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The Last Thing Tina Fey Should Be Criticized for Is Being a Nonfeminist

Feminism needs to make room for all personality types
Tina Fey Amy Poehler women in comedy self-deprecating humor feminism Hadley Freeman

A few weeks ago Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney, went on record saying that he thinks it is hard to find women who are both beautiful and funny in Hollywood. He was referring to the impressive career of actress Goldie Hawn, but his comments, while perhaps well-intentioned, stirred the pot big-time. Yet again we found ourselves wondering why women constantly have to be assessed based on beauty scales.

It made me think of Katrina Trinko’s article for Verily last year about how hard it is to be a woman in comedy. She was right: Female comics don’t just have to battle social norms requiring they be pretty and sexy at all times but they also have to act as ambassadors for their gender in a way that men never have to. Whether successes or failures, women comedians are always put into a category—either the “maybe women can actually be funny” group or the “women aren’t funny” stereotype. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Sometimes, though, the harshest criticism comes from the sources you’d least expect—from people who are supposedly on the same team as us, i.e. other women. This kind of criticism hurts the most, because c’mon ladies, you’re supposed to understand what we’re going through here! To paraphrase Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, we’ve got some girl-on-girl crime going on here.

In Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies, Hadley Freeman writes that she believes Tina Fey has a bad case of “Self-Deprecating Tourette’s.” Freeman says that in Fey’s 2011 memoir, Bossypants, “references to her alleged plainness, gaucheness, and klutziness outnumber tales of her patently true success by about a gajillion to one.” Freeman implies that Fey’s supposed problem with accepting compliments and owning her career success are failings that make her somehow less feminist. She contrasts this assessment of Fey with Amy Poehler, who, Freeman says, “knows that a woman can be funny without belittling herself.”

I know what Freeman is getting at—she thinks that Fey has the all-too-common female trait of downplaying her strengths and skills. You know, the way we often feel like we have to keep the peace and not assert ourselves too strongly, all of the upspeak and the apologies. But is it possible that a self-proclaimed feminist, New York Times bestselling author, eight-time Emmy Award winner, and two-time Golden Globe winner is unknowingly setting a nonfeminist example? Freeman seems to think so: “If being a feminist means believing in women’s rights, you cannot be a feminist if you do not believe in the most important woman’s rights—your own.”

Freeman’s issue with Fey is the way she talks about her own career as well as her looks, saying that she “convuls[es] into awkwardness when confronted with her own success." It’s true, she does joke about how badly her SNL interview went (even though she ended up getting the job and went on to become a head writer); how she thought the main reason that her award-winning show, 30 Rock, got picked up by the network was because Alec Baldwin agreed to star in it; and she constantly makes fun of her own appearance.

I don’t think this means that Fey doesn’t believe in her own talents or well-deserved success, though. She mocks her own appearance, sure, but she does so in a way that consistently shows up our culture for placing so much importance on how women look, as if that’s the most interesting thing about us. She often talks about her disbelief at having “made it” in the world of comedy—but at the same time she is a great leader and boss who is never afraid to speak her mind. Her comic persona on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, can be laughed at for many things, but her career managerial style and ability is not one of them. Only Liz Lemon (or her real-life counterpart, Tina Fey) could manage that rabble of crazies and get them to produce successful television week after week.

Are we really supposed to believe that Tina Fey, one of the biggest names in comedy of the past decade, isn’t up to par simply because maybe she’s a little modest?

Despite what Freeman says, Fey is clearly quite capable of accepting a compliment, even if they do make her a little uncomfortable—in fact, here she is on two separate occasions accepting compliments from Google’s executive chairman and David Letterman.

Then there’s Fey’s advice about sexism in the workplace, from her book Bossypants: “When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you . . . opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.” Do these sound like the words of a woman who is insecure? I don’t think so.

The main reason this criticism of Fey makes me uncomfortable, though, is because I think it’s demeaning to suggest that a smart, witty, successful, and experienced woman is somehow not a real feminist on the basis of a few token personality traits. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are great friends and veritable powerhouses of comedy, yes, but they are also different people. Amy is a natural-born performer, and that’s her thing, whereas Tina obviously feels more confident directing and writing. So what if Fey finds her success hard to believe sometimes? Wouldn’t many of us feel the same way about fame? That doesn’t make you any less feminist than someone who is more relaxed in the spotlight.

I think what Freeman and Eisner are missing is that being human (and, yes, being a woman) is complicated, and we need to stop holding women to a higher standard than men. In reality, self-deprecation is an art that comedians everywhere dabble in. Just think of Jason Alexander’s character George on Seinfeld, Steve Carell in The Office, pretty much anything Woody Allen ever did, Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, even Charlie Chaplin. In fact, I defy you to find a good male comedian who isn’t a master of self-deprecation. Comedians make fun of themselves for many reasons, mostly because it is the most readily accessible source of inspiration but also because it is the most generous one. No one likes bullies who tease everyone else but can’t laugh at themselves.

Ultimately, it’s important that successful women in the public eye are different from each other. We need the Amy Poehlers and the Tina Feys. Extrovert, introvert, and everyone in between, great at accepting compliments or awkward about them—there’s room for us all. Take Poehler and Fey’s upcoming movie, Sisters, for example. The duo play, well, sisters, who are different yet complement each other perfectly. This is exactly the message to carry over into real life. From Pitch Perfect 2 to Spy, comedy is embracing all kinds of different people these days, whatever they look like and whatever their personality type, and it’s about time that feminists and naysayers of society do, too.