Media, Pop Culture, Self-Image

More on Tina Fey

So, Jessica at Jezebel has a quibble with my quibble with Tina Fey. Except, I think we might be more on the same page than she realizes. Hang on.

I’ve already answered the “Tina Fey IS TOO average-looking, by Hollywood standards!” argument in comments on my original post, but here, have some magazine covers.

Granted, in two of those, there’s some irony going on, and in the only one where there’s not, they’ve made her look oddly matronly. Nevertheless, Fey cleans up pretty fucking good. And arguing about precisely how pretty she is is beside the point, which is that when you’ve been on a bunch of magazine covers and People’s 50 Most Beautiful People list, you’ve crossed a line into Not So Much Like the Rest of Us Territory. (I can already hear the arguments. Bust doesn’t count! Marie Claire isn’t as shallow as Cosmo or Glamor! EW only put her on there — in a red cocktail dress — because of her career! People always includes a few outliers on the list! So let me stipulate that Tina Fey has only just crossed that line, while the likes of Heidi Klum are miles past it. Still doesn’t change what I’m saying.)

Beyond that, I agree with a lot of what Jessica says, including that on 30 Rock, the jokes at Fey’s expense most often rely on Jack Donaghy being a ridiculous blowhard or Fey parodying the usual portrayal of single womanhood. Turns out I was aware that 30 Rock is a comedy, and I happen to fucking love it. But it’s not the only thing Fey’s ever done, and I was talking about a (relatively subtle, and only quibbleworthy, not damning) pattern I’ve noticed throughout her career. It just grates more now that she’s a bona fide leading lady who appears in public cleaned up good a whole lot more than she used to.

As for “missing the point entirely,” which Jessica accuses me of, well, she missed that I totally didn’t call Tina Fey “self-loathing” — and in fact, my “no one likes a self-loathing person” comment was made by way of agreeing with Fey’s joke (funny because it’s true) about the power of having confidence that’s disproportionate to your looks and abilities. Again, I completely agree with Jessica that “Fey’s self-deprecation… is precisely what makes her relatable.” I mean, self-deprecation is the fucking linchpin of her insanely successful career; if she’d never made a joke at her own expense, we never would have heard of her, and the world would be poorer for it. But there are a whole lot of different shades of self-deprecation, and I’m just fucking sick of seeing women trash their own bodies as a means of appearing down-to-earth and relatable. Sweet Machine really nailed down the nature of my quibble with Fey with this:

Fey’s joking about her looks violates the “It’s not all about you” spirit. I’m sure she draws on her own experience of insecurity with the beauty ideal, and it would be very interesting to hear her talk about that directly. But by continuing to make herself the butt of “not pretty” jokes, even if she’s been treated that way, she’s indirectly insulting a lot of other women.

Finally, “extreme P.C. body image standards” are this blog’s fucking raison d’etre, so you know, nitpicking happens. It doesn’t mean I don’t think Tina Fey’s a billion kinds of awesome, or that she hasn’t eaten a billion kinds of shit throughout her career on accounta not looking like Heidi Klum. It just means I think the subtle stuff matters. It’s not only big, obvious bullshit that reinforces the message that 99.9% of women aren’t good enough — it’s also a critical mass of tiny little things, which include beautiful women talking about how not beautiful they are. And if we didn’t talk about those tiny little things here, we’d have a lot less blog material.

53 thoughts on “More on Tina Fey”

  1. My take on this was closer to Jessica’s, and I offer it only because I don’t have the usual objections:
    1) She’s referring to her parents’ support, presumably in the past; and,
    2) arguably, she is only on the 50 Most Beautiful People list or on magazine covers because she’s been successful, not the other way around.

    I think both of these are important, in terms of how Fey sees herself (as the girl who was trying an entertainment career even though she wasn’t Hollywood-beautiful), and in that her general awesomeness is what made people take notice and make her count as beautiful even though she’s outside the norm. She gets the covers (and the photoshopping that makes people say ‘see, she is too beautiful!’) after the fact.

    It’s not all about her. But it’s not all about me, either, and I think it could be useful to know that someone who is so successful now might have needed her parents to tell her to go for it even if she didn’t look like a Hollywood cheerleader.

  2. I agree that Jessica generally misread your post, Kate, which I noted in the Jezebel comments.

    I also think we might want to remind ourselves, though, that we didn’t know who Tina Fey was when she was 35 pounds heavier! She probably would not be on these magazine covers (possibly even Bust) if she were full-on fat (or had a disability or was just generally weird-looking, etc). This does NOT mean that Tina Fey is not talented or that she doesn’t deserve her successes. But it DOES mean that she is not that much of a challenge to the prevailing Hollywood beauty standards as some may want her to be.

  3. I think it could be useful to know that someone who is so successful now might have needed her parents to tell her to go for it even if she didn’t look like a Hollywood cheerleader.

    That was actually pretty much the point of my original post. The bit about being irritated by her pattern of body-related self-deprecation was a tangent.

  4. And again, I agree that it worked in the context of that quote which I said in the post. (I’m not trying to be combative here, just clear, which I evidently wasn’t the first time.)

  5. However, to add to my comment: I agree more with your second analysis of Tina Fey’s role in television and as a a celebrity than I do the Jezebel post. Only in Hollywood would Tina Fey be “geeky” and people like Kate Winslet “chubby” or “overweight”….

  6. The problem ultimately isn’t with Tina Fey. The problem is with a culture that causes someone as gorgeous as Tina Fey to think, or even be able to realistically joke about how she isn’t pretty enough.

    (Also Sarah Palin, who is pretty much Tina Fey’s Twin just got called Gorgeous by the president of Pakistan. How’s that for being respected for your mind?)

    However, Tina Fey, as I am sure she is aware, is no longer a person who can say whatever they think without it having consequences. She is a symbol, a symbol of female success in hollywood, a symbol of the fact that women can be funny. So when she jokes about how she’s not pretty enough, it matters to more than just her.

  7. Made her look oddly matronly AND photoshopped her waist smaller. Yeesh.

    Of course the real death of a thousand cuts is from things like that — the way society enforces and ratifies the beauty standard — and not from the self-deprecating remarks of those who are caught up in it. But I’m with you in wanting Fey, who is a strong, funny, and famous woman and in many ways a role model, to acknowledge that standard by calling it out, not by calling it down on her own head.

  8. For me, it’s infuriating that hating on your body–oh, I mean, being “self-deprecating”–is a rite of passage, a way of making conversation, seen as some sort of act of female bonding. I don’t see it as being good for anyone, famous or not.

  9. Tina Fey’s former Weekend Update co-anchor Jimmy Fallon is prettier. And I would probably say so even if I weren’t a gay man! :-D

  10. Kate, I agree with you. I think Jezebel misread you and when they got it right, I still think you’re correct. It *does* matter to more than just her. I’d be curious for a followup post: who’s someone in the public eye whom you think DOES do a good job presenting body confidence, along with realism about her appearance and about the fact that looksism is bad? Sorry for that being really ungainly prose, I’ve got a cold. I guess you’ll know what I mean though, cause lol your smart.

    (Author-to-author girltalk–I’m going to see drafts of the book cover Monday! Squee! It’s like seeing the sonogram or something.)

  11. So you kept saying “Jessica” and I kept thinking it was me and getting confused and I was thinking “But I totally understood what you were getting at before”. It was an irrational train of thought, but I thought I’d point it out for giggles.

    And I have to agree that the idea that Tina Fey is somehow the “ugly” of Hollywood is damaging to all women, because she’s FUCKING GORGEOUS, and if she’s “ugly” than what the hell am I? The Loch Ness Monster?

    I think I’m pretty damn hot, which means that Tina Fey, is, of course, also damn hot.

  12. i agree with you, kate. it really does seem that Fey goes back and forth between critiquing and participating in the way women (are expected to) dog on their bodies in our culture. certainly she’s aware with it, and has problems with it, but still can’t quite ignore/reconcile the fact that it is a function of uch of stand-up humour (mock your or others) and one way comedians and women gain currency in hollywood.

    This back and forth often in Mean Girls. There is the scene where Cady has to participate in picking apart her body in front of the mirror, which showcases and acknowledges this behaviour is necessary to fit in, without defusing it. later in the movie Fey-as-math-teacher has that powow with the girls where she tells them “you can’t keep calling yourselves b*tches and h*s and sl*ts because it makes it okay for guys to call you that” which to me draws a harder line to the patriarchal implications of women hating their bodies, (albeit in a simplified way).

    i think what you’re encountering with Jezebel is resistance to what David Lavery calls the “need not be a swoon” factor vis a vis art. you can think tina fey is the bee’s knees while still finding aspects of her work frustrating and problematic and unsatisfying from a feminist perspective. we love a lot of people along with and inspite of their faults. loving a celebrity does not mean praising their every action. yeesh.

  13. FJ said “But I’m with you in wanting Fey, who is a strong, funny, and famous woman and in many ways a role model, to acknowledge that standard by calling it out, not by calling it down on her own head.”

    Yes yes yes. Don’t help to narrow the standards, hell. Knock them all to hell instead.

    And Lauredhel, I wasn’t anything like a regular reader over there, but after I saw that article, I vowed never to return. Yeesh.

  14. Jezebel is perfectly happy to publish and defend a post about fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder being fabricated diseases.

    Wow, that’s awesome.

    Though I’m really quite suprised of all the possible mental illnesses they could have gone with, bi-polar disorder was singled out as a “vague Pharmaceutical Industry Invented Malady”. Bi-polar is more vague than depression? Anxiety? (And I say that as someone with depression and generalized anxiety, so I don’t mean to imply that I think they belong there. But they are kind of more vague than bi-polar disorder, especially if you look at the words and not the real condition. How often does someone say “well everyone gets depressed sometimes. That’s normal!” “well everyone gets stressed out/anxious sometimes. That’s normal!”)
    What the hell is so vague about bi-polar disorder?

  15. Stichtowhere said “this back and forth often in Mean Girls. There is the scene where Cady has to participate in picking apart her body in front of the mirror, which showcases and acknowledges this behaviour is necessary to fit in, without defusing it.”

    I don’t know, I think just by including both the picking-apart bodies in Mean Girls and the “no business being in television” in 30 Rock, she’s bringing to light behavior, and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Much of what she does is ironic, intended to turn things on their head. Flummox us with statements that have been made and actions that have been done, that are completely ridiculous. I don’t think she’s saying that she’s ugly. I think she’s mocking the people who swallow the Hollywood bullshit without thinking about it.

  16. LSPoorEeyorick, yeah, I agree. I think social commentary is actually often stronger when it allows viewers to draw their own conclusiosn rather than spelling them out. I mean, obviously things can be so subtle they reinforce what they should be breaking down, but I guess Mean Girls didn’t fall into that trap for me and certainly not that particular scene.

  17. Jezebel is perfectly happy to publish and defend a post about fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder being fabricated diseases.
    And don’t forget about ADD, too. Not to mention the pH of their vitriol during the primaries re: Hillary Clinton.

  18. Dana: she is only on the 50 Most Beautiful People list or on magazine covers because she’s been successful? That’s odd; it doesn’t seem to be called the 50 Most Successful Self-Deprecating People in Comedy list. Certainly, somebody has to be in the public eye to be noticed enough for consideration, but isn’t the whole point of the fucking thing to show off beautiful people? What point am I missing here?

  19. Oh, and a big FTW back at Jezebel — 30 Rock is good comedy, and we watch it often around the Iverson/Harding household. Nonetheless, it is a product of THE CORPORATE TELEVISION MACHINE, and let’s not forget after they shot the pilot they dumped Rachel Dratch because she wasn’t the right brand of hottie. That suggests to me that perhaps the world is still not quite perfect enough to take issue with people pointing out flaws (even flaws in things that are mostly good).

  20. I think that comment from Sweet Machine hits the nail on the head. Instead of questioning “what the fuck are these crazy standards, anyway?” Fey mocks herself for not conforming to them.

    And questioning them can be funny: Maria Bamford has a couple of great routines about this (as about everything).

    But the “OH HA HA FEMALE COMEDIAN MOCKS HER APPEARANCE” is such an old shtick, from Phyllis Diller to Joan Rivers to Carol Burnett.

  21. Tina Fey is right on that edge where she’s just beautiful enough to be on TV. Don’t get me wrong. I think she’s beautiful. My husband thinks so, too, especially when she wears her glasses. And yes, it is partly her talent.

    I think we should draw attention in this conversation to Rachel Dratch. She may not be the writer Tina Fey is but she is an immensely talented performer and she is not conventionally beautiful. In fact, she is so *not* conventionally beautiful that her original role as the star of the girly show was given to that beautiful blond woman. That wasn’t Fey’s original decision.

    So there’s a sense in which I think Fey plays that role of the talented but not beautiful enough actor because she understands that position. Because she is on that edge–pretty enough not to get cut, unpretty enough to be relatable–she can make the case believably and still be considered fit for primetime viewing. Unlike Rachel Dratch, for instance.

    The way I see it, the public Tina Fey is as much a persona she’s constructed in order to critique modern constructions of femininity and beauty as she is a real person. And I think she does that because she gets it. Really deeply. She gets both the reality and she gets what will play. How far she can press without losing her likeability.

    Maybe I’m giving her too much credit but that’s how I see her. You have to love a woman who can get a laugh off by telling the audience she wrote mean girls as a meditation on relational aggression among girls in the postfeminist era.

  22. Sorry to jump the snark gun, sumac! We actually do get a lot of comments/emails that are like “Why don’t you write like I want you to write,” so I’m a little touchy about that.

  23. i totally get what kate way saying and think the jezebel chic nitpicked on her nitpicking just to have something to talk about.

    oh, song of blogs.

    i agree with anastasia that TF knows what’s up and is skating right on the edge — that delicate balance where she can still make a point and get heard by a mass audience rather than being marginalized as an eccentric critic.

    who knows though … all that pressure. all those expectations … on some level i believe we are all still the same insecure people we were as teenagers no matter what level of “success” or conventional beauty we achieve as adults.


    oh but men are taught to like a woman tearing herself down in front of him for a laugh (& even better if she tears down another woman in front of him). so fey can be smart, but she still has to be put in her place in order to stay in favor & not scare the menz.

    and every not-so-attractive man out there (which like any population, is made up of the majority) thinks he has a shot with someone like tina fey.; i think that’s what’s fueling a bit of her fame. and also librarian porn.

    the joan rivers & phyllis diller comment was accurate, too. and that kind of ‘comedy’ should be as extinct as the dodo bird, by now.

  25. and a byprouduct of that search: fey is only 5’4″. not tall. average. my height. and we also look a lot alike.
    but my bf is hotter than hers. nyah.

  26. @ LSPoorEeyorick

    i don’t think that she’s saying she’s ugly either. What I meant to suggest with juxtaposing those two examples is that their are moments in her work where the critique is more pointed than others. I definitely think drawing attention to questionable behaviours is significant, but I think Mean Girls is a point of departure versus a point of arrival for Fey. I think it’s the start of something that will appear and develop throughout her hopefully prolific body of work. It’s fraught to be a working woman writer in hollywood and I think the struggle of her position is depicted (if not always critiqued) in her work, and we get charged about her because we are all routing for her and hoping she’ll continue to work her enviable position to advance feminist sensibilities and critique to mainstream audiences.

  27. As astutely noted, it has been a very slow wit day for me, so please excuse my vague and potentially offensive posts, and let me just say, to reiterate and clarify, that I thought the Jezebel coverage of Kate’s post was unfair and reactive, and that it must have been a slow news day for them…I can think of no other reason that Kate’s original post would have been mis(under?)read as it was. In any case, I can totally see Alaska from my kitchen.

  28. Sorry to have been so snarky with you, myself, sumac. I didn’t read your name before I posted, and I thought you were talking about this post. Coupled with using “lame” I thought you were a troll. That’ll teach me to post too quick!

  29. Can I say, and this really has nothing to do with the substance of the posts, that the Marie Claire cover doesn’t even look like her. They must have a “scorched face” retouching policy over at Marie Claire. Looking at it, I might have guess Sigourney Weaver or Stockard Channing, though of course, highly retouched.

  30. ’m just fucking sick of seeing women trash their own bodies as a means of appearing down-to-earth and relatable.

    Yep. This sums it up perfectly.

  31. A male colleague — a fairly liberal editorial writer — e-mailed a joke to our whole department. It said:

    “If you receive an e-mail that claims to have an attachment of nude Saraha Palin photos, do not open it. It might contain a virus. If you receive an e-mail that claims to have a an attachment of nude Hilary Clinton photos, do not open it. It might contain a nude photo of Hilary Clinton.”

    See? Our fuckability really is our top qualification! Even in a department of men who are supposed to fucking know better.

    I’d make a stink about it, but I’m already the least fuckable woman in the office. I’m queer, fat and smart, see.

    This shit depresses me so fucking much.

  32. Oh, and being older than 25, being fatter than Sarah Palin or being smarter than your average border collie aparrently renders negative hits to you fuckability.

    Just going by an email sent out by an overweight, 50-something white male writer.

  33. holy crap Cindy, that’s so inappropriate. I second SM’s idea – if you go to HR, no one needs to know it was you – since he sent it to the WHOLE FUCKING DEPARTMENT.

  34. I don’t understand Jezebel’s point that Tina Fey is not conventionally pretty. I admit, I live under a rock and didn’t know who she was until she started mimicking Sarah Palin, but when I first saw her I thought she was gorgeous. Then, when I started seeing 30 Rock and heard some “self-depracation” jokes, I was actually feeling pretty lousy. Like, I thought to myself, if Tina Fey thinks she’s some plain, throw-away because she, as Kate says, has glasses and brown hair, then how the hell am I supposed to look at myself?

    I forget if it was Kate or SM, but this perfectly expressed my feelings: it’s not that she’s criticizing the unfair standards of beauty, but rather she’s criticizing herself for not meeting them. And as a result she ends up insulting a lot of women. Still, I love Tina Fey. ;)

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