Book Shelf: Tina Fey's Bossypants

Book Shelf: Tina Fey's Bossypants

To dislike Tina Fey, particularly in liberal feminist circles, is akin to doing a Judas on Jesus. She is the lady who wrote Mean Girls, after all. And what a wonderful thing that movie was, teaching us back in 2004 – the same year Perez Hilton launched his snarky website – that wanting to be a popular Queen Bee can get you into loads of trouble (the film's star, Lindsay Lohan, is irony personified). 

Four years later, as Paris Hilton responded to John McCain's election campaign ad with her own take on self-satire, Fey's fame went viral after nailing her impersonation of Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin with her Saturday Night Live sketch. In 2010, declared, "God bless Tina Fey. It is impossible to impinge on her awesomeness", after Anna Wintour put her on the cover of American Vogue, airbrushing out her trademark scar (more on that soon). Tina Fey, it seemed, could do no wrong. Everyone wanted a piece of her. And now you can have a piece of her, too, by way of her memoir, Bossypants.

Bossypants, has a sort of Last Supper quality, in which Lorne Michaels, the long-time Saturday Night Live producer to whom Fey says she is indebted for her success and recruited the young Fey in 1997, is the Messiah, and Fey plays the ever-grateful Mary Magdalene (though, as she puts it in her introduction, if you're looking for spiritual allegory in the style of C.S. Lewis, "Michaels could be a symbol for God" while her "struggles with hair removal a metaphor for virtue").

"During my nine years at Saturday Night Live, my relationship with Lorne transitioned from 'Terrified Pupil and Reluctant Teacher' to 'Small-Town Girl and Street-wise Madam Showing Her the Ropes' to 'Annie and Daddy Warbucks (touring company)' to one of mutual respect and friendship," she writes. "I've learned many things from Lorne, in particular a managerial style that was the opposite of Bossypants." 

Like Magdalene, and as the cover of Bossypants would suggest, Fey has made it in a man's world, rising to the top of her field with Saturday Night Live (SNL) and her baby, 30 Rock, claiming Oprah as a guest star (book highlight: "When Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your f#@&ing life"), bringing much laughter to the 2008 presidential campaign that garnered her worldwide interweb acclaim (read the original Sarah Palin sketch script pp209-216!), and she's kept her head – and hat, and tie – on, all the while managing the egos of her talented 200+ staff and co-star Alec Baldwin, finding the balls to tell Sylvester Stallone to enunciate his words for clarity and having her first baby, Alice.

Of course, you don't get to be a bossypants without some serious formative influences. Long before Lorne Michaels, there was Don Fey, the strong, debonair father figure to whom she dedicates a whole chapter ('That's Don Fey') and attributes her stern expression. He is never late for anything. He has a rubber stamp that says the word "bullshit". The formidable Lorne himself called Don Fey "impressive". And he bestowed on his daughter "the gift of anxiety", the "fear of getting into trouble" and "the knowledge that while you are loved, you are not above the law". Thanks, dad.

The book begins with Fey's early years as a plain, middle-class, Gen-X girl of Greek heritage from Pennsylvania attending the Summer Showtime youth theatre program, and charts her development into "an achievement-oriented, obedient, drug-free, virgin adult". Born eight years after her brother, the almost-only-child says she was a "wonderful surprise" used to being "praised and encouraged".

But beneath this golden-child facade of self-entitlement and parental validation is a layer of protective self-doubt that permeates her world view. The scar on her face, inflicted by a stranger in her kindergarten years, is a talking point throughout, though she does not disclose the details of the incident and addresses the issue with her usual comic flair:

"It wasn't until years later, maybe not until I was writing this book, that I realized people weren't making a fuss over me because I was some incredible beauty or genius; they were making a fuss over me to compensate for my being slashed... I accepted all the attention at face value and proceeded through life as if I really were extraordinary. I guess what I'm saying is, this has all been a wonderful misunderstanding. And I shall keep these Golden Globes, every last one!"

Fey declares open-season on the comedy and entertainment industries, giving us insight into the workings of TV making ("Saturday Night Live runs on a combustion engine of ambition and disappointment"), celebrity photoshoots (see the chapter 'Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That') and sticking it to entrenched sexism with emphatic love letters to her fellow SNL writers Amy Poehler and Paula Pell. A chapter on the differences between male and female comedy writers reveals the men urinate in cups; the women do not. 

Quick to point out her faults, in that self-deprecating way many successful women do, and also to make it plain that she sees her profession as trivial at best (see the comparative 'Daily Stress Levels of Various Jobs' chart page 186), Fey has no desire to make you feel like you couldn't make it, too, with a bit of humility, hard work, Photoshop and cunning.

Like Sadie in Mean Girls, Fey has not always conducted herself with the moral supremacy of the Virgin Mary. She sabotages the chances of the pretty girl who stole her crush from getting the lead role at Summer Showtime, the theatre-geek camp that informed her thoughts on everything from teamwork and homosexuality (like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I was embraced by the gays") to boyfriend stealing.

"Of course I know now that no one can 'steal' boyfriends against their will, not even Angelina Jolie itself [sic]. But I was filled with a poisonous, pointless teenage jealousy, which, when combined with gay cattiness, can be intoxicating... My first job as assistant director was to make sure [director Sean Kenny] didn't cast the talented blond dancer who has so easily stolen my boyfriend the summer before. I accomplished this with the persistent and skilled manipulation of a grade A bitch...I'm proud to say I would never sabotage a fellow female like that now."

She goes into self-defense mode with her thoughts on haters (who are ascribed a chapter of biting reply letters in 'Dear Internet'), elucidating the process behind the hastily written sketch that turned into an "overt Hillary Clinton endorsement", and commenting on the Sarah Palin fallout: "In fact, I think the Palin stuff may have hurt the TV show [30 Rock]. Let's face it, between Alec Baldwin and me there is a certain fifty percent of the population who think we are pink Commie monsters."

Fey dismisses the idea that she is a mean girl on the basis that this poking fun stuff is part of her job, which doesn't seem to affect her male counterparts ("No one ever said it was 'mean' when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time"). Gender politics aside, Fey is at her best when using her humour to elucidate the everyday stuff and satirise women's issues (see 'Twelve Tenets of Looking Amazing Forever') and politics rather than sticking it to the media/politicians/TMZ-enabled anonymous internet morons.

Truth is wonderful, for sure, but let's not ruin that everygirl-role-model mantel you've worked so hard to acquire with the high-school jibes! [This last point requires a high-school-esque exclamation point, notably not double question marks, which Fey admonishes 'Sonya in TX' for using: "Great use of double question marks, by the way. It makes you seem young"].

The sentiment in 'All Girls Must Be Everything', in which Fey talks about the moment she was made aware of "infinite number of things that can be 'incorrect' on a woman's body" (physical deficiencies for which she notes an appropriate product can be bought) and concludes that she wouldn't trade her features for anybody else's ("I want my daughter to be able to find me in the crowd by spotting my soda-case hips"), is complemented by her commentary on televisual diversity:

"The stars of beloved shows like Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Newhart, and The Dick Van Dyke Show had normal human faces. And that's what some of the people on our show have. I've never understood why every character being 'hot' was necessary for enjoying a TV show."

The chapter on TNs (aka "Teat Nazis"), in which she derides the judgement put upon mothers who go the formula route, 'The Secrets of Mommy's Beauty', 'Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny' and 'Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat' tread the thin line between social commentary and satire, which may make some women squeamish. Fey is of the opinion, for example, that while we should "leave people alone about their weight", being skinny for a while is something everyone should try once, "like a super-short haircut or dating a white guy".

Anticipating the imminent demise of 30 Rock, which she lovingly calls her "weird little show", while disclosing that it was intended to be a "hit show" like Home Improvement and not actually a "low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality", Fey introduces us to 30 Rock's dedicated "gentle" disciples and tells the story of the show's (immaculate) conception in the halls of NBC.

"By 2005 I has fleshed out the idea [NBC president of primetime development] Kevin Reilly had requested. I would play the head writer of a late-night comedy show. Tracy Morgan would play a lunatic comedy star and Alec Baldwin would play my overbearing conservative boss. Well, it was written for Alec Baldwin, but none of us had the balls to talk to him about it yet... NBC executives must have seen something of value in my quirky and unique plot (Alec Baldwin) because they decided for some reason (Alec Baldwin) to 'pick it up'." 

In 'What Should I do with My Last Five Minutes?', Fey contemplates the merits of having a second child versus maintaining her career, illuminating all the wonderful movies she could be making (Magazine Lady, The Wedding Creeper, Baby Versus Work), observing that women in comedy are generally labelled "crazy" after a certain age. She writes passionately about the obligation she feels to "stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others" (namely women over a certain age and her 30 Rock staff dependent on her for their pay cheques).

Of course, Fey is pregnant with her second child now. Despite telling us that her ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by her ability to turn anxiety into chin acne, that she is "a little tiny person with nothing to worry about running in circles, worried out of her mind" and "things most people do naturally are often inexplicably difficult" for her, she assures us that "everything will be fine". You can't put a bossypants in the corner.

Bossypants (Sphere, $32.99) is out now.

Girl With a Satchel


Laura Greaves said...

I read Bossypants in about four minutes and my only criticism is that it wasn't ten times longer! I adore Tina Fey - in a world where there are apparently few decent role models for young women, she is a true heroine in my view!

Best line in her book: 'You know who does have a funny bone in their body? Your mom every night for a dollar'.

LOVE her!

Zoe said...

Have ordered the book online, and keep rushing to check the mail box like an excited small child. I would like to be Tina Fey when I grow up!!!

Angela said...

I devoured it in a day as well, wishing it was longer, and wishing it was compulsory reading for every girl out there making their way in the world. Loves it.

Scarlett Harris @ The Early Bird Catches the Worm said...

I didn't want to read Bossypants before reading your review, Erica: now I can't wait to!

Anonymous said...

Loved the book - wished it was longer!