“Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy. She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.”
So begins Maureen Dowd’s recent article in Vanity Fair, “What Tina Wants” (accompanied by the blurb on the cover “A New American Sweetheart”). Reading this sentence, I can almost hear my eighth grade writing teacher announcing to the class in her rich Scottish accent, “Your intro paragraph always must begin with an attention grabber!” Clearly, Dowd intends it to be one–considering its usage, it could practically be in the dictionary under “attention grabber.” So this all just makes one wonder: why does it grab our attention? The fact itself isn’t completely shocking; I’m sure plenty of women have never dated bad boys (not to mention that if Fey admitted that she had let the boys she dated do “bad” things, she’d probably find herself on the other side of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but that’s another story). Right from the start, we’re confronted with Dowd trying to spin something not particularly odd into something completely unusual. I think part of it is that Fey successfully flouts her expectations. Unphased, throughout the article Dowd digs as hard as she can to find some way in which Fey’s personality echoes the image she has conjured of her.
During cocktails at her apartment, I ask Fey, What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
“Nothing,” she replies blithely. (page 2)
But there are no affairs to find, just the time when Fey’s husband “got in trouble” for joking that they should go to a strip club. There’s no scandalous tales gossiped from co-workers, just the assertion that Fey is a world-class observer, one of the secrets to any sort of good writing, comedic or otherwise. For that matter, she’s not anyone’s puppet (“’Tina is not clay’ says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career” [page 1].). And, unable to find these tropes to center her article, Dowd tries another tactic, one we’re probably all familiar with. My mom saw it in the 60’s, my friends and I saw it as teenagers in the 90’s. It’s the romantic comedy narrative standard of the just-remove-glasses and stir ugly ducking.
From an objective writerly perspective, I’m unsure of what Dowd is trying to accomplish in this article–it meanders in circles. As I said before, I almost get the sense that she approached it with a certain set of expectations, didn’t have them met, and was reduced to trying to fit what she did find out into some semblance of structure. But stranger still, and more interesting, is Fey’s relative silence throughout the article. Dowd has elected to tell the trajectory of Fey’s career almost entirely from the perspective of the men in her life. Feminist objections aside, there’s just something jarring about not hearing from someone who’s known for her comedy, her writing, her voice in a piece about her life. I can only conclude that Dowd, in her desire to fit Tina Fey into the “glamor-puss” role she (or Vanity Fair) created, had to tone down Fey’s “activeness.” She attempts to shove a kind of “American Dream” tale (woman who does hard work gets rewarded) into a Cinderella makeover story, resulting in a textual and subtextual mess.
Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, ‘When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will. (page 1)
As I mentioned before, the rhetoric here is half American Dream, half Stacy and Clinton’s “What Not to Wear” celebrity super special edition (I don’t know if that actually exists). Perhaps fitting into the New York image allowed Fey to appear on TV, but it was her comedic sensibility that got her that far in the first place. If we want to reduce people’s lives to narratives, why does Dowd have to explicitly use Cinderella (and, for that matter, Sex and the City): ” She got her own slipper, writing and willing herself into the role, and the shoe wasn’t glass. It was a silver Manolo Blahnik.”? Is a makeover really the female equivalent of the American Dream?
The slipper just doesn’t fit, even as Dowd slices the story. Her tone doesn’t match the details. I think my favorite example of this is Dowd’s apparent shock that back when Fey was doing Second City gigs in Chicago “She used to wear crazy boots…knee-length frumpy dresses with thrift-store sweaters.” In other words, she dressed like a college student. As I myself, was, up until very recently, a college student, I just don’t have it in me to drudge up the shock. Living in the Pacific Northwest probably doesn’t help either, but I guess that’s not the point. I know that if you want to get into the entertainment industry, especially in a place like New York, you have to look the part. You have to be a sophisticate. Despite Dowd’s attempt to shroud it in mystique, when I read Fey’s story I see not a cosmetic miracle, but the story of a woman who realized that she had to dress the part to be taken seriously. She was already writing for SNL; they just wouldn’t let her on TV. She had the talent, the drive; all that was missing was the image. Call it a feminist defeat; call it just the way things are–I don’t care. Right or wrong, it was just another step along the difficult road of becoming a self-made woman in a world where women need both brains and beauty to get noticed. Seinfeld didn’t need to be a hunk and could dress down grungy, but Tina Fey’s gotta wear those pumps. It’s sick that the world works like that, yes, and it’s even more sick that Dowd chose to center her tale of Fey’s career around what was perhaps the smallest aspect of her success.
The quotes from the article chosen to accompany the lovely Annie Leibovitz photography are even more puzzling. Next to an image of Fey dancing
around, smiling and carefree is the blurb, “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” While I find the actualand image counteracts how free Fey looks while dancing. It feels like a textual punishment: you can’t really be this joyful because you have a butt. I have yet to truly understand what exactly made this such an important quotation as to be excerpted from the article. As it is, it adds yet another contradictory message to the tangled subtext: She’s a brain. No, she’s a brain-turned-glamour puss-who-somehow-retained-the-brain. But, don’t worry, other women: she’s still a butt despite it all.
Regardless of how pretty Tina Fey may be I’ve never actually met anyone who would talk about her looks before her comedy. But Dowd’s article–though it does veers into the Palin sketches (“Did she ever use the Sarah Palin voice to entice her own First Dude?” Dowd asks [pg. 2].) and 30 Rock (“30 Rock features many shots of Liz Lemon’s younger life, when she looks like a nerd in goofy clothes and frizzy hair. ‘I really wasn’t heavy in high school,’ Fey recalls over lunch one afternoon at Café Luxembourg, where she dutifully switches her order from a B.L.T. to a salad” [pg. 2].)–has body on the brain.
Whether she did it just to sell magazines or if she’s acting on her own prejudices, Dowd has done everything in her power to tease out the body and bawdy from this career, but no matter if you want to package her as America’s Sweetheart or as just a very talented comedic writer/producer who worked her butt off, in the end, Fey just comes across as smart and driven. Plain and simple. I, for one, like that; I’m not sure why Dowd doesn’t.
(You can read the full article here or in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, starting on page 66.)
*Apologies to the writers of Frost/Nixon for stealing their title. The movie, while fairly unrelated to anything having to do with this article, is actually fantastic.