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?

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

I knew I liked him for a reason...

At a press conference on Wednesday, Governor Paterson of New York (most well-known for taking over after former Governor Spitzer's call-girl scandal), criticized the state commission for its lack of female candidates for Chief Judge:
“It seems highly unusual,” Mr. Paterson said during a press conference at his Midtown Manhattan office. “I don’t accept that there wasn’t a woman in this state that wasn’t qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals.”

Mr. Cuomo, who appeared with the governor at the press conference, also registered his outrage. “To circumscribe, limit the governor to only men, and for the commission to say, ‘We searched the state, we couldn’t find a single, solitary qualified woman to serve on the bench’ — something is wrong,” he said. “We will be exploring the available legal options, discussing it with the governor and his team and deciding where to go from here.”

H/T Feminist Daily News

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gay marriages will save the economy!

Proposition 8, The Musical

This is hilarious. Starring Jack Black (as Jesus), John C. Reilly, Margaret Cho, Andy Richter, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Sarah Chalke, Neil Patrick Harris, and many more.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

H/T pretty much everyone I know.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Military women

Echnide has a great post up about Specialist Monica Brown, who is only the second(!) woman since World War II to receive a Silver Star for valor. Brown was recently interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes:

Echnide draws her readers' attention primarily to a part of the interview where one of the saved men makes clear how he feels about women in combat, despite the fact that he probably owes his life to Brown:
But both of those men, Smith and Spray, declined to give 60 Minutes an interview. When we asked why, Smith said flat out women have no business being on the front line. The men who did talk to us did not feel that way, and said Brown performed as well as any man on the battlefield.
Seriously? This is kind of thing where there's really not much more to say than "Fuck you." She saved your life. Do you really wish she hadn't been there?

Thankfully, most of Brown's fellow soldiers are more open-minded (at least those interviewed by 60 Minutes), although a few obviously had no qualms implying that Brown may have only gotten her medal because she's a woman:
But these men all questioned whether Brown acted any more heroically than the men that day, and they suggested she may have been awarded her Silver Star because she is a woman.

"People ask, you know, like, 'Was she a superhero? Did she do anything, you know, super woman, super heroic?' No, she did her job," Best says. "And she did a very, very good job doing it. Now, that fact that she was 18 and, you know, a female and all, you know, that adds something to it."
This excuse (the reverse sexism or reverse racism excuse) is used for everything nowadays and it is so tiresome. They get us coming and going. Women aren't [insert adjective here] enough to [insert traditionally male activity here], but if a woman does something extraordinary and gets recognition for it, she clearly only got that recognition because she's a woman. I mean, no one accuses men of falsely gleaned privilege(s) only bestowed because of their gender.

But isn't that a lot closer to the truth?

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Monday, December 1, 2008

World Aids Day

Facing AIDS - World AIDS day 2008
Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness, encouraging testing, and fighting the global specter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

About an hour ago, President-Elect Obama's released online his taped address to the Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health (transcript available at The Washington Post's website). I honestly thought the speech could have been a little more convincing, more dynamic, but then again it was just a short, taped video address so what could he really say?

While trying to find a more, er, passionate response to World Aids Day, I came across this video, sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, about the organization Mothers2Mothers, which offers "social, emotional and psychological support" to pregnant African women who are HIV-positive. I know very little about the organization so far, but you can check out the video below:

I don't think this falls into the category of consumer-driven AIDS awareness hype, even though M2M is prominently sponsored by a major company. And, on the surface at least, I like the idea of what amounts to a counseling/mentoring/consciousness raising organization dedicated to bringing women together for mutual support, advice and consolation.

(Updated to add: Bil at The Bilerco Project has a great selection of World Aids Day videos from around the world.)

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Accolade - The All-Girl Saudi Rock Band

If you read the New York Times or any of the major blogs, you've probably heard about the first all-girl Saudi rock band. It's a pretty interesting story - Saudi culture has relaxed to the point that the band is a possibility, and they are apparently becoming a bit of an underground hit in the country. This, of course, is wonderful news from a feminist and humanitarian point of view. It's a sign of the improving cultural conditions that reformers in the country have been working hard to achieve.

Here's an excellent commentary on the band and the reactions to it, and you can hear the band's single here.

Despite many of the reactions on the web, Accolade isn't exactly on the cutting edge of Saudi cultural change. (Several Saudis have commented that they aren't even the first all-girl rock band, only the first one to go public) And while their existence is certainly nothing to sniff at, I think that their most important impact may come from a rather different direction.

Accolade is musically quite good. I've only hear the one song, of course, but I think they might turn out to be really, really good. In five years they might be as good as, say, Girlschool. This means that they could have staying power far beyond the "Ooh, a Saudi Girl Band! Shiny!" that the media has latched on to. They could have an international following - and they wouldn't be the "First All-Girl Saudi Band" - they would be "Accolade! (Of Saudi Arabia)".

And that would be something incredible. They would be an inspiration to women in oppressed cultures everywhere. They would spawn imitators, and hasten the cultural changes in Muslim countries. And perhaps most interesting of all, they would change the world's perception of Muslim Arabs. Whereas now, when the average paranoid westerner hears 'Muslim' or 'Arab', the first thought that comes to mind is 'Terrorist!' Wouldn't it be amazing if, instead, people thought "Hey, that new album from Accolade is AWESOME!"

Perhaps it won't happen - but I think that there's a chance! Their song has already received 78,000 listens - in only twenty days. Google "Saudi Rock Band" - it's all them. All they need now is a youtube video!

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Feminist Flashback #13

A classic PSA film from 1951: Girls Beware. It provides surprisingly sound advice actually, especially considering it's over 50 years old, although some of it is pretty over-the-top...and what happened to girls having any agency of their own? Warning for possible triggering, although the references it makes to rape and unwanted pregnancy are incredibly oblique:

Enjoy the remaining hours of your holiday weekend.

Update: Ann over at Feminist Law Professors also included a link to the companion film Boys Beware, which warns boys against homosexual advances. You can imagine how that goes! So painful to watch.

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