Mean Girls: Why Are Women Turning Against Tina Fey?

New York magazine writer Ariel Levy’s 2005 cultural study Female Chauvinist Pigs described a new kind of misogyny perpetrated by women who curry favor by “Uncle Tomming” mainstream frat behavior in the guise of sexual empowerment. Chelsea Handler, whose raunchy essay collections My Horizontal Life and Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea sold 1.7 million copies and spawned a number of Chelsea Lites, is one offender. The so-called Fempire — the Hollywood woman-screenwriter foursome of Diablo Cody, Lorene Scafaria (now dating Ashton Kutcher), Dana Fox (writer of big-budget rom-coms What Happens in Vegas and The Wedding Date), and Elizabeth Meriwether — is another. A 2009 New York Times article brought most of the backlash on ringleader Cody, who taught us that there is such a thing as “stripping ironically,” for her smug attitude. There wasn’t an ounce of “everywoman” among them. They were a female Entourage without a chubby Turtle.

Such female chauvinist pigs are supposedly guilty of play, and Levy admonishes them: “If you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress.” But it’s less the Fempire and the Handlerites who need to heed this advice then the likes of Tina Fey, whose “nerdy” onscreen persona and adamant faux feminism masks a Thatcherite morality and tendency to slut-shame.

— Anna Breslaw, “The Unf*ckables” (The New Inquiry, May 2012)


Since I’m what’s apparently now known as a “comedy nerd,” someone sent me Anna Breslaw’s essay in The New Inquiry called “The Unf*ckables,” which is all about the new wave of raunchy post-modern female comedians, and feminism and sexual politics and conventional standards of beauty.

I think.

“The Unf*ckables” actually reminded me of Norman Mailer’s hugely influential 9000-word 1957 opus “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.”

That is: I read it a couple of times and I still didn’t get it.

See, I didn’t go to college, so stuff like this by Breslaw zooms right over my skull:

The only funny women who are free to cross over to mainstream audiences are the ones who are free from the beauty hang-ups that limit their jokes to female audiences. The game, then, is how effortlessly and subliminally someone like Fey can convey her exceptionalism using ironic male touches and the [sic?] feminism as an alibi for their looks advantage, reinforcing the patriarchal standards she often pretends to critique.

So I’m stupid. Sorry.

And some stuff I did understand got up my nose.

Breslaw tosses off a pair of wrongheaded incidentals that nevertheless marred my reading experience the way two pebbles in your shoe can ruin a scenic stroll.

First: “…sauntering onto stages in the farthest outreaches of some podunk town” — a phrase I suspect she typed while forcing out a derisive snort — is what’s otherwise known as “being a working comic.”

Second: Contrary to Breslaw’s assertion, there was nothing “inexplicable” about Joan Rivers’ compulsive ubiquity (like her creepy Fagin-esque bauble-mauling on QVC) “after the suicide of her husband”:


He’d left her with $37 million in debt.

Anyway, Breslaw’s main thesis seems to be:

Tina Fey = bad.

Wow. I never pictured the cool kids ever turning on Tina.

Isn’t she the hipster’s sweetheart, their nerdy-cute heroine who proves you can be attractive AND funny AND successful (AND — I’ll say it even though they never would — still get a husband)?

But this week, columnist Lynn Crosbie also came out swinging at the 30 Rock star/hair dye pitch lady/Sarah Palin impersonator.

What is it, that time of the month…?

Photo via


Luckily, I’ve known (at a distance) and read (closely) Lynn Crosbie for decades — we’re geographical and chronological contemporaries — so her column made far more sense to me.

She brought up Fey’s recent appearance on Zach Galifianakis’ too-cool-for-me trompe l’oeil talk show Between Two Ferns. (The smartest thing about it is its title.)

Crosbie relates one of Fey’s remarks on the program, then the host’s reply, to wit:

“That was pretty good,” Galifianakis said. “For a girl.”

The aggressive, even physically violent aspect of the talk show is all fabrication and Fey was being set up, of course, to be hilarious in the face of some received, absurd idea about women and humour.

But, quite by accident, Galifianakis’s final burn was uncomfortably astute.

Not about girls, but about Fey, who, because she is not funny, or hot any more, was “pretty good,” considering.



Ultimately, Crosbie’s point is more prosaic — and therefore, more perceptive — than Breslaw’s admirably acrobatic po-mo musings about coarseness, class, and comedy.

That is:

Tina Fey has been overexposed.

“In another decade, Fey, like Valerie Harper or Roseanne Barr, could have milked her shtick interminably,” Crosbie explains, “but these days, fame is far too fleeting,” adding an ominous prediction (that reminds me of something my mother always told me: “Boyfriends come and go, but your girl friends are forever.”)

“What has been or will be Fey’s undoing,” predicts Crosbie, “is her disquieting revisionist history of, and antagonistic relationship with, female comics.”

Fey likes to position herself as a courageous pioneer, forging trails across the comedy plains in a covered wagon clown car, one with “SNL, Cast of 2008″ emblazoned on its canvas top.

But — being, like me, a Canadian — Crosbie is eager to point out that:

It is simply not true, and deeply insulting, to suggest that Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig invented funny, liberated women. (…)

With the original 1976 cast of Second City Television, we had Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara, who did better work than anyone has done since: All of these women were writers and comics, and it is they who rewrote the script about men and women and being funny.

They are mentioned, in passing, and buried in a long list, in [Fey’s bestselling book] Bossypants.


Crosbie also mentions Totie Fields and Pearl Williams. To which list of “balls out” female comics, I’d add Sophie Tucker and Rusty Warren, that raunchy lady whose records your parents put on after you went to bed, and whom Catherine O’Hara affectionately spoofed (while squeezing in a joke that’s part of our province’s morbid lore):

Take that, all you chicks in Bridsemaids!

Tina Fey: Then and now

And now back to Breslaw.

She opens her essay with a 2008 Tina Fey quote that reads in part:

I love to play strippers and to imitate them. I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.

That choice of epigraph helps clarify what’s eating Breslaw about Fey.

Like Crosbie, she picks up on Fey’s antipathy towards other women who aren’t part of her particular circle.

Specifically, though, Breslaw takes issue with what she calls the actress’s “tendency to slut shame.”

Now, I’m obliged to assume Breslaw isn’t married, because I don’t find anything off-putting about Fey’s negative remarks about “Bombshell” McGee, the overly-tattooed celebrity bimbo who helped break up Sandra Bullock’s marriage.

Some sluts need shaming.

However, Breslaw is on firmer ground when she notes that:

[W]here [Kathy] Griffin attacks millionaire untouchables like Nicole Kidman for a poor fashion choice, Fey goes for the little people: Internet commenters, obscure mistresses, strippers. Would you rather have another woman insult your dress or call you a whore?


Then there’s Tina Fey’s 2010 declaration that:

You could be the woman who cures cancer and you would still be up against some skank, rocking giant veiny fake boobs where the nipples point in different directions like an old Buick. (…) [T]he world has always been full of whores.

I was taken aback by Fey’s prickly hostility there. Her public persona is more kooky and loveable than crass.

In fact, there she sounds about as crude as the “low class” women she’s targeting.

The lady doth say “whores” too much, no?

I’ll leave it to others to psychoanalyze Tina Fey’s apparent animus towards, yes, looser, but also perhaps less privileged and talented women than she.

By appointing herself a spokesperson not just for hair coloring, but for Her Female Comedy Generation™, Fey has opened herself up to criticism. Some of her fellow females are simply taking up the challenge.

Maybe Tina Fey should give up the urge to wax philosophical from on high on the subject of “Women In Comedy Today,” and go back to just being one of those women — one among equals — instead.


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