them on their toes when they step over the line into offensive material. Feminism wins when these groups can work together, not against each other.
Do I wish that every celebrity, male and female, were as strictly adherent to every concept of feminism that I endorse personally? Of course. Do we live in that world? No. I’d love every comedian to be an Amy Poehler Xerox in the way they think about and embody feminism. But even if Poehler were to fudge something and be caught calling another woman a whore, I would call it out and then continue supporting her other work. That’s how I can be most helpful as a nerd. Rebecca Traister put it most succinctly in the wake of Fey’s SNL hosting gig and subsequent backlash: “Tina Fey is a professional comedian. She is not a professional feminist.” While the two very often overlap, they won’t always, and that’s okay with me.