Fey-minism: A DIY Solution to the Problem of Choice

In this continuation of last month's essay on Choice Feminism and the role of popular media in shaping the way we think of feminism, we look at Tina Fey and her particular approach to feminist issues.

Let me make a few things clear before we proceed: I’m not positing Tina Fey as the only way out of this problem and I do understand that, when I mention her brand of feminism, the ideas it entails are not hers originally and can be found elsewhere too. She is not a feminist scholar per se and Bossypants is not a work of feminist scholarship, but this is where the opportunities lie.

Firstly, the objective of any medium is to effectively transfer the message from its respective sources to the targets and therefore Fey-minism is not a school of thought but a means to an end. More importantly, these formulations will have to be more context specific, which is a strength for popular media. The medium then has to be able to make the message context specific. Without the contextual modifications, these academic formulations are rendered formulaic, thereby reducing their efficacy and increasing the chances for distortions (intended or otherwise) to slip in. Moreover, formulaic messages, even if grasped properly, run the risk of being totemic as the risk of spoon feeding dials down the necessary level of critical engagement. Thus the medium needs to make the academic message not only context-specific but also turn the grasping into a DIY exercise.  Like an IKEA table, the message will only hit home when the target individual receives the ideas in a way which requires assembly and has to grapple with them to get to the intended end point. Without letting the individual — and consequently the masses — get down and dirty with the scholarly abstractions presented in a context-specific way, creation of a feminist consciousness is impossible. This is the reason why McRobbie is against the idea of “complicitous critique” which she explains as a, “style of scholarship which examines cultural phenomena from a feminist perspective, but which appears to suspend critical engagement with the wider political and economic conditions which shape the very existence, as well as the circulation and availability, of these forms.” (539). Without an eye on the bigger scheme of things, feminist discourse does a grave injustice unto itself.

Having established that the individuated approach and its advantages over a formulaic one, we must now turn our attention to the intended end point in itself. Is it supposed to be the same for everyone? The short answer is no. I do believe that as a whole, feminism has a unified objective which I think is an unequivocal acknowledgement of the feminine as an all encompassing, stand-alone category which is not in opposition yet equivalent to the masculine. Yet, to reach that end, one must forge an individual path, albeit with proper guidance where necessary. Secondly, that realisation must be preceded by smaller ones which again are individuated. Talking to her female readers about workplace behaviour, Fey displays a strong sense of tempering individual choices:

If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.
— Tina Fey (Bossypants, p.2)

Fey obliquely satirizes the consumerist impulses of the readers of her “American-made genuine book” (Fey 2). The female consumers - and this is where the Fey-minist context-specificity comes in - are looking for “practical” tips (outside of, but inspired by the impermeable and uncompromising bubble of academia) to succeed in an environment which is still widely understood to be “male-dominated” even in the epoch of so-called post-feminism. The crisp, concise imperatives oft carry the grotesque brevity credited to practicality. The brevity excludes the reasoning or logic behind these commandments, but it succeeds in demarcating, as clearly as possible, certain choices that one ought not to make at work – “no pigtails. No tube tops. Cry sparingly.” Fey’s series of instructions negotiates with the masculinisation of the work-environment – to cry is acceptable but to eat diet foods  at a meeting is not. While these instructions are essentially undoubtedly formulaic, they do not stifle the individual subject and moreover, cater to a highly specific audience: the middle-class American woman who subscribes to a certain type of body-image approved by the patriarchal ideologies of 21st Century West. Fey, rather than promoting  the Steinemian idea of “uncritical acceptance” (Ferguson, 248) of all individual  choices in the “non-judgemental” spirit of choice-feminism, chooses to use her own agency and experience in order to direct her female readership away from choices that she perceives as impediments for working in a “male-dominated workplace”. Choice based feminism may be counter-productive for the simple reason that it is unreasonable to expect a woman to independently bypass the inevitable internalisation of pervasive patriarchal ideologies as well as her own prolonged embeddedness within them and then to assume a highly self-aware stance governed by a rationale which comprehends with considerable clarity the complexities of feminist discourses. Moreover, with popular media distorting feminist ideals to suit its own purpose, it has become more difficult, and hence more important, to identify and understand the various factors that feed into the manufacturing of the popular narrative of feminism – something which almost obliterates from popular consciousness the feminist principles that otherwise thrive within the world of academia.

To better understand the factors at play, let’s look at one of the most contentious issues that feminism is dealing with today – body image consciousness, unrealistic standards of beauty and the use of Photoshop to this end. McRobbie, in her analysis of the television show, Sex and the City, points at the sexual liberation which is used as a bait to expand consumerism and commodity fetishism. Here we realise that even sexual liberation is limited and controlled by body image consciousness (let’s not forget that a seemingly medical term, cellulite, first appeared in an issue of Vogue). However, even as the use of virtual modificatory tools such as Photoshop makes it easier to perpetuate a certain body-image, they do make a slant contribution in alleviating the need to physically transform oneself. One need not go after diet foods.

A lot of women are outraged by the use of Photoshop in magazine photos. I say a lot of women because I have yet to meet one man who could give a fat turd about the topic. Not even a gay man. I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society... unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool. Do I think Photoshop is being used excessively? Yes. I saw Madonna’s Louis Vuitton ad and honestly, at first glance, I thought it was Gwen Stefani’s baby. Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do.
— Tina Fey (Bossypants, p.80)

On an issue as polarising as Photoshop, where people have varying and contradictory opinions, Tina Fey puts the individual’s choice at the forefront. She firmly remains within the realm of the personal to formulate her idea about the issue but she is not losing sight of the bigger political picture while she contemplates about the individual contexts. So far she is in sync with the norms of Choice Feminism. But then she narrates another incident about a photoshoot which destabilises the idea of  personal choices being paramount:

Some people say [Photoshop is] a feminist issue. I agree, because the best Photoshop job I ever got was for a feminist magazine called Bust in 2004. I looked at the two paltry lights they had set up and turned to the editors. “We’re all feminists here, but you’re gonna use Photoshop, right?” “Oh, yeah,” they replied instantly. Feminists do the best Photoshop because they leave the meat on your bones. They don’t change your size or your skin color. They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out some armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying its existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light.
— Tina Fey (Bossypants, p.82)

Does this incident take away from the feminist credentials of the said magazine? The point here is that unlike the tenets of choice feminism, it is okay for feminists to disagree with other feminists and critique their choices. It is even okay to alienate a section of people if one feels, as an individual, that one should stand their ground. Another noteworthy bit in Fey’s method is her constant relapse into the personal and the anecdotal. By doing so, she establishes her own ground and welcomes others to have different views or even to challenge her views. Rather than avoiding confrontation, Fey suggests that confrontation is key to eventual resolution of conflicting thoughts and this will eventually broaden the tenets of the common minimum and strengthen feminist discourse. Finally this goes on to show that focussing on individual choice does not divorce it from broader institutional, social, political and historical contexts within which these choices are made. This is in perfect sync with McRobbie’s formulation that, “To ignore the force field within which these cultural forms circulate is to abandon the ethical and the political underpinning of feminist media and cultural studies scholarship.” (544)

Tina Fey is a trained improv performer and that training has had a significant impact on her worldview. She writes, “The rules of improvisation appealed to me not only as a way of creating comedy, but as a worldview” (48). Improv is a great metaphor for us to get at a nuanced critique of the matter at hand as it is based on keeping an open mind, working together, having very few but rigid preset rules and taking each situation that presents itself on its merit and individually dealing with it but keeping in mind the larger narrative. She says that one of the most important injunctions in improv is to make statements which she says is another way of saying “don't just ask questions.” What really encapsulates the relevance of the improv metaphor for our cause is the realisation that mistakes are opportunities, to improv(e).

There are no mistakes, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.
— Tina Fey (Bossypants, p.49)

This insistence that mistakes are an opportunity to create something better is not a new idea, but to implement this one must acknowledge a mistake as such. If all choices are valid and inherently feminist, the scope for improvement goes out the window. This puts in perspective the importance of making judgements, which Ferguson argues is the very essence of having a political consciousness. Making a judgement or a statement is anticipatory as, “when we express judgments and claim them as valid for others, we anticipate, we hope that others will agree with us; but we cannot know in advance whether they will. Making judgments therefore always involves taking risks” (251). This is a risk worth taking as not taking it implies stagnation. This risk also pays handsome dividends as one encounters new positions, new perspectives and thus has an opportunity to redefine one’s individuality, an opportunity which Ferguson calls “the pleasure of exercising political freedom” (251).

I believe that choice feminism, which came into its own in the wake of the dismantling of the welfare state, has watched silently as consumerist forces have hijacked the feminist movement to sell their wares. This is essentially because of the hand-me-down nature of dissemination of feminist thought, an approach which discourages critical enquiry and takes the ability to choose as the ultimate win and an end in itself. To break this deadlock, one must realise that the freedom of choice is only a means to inculcate a feminist consciousness which can only be done individually. This individuality is paramount but not beyond critical inquiry. No one can be passively converted to feminism; it is only through an active involvement and a DIY attitude that one can find the feminist within oneself. In a section of Bossypants called “The Mother’s Prayer for its Daughter”, Fey writes, “May she play the drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need not lie with drummers.” (138)








Finished a Master's degree in English Literature and now teaches Critical Writing to an exceptionally eccentric bunch. Research interests include memes, cyber subculture and internet humour - so as to make sure to not be taken seriously. Loves trivia quizzes.