First, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I am a huge fan of Tina Fey. In my head, she’s like my cool Aunt Tina who gives me advice to help me make Good Life Decisions. I really do find myself asking, What would Tina do? on a near-daily basis. I live my life in such a way that should I ever meet Tina, she wouldn’t be embarrassed by me. She might be the only famous person I would get really star struck by, at this point. So yeah, I love her.
(Sidebar: Story after story from people who encounter Tina Fey goes exactly the same—she is not into fangirls or fangirling. If you do ever encounter her, I wouldn’t recommend approaching. People ask all the time—how/when/where they should approach celebrities and my answer is always don’t/never/nowhere, but I often qualify it with, “But if you HAVE to say something, realize you’re the one interrupting, you’re the one being an asshole. If they’re less than gracious, it’s their right since you’re the one posing the imposition. With that in mind, be brief, be quiet, be kind. Don’t ask for more than they’re willing to give—you WILL know what their boundaries are based on body language—and leave quickly.” But with Tina Fey, there is no qualification. Just don’t approach. She won’t love you for it. If I ever see her, I will turn around and vacate the vicinity immediately. I feel that’s the nicest, most “I’m a huge fan” thing I could do—leave her alone.)
Second, to the guys who may be reading (I know there are a few), yes, Bossypants, Tina Fey’s memoir about parenting, womanhood and work, is for you, too. The essays about her childhood, about college, about Second City, SNL, 30 Rock, and her Sarah Palin impression are for everyone. The book is flagrantly female but if you like 30 Rock or if you liked SNL while Fey was a writer (1997-2006), then you will find something to enjoy in Bossypants. Also, if you’re a dad, you can probably relate to the parenting stuff more than I could with my dead, black, child-hating heart.
And finally…so how was the book? Um AWESOME. Of course it’s great—Tina Fey wrote it. Her voice is clear and strong, you can “hear” her throughout (and literally, if you get the audiobook). If anything, Fey is perhaps too hard on herself, repeatedly calling herself “the worst”. And yet, that’s what makes Fey, and Bossypants, so worth our time as audience. Here is a woman who has achieved a great deal of success and yet she remains humble and self-deprecating. She’s under no illusions that people suddenly think she’s marvelous just because she’s on TV. One of her best essays is about a single weekend in which she prepped her first-ever Sarah Palin impression for SNL, shot the Oprah episode of 30 Rock, and planned and executed her daughter’s third birthday party. Anyone can relate to the feeling of simply having too much to do. Fey’s experiences are unique but how she handles them, how she reacts to the stress of a high-pressure job in which hundreds of people depend upon her, are universal. Bossypants is not only interesting, it’s fucking hilarious. Just the dust jacket made me laugh out loud, and for the past few days I’ve been that asshole on the L, laughing while I read. It’s impossible not to laugh throughout this book.
It’s also impossible not to grasp Fey’s take on feminism, which boils down to: “I don’t care if you like it.” That line comes from an essay about Fey’s days at SNL when the women in the cast began taking over the show. Specifically, she relates how Amy Poehler was goofing off in the writer’s room, doing something vulgar, when Jimmy Fallon interrupted with, “I don’t like that. It’s not cute.” Fey points out that Fallon was also joking, but Poehler’s reaction was not a joke. She snapped, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” and went back to her dirty bit. This is the attitude that defines Fey’s thoughts on feminism, and being a woman in the workplace. I don’t care if you like it. So much of her advice for how to succeed in the workplace boils down to: If you don’t absolutely have to deal with whoever is giving you a hard time, ignore that person and keep on keeping on. If you do have to deal with that person, find an ally equal to or greater than the pain-in-your-ass and work around him.
I call this the “don’t apologize” approach to feminism. We could have a huge discussion about society, advertising, media and women and go on and on about how women are kept down by The Man, et cetera, but suffice it to say that generally 80% of everything is geared to make women feel terrible about themselves, including a woman’s interaction with other women, and that it is suggested repeatedly that we buy products X, Y and Z in order to look younger, feel better, and screw harder. Amidst all this induced self-loathing and the cycles of exercise, face creams and sex manuals, I’ve found that my best coping mechanism is just to go about my business unapologetically. If someone says I’m not funny because I’m a girl, I shrug. If I find out I make less than a male counterpart, I seethe silently on the inside but on the outside all I can do is continue to work as best I can. If I have an idea and I believe in it, and someone tells me it’s stupid, I don’t cower back and apologize for daring to have a thought. I pursue my idea until I either realize whatever it lead me to (like movie blogging), or I fail spectacularly and realize it really was a stupid idea (like that time I tried surfing).
What Fey’s anecdote about Poehler relates is that attitude of unapologetic womanness. Just because a man didn’t think Poehler was being cute doesn’t mean Poehler has to stop what she’s doing. She’s not in the business of people thinking she’s cute. She’s in the business of making people laugh and whatever accomplishes that wins. And that’s how it should be for women in the workplace. Looking pretty, being cute, whatever—none of it has anything to do with the performance of your job.* Professionalism, common courtesy and hard work—that’s what defines a woman (or anyone, really) in the workplace. And those are the tenets of Fey’s outlook on business and work. Her advice consists of be professional, be courteous, be smart and the rest of it will fall into line. And then don’t apologize for having ambition, ideas, goals—any of it.
*Unless you’re a supermodel.
There’s also a strong undercurrent of Fey’s disapproval of meangirling. Early in Bossypants she confesses a teenaged episode of meangirling and you can tell that she still, all these years later, regrets her behavior during that time. Since you can’t change what you’ve done, only what you will do, Fey spends a lot of time encouraging better woman-to-woman behavior (she did write Mean Girls with its “let’s all be nicer” moral). This is a topic close to me right now as my mom is currently the victim of workplace meangirling. She recently started a new job and her coworkers are being cliquey and meangirly and are excluding her from things, which makes me angry and frustrated because my mom is awesome and everyone should be nice to her. But what can you do? I think Aunt Tina would say to keep your chin up and continue being kind, even when they’re not kind back, and go about your business without apologizing for failing to meet whatever criteria the meangirls think you’ve failed to meet.
Bossypants is an enormously funny book, and it’s interesting for anyone curious about the behind the scenes life of someone who has risen to the top of the television and comedy worlds. But it’s also a great book for understanding how a life can be defined without apology. Fey, for all her self-deprecation, is an ambitious woman who is still pursuing her goals. She won’t be made to feel bad for not breastfeeding, for not only accepting but wanting Photoshop touch-ups on her magazine spreads, for doing things that a man might not find funny in the name of comedy. I have a feeling that when it’s time for my next “triannual torrential sob”, I’ll be pulling Bossypants off the shelf for the council and wisdom of Aunt Tina, who can always make light of the worst situations.