Friday, December 5, 2008

All glamed up and nowhere to go?: Tina Fey in Vanity Fair

People who know me probably know that I have a bit of a crush on Tina Fey. ("Only a bit?" I can hear my partner ask incredulously upon reading this.) It's mostly an intellectual crush (that's what I'm telling myself), with a dash of wanting to be her and a sprinkling of finding her incredibly charming. Never mind. The point is, to say I'm biased would be an understatement, and I just want to admit that upfront, though I am going to try to be as objective as I can here.

There's been a little buzz recently because Fey is all sexed-up on the cover, and in the pages, of the January 2009 Vanity Fair. The article/interview, by Maureen Dowd, and its accompanying photos, taken by Annie Leibovitz, provide a more in-depth portrait of Fey than I feel we've heretofore seen, at least in a big-name publication. Fey is depicted as down-to-earth, a little proper, incredibly smart, snarky and self-possessed. However, she's also portrayed as someone who transformed in a matter of a few years from a slightly dowdy, chubby and "not fit for the spotlight" writer to a "sexy librarian," glamourpuss, superlative star. It's like Wonder Woman: one minute she's Diana Prince, supposedly awkward, unassuming secretary, and the next minute she's Wonder Woman, beautiful and superior in every way--a woman everyone wants to be (and have). Herein lies the problem, for some.

In the lengthy Vanity Fair interview, Dowd makes certain to signpost Fey's transformation. For example, she recalls a conversation with Fey's co-star Alec Baldwin:
Ah, I say, so you’re the one who encouraged Fey to wear so many low-cut tops, even though Lemon [Fey's character on her TV show 30 Rock] seems like the crewneck-sweater type. “There is Liz Lemon and there is Liz Lemon as portrayed by a leading actress in a TV show,” Baldwin responds with amused and amusing disdain. “It’s not a documentary. Tina’s a beautiful girl. We needed to get the pillows fluffed on the sofa and we needed to get the drapes steamed, and we needed to get everything all nice and get the presentation just right. Tina always played the cute, nerdy girl. Tina on the news, the glasses. There was not a big glamour quotient for her. Now there is.
On the one hand, Baldwin's unmitigated assertions that Fey needed to glam-up, no questions asked, are certainly problematic, though not surprising (remember folks, this is national television we're talking about). It's frustrating that television ratings depend in part on pretty actors--although, this does not just apply to women--and characters that are attractive on a surface level as well as being likable on a personality level (or, if not likable, at least someone with whom you can identify, love to hate, etc.). On the other hand, the idea that a smart, self-described nerd has become an (inter)national celebrity is kind of great. And, admit it, would you really say no to professional stylists and a Vanity Fair photo shoot? Probably not. If so, you're more principled than I am.

I kind of like the way Salon Broadsheet writer, Sarah Hepola, puts in it her short piece, The sexing up of Tina Fey:
Maybe you find this depressing (a brilliant comic mind inevitably reduced to shaking her cleavage). Maybe you find this empowering (a brilliant comic mind finally shaking her cleavage!). Either way, it only confirms what many of us have known for a long time: Tina Fey is one of the most fascinating celebrities out there right now.
Moreover, Fey's level of glamour on 30 Rock isn't anything to get too worked up about. In Vanity Fair, yes, she is definitely rendered sultry and hot (in an appealing, slightly geeky way that's Fey's trademark). But in 30 Rock? Sure, she's a beautiful woman, but her character isn't glamed up in any way that I can tell (despite Baldwin's insistence). At most she shows a little cleavage, but otherwise Liz Lemon wears casual clothes, appears to wear little or no makeup (thought obviously Fey has to be wearing makeup for the cameras), rarely wears heels or revealing clothing, and doesn't really style her hair (someone even went through the trouble of cataloging the style choices of Lemon as a character). The most dressed up I've seen Lemon is in the first few minutes of this season's premiere, an episode in which it was made clear over and over again that trying to be someone you're not is not going to end well.

Most importantly--and way more importantly than the fashion/glamour question, which I personally think is over-hyped in most considerations of whether people are suited for feminist role-model-dom--Fey's character Liz Lemon is feminist, and has clearly stated herself as such (and presumably so has Fey, though I've not seen any explicit mention--someone find one for me, please?). And while Lemon faces all those conventional/stereotypical third-wave feminist, career-woman problems (difficulty finding a decent boyfriend, desire to have children before she gets too old, fighting the old boy's network at every turn), she never contemplates giving up her career or settling for an asshole guy just so she won't be alone. Liz Lemon is definitely not portrayed as someone to pity, but someone with whom we can identify, even as we're laughing at and with her. And even in those moments when we're given license to laugh at her "feminism" (i.e. unwillingness to submit herself to patriarchal standards of beauty or society's expectations of female behavior), we're always provided with an equally amusing contrast (indicating that the way women are expected to act is pretty ridiculous, too):

All that said, it's one thing to talk about how Liz Lemon the character and 30 Rock the show embody egalitarian principles and espouse, under the guise of goofiness and through the veil of humor, a feminist ideology. It's another thing entirely to consider how Fey comes across in her Vanity Fair interview. On the one hand, Fey makes some astute observations about interpretations of her encounter with Governor Palin:
Around the same time, Fey saw an entertainment reporter on TV say that Palin had been gracious toward Fey, but Fey hadn’t been gracious toward Palin. “What made me super-mad about it,” Fey says later, “was that it seemed very sexist toward me and her. The implication was that she’s so fragile, which she is not. She’s a strong woman. And then, also, it was sexist because, like, who would ever go on the news and say, ‘Well, I thought it was sort of mean to Richard Nixon when Dan Aykroyd played him,’ and ‘That seemed awful mean to George Bush when Will Ferrell did it.’ And it’s like, No, that’s not the thing. This is a comedy sketch on a comedy show.” “Mean,” we agreed, was a word that tends to get used on women who do satirical humor and, as she says, “gay guys.”
She's totally right, and it's great that she has no qualms (not that she should) expressing her thoughts on the topic. Funny woman making fun of another woman = bitchy and mean. Funny man making fun of another man = hilarious. What's that all about?

On the other hand, in the interview, Fey talks about her horror at discovering her husband had gone to a strip club:
‘“I love to play strippers and to imitate them,’” says Fey. ‘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.’”
I'm a little conflicted about this. Octogalore (in an excellent picking-apart of all the inconsistencies in the interview) interprets this to mean that Fey would never consider being a stripper, whereas I (and a few other commentors) read Fey's comment as not wanting to go to strip clubs (as she mentions in the previous paragraph her husband had done). Octogalore writes
Also, Tina prefers the idea of strippers “for comedy,” “to imitate them.” When someone’s a little more in need, maybe has fewer options for making the big bucks like Tina makes, and does things – maybe sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not – that make her appear to be a caricature of something other than the Republican VP nominee, that’s apparently good comic fun for Tina.

But Tina’s proof that the industry, for better or worse, isn’t going to die. Whether we are “better,” like Tina, or worse, like I used to be, or in Tina’s lexicon, much worse – there is still going to be a market for women using our sexuality. As long as that market offers better pay than other accessible markets for our skills, then economic equilibrium will dictate supply. Not Tina’s ideas about virtue.
While I agree with Octogalore for the most part, I think she might be a little harsh (not to mention that I'm still not convinced Fey didn't just mean that she's against going to strip clubs). I see a difference between believing, as Fey suggests she does, that stripping is degrading to women (which I, for the record, don't actually think is necessarily the case, though it can be) and being willing/wanting to play up your own sexuality a little bit for the camera (be it photographic or televisual). Not that these two things aren't at all related, but the parallel can't be seamlessly drawn.

In the end, this is probably something I have to give more thought. How accountable can we hold our celebrity idols/role models for the contradictions in their own beliefs? I'm eager to hear your thoughts. Do you think 30 Rock is a feminist show? Do you think Fey playing up her sexuality negates her standing as a feminist role-model? Do you think Fey is being judgmental and hypocritical about women using their sexuality and is, hence, a "bad" feminist? And how do we decide what makes a good or bad feminist?


Octogalore said...

Thanks for the kind words, aviva!

I agree, Fey's representing a successful actress who's a self-described feminist (I think) and is rewarded for her brains and wit, is a very positive thing for women.

I don't know, though, that it's earthshaking that a "nerdy girl" can be successful. Even at her "nerdiest," Tina was much more conventionally attractive than people typically labeled nerds.

RE: "I see a difference between believing, as Fey suggests she does, that stripping is degrading to women (which I, for the record, don't actually think is necessarily the case, though it can be) and being willing/wanting to play up your own sexuality a little bit for the camera (be it photographic or televisual). Not that these two things aren't at all related, but the parallel can't be seamlessly drawn."

The parallel is that both are things men aren't expected to do, to nearly the same extent. We all know nerdy guys who headline movies without having to glam up (Adam, Steve, Ben, anyone?), let alone TV shows where a number of leading men are overweight and shlumpy.

There is a larger gap in every sense except stigma within the sex work industry than the gap between high priced sex workers and Tina Fey. The lowest-paid sex workers make four figures annually; the highest make seven (with quite a few inthe six fig range), and I'd imagine Tina's making eight. Similarly, the gap between living conditions and educational level between the high-priced sex worker and Tina is smaller than that between the high priced and low priced sex worker.

I'm not faulting the decisions of any of these women. I'm not suggesting Tina's playing up her sexuality makes her a bad feminist. I'm suggesting that her saying it's wrong for others to do that, and/or for customers to subsidize this, is hypocritical. said...

In terms of the hypocrisy, I think you're right, and it's a shame more people don't/aren't willing to admit that sex work is just the maligned cousin of more "conventional" forms of female objectification (and women objectifying themselves/turning themselves into sexual objects for a paycheck -- and often of their own volition, whatever the context). It's to the point that sexual objectification (for want of a better term) of a more subtle kind--like the Tina Fey, one-more-button-undone variety--has become so standard in film and television that it's completely normative. So people might call out obvious sex work as objectifying (whether good or bad) but glaming yourself up a little for the spotlight is just good business practice.

One thing I would have liked from the Vanity Fair article is a little more of a sense of how Fey feels about her image change. She talked about it a bit, but it was all pretty surface level stuff. I wonder if she personally feels conflicted about Alec's advice and the fact that she obviously took his advice (considering her own admission of being more of a jeans and thrift store sweatshirts kind of woman in her writing-only days) or if her "ugly duckling" transformation just goes with the territory for her without question.