No, it’s not the now-infamous Vanity Fair article that attributes her success to her weight loss. Give the article anything more than cursory attention and it becomes clear that it owes a lot more to Maureen Dowd’s narcissism and anti-feminism than it does to any desire on Fey’s part to steer the article toward her looks. It’s pretty clear that Fey simply answered the questions that Dowd, being Dowd, thought were the most important to ask. And is it really surprising that the small-minded and self-involved Dowd, when faced with a woman more attractive, more famous and more intelligent (and younger!) than she is, decided to focus the whole article on how this woman used to be fat and unattractive?
So I don’t blame Fey for the Vanity Fair article, or for losing weight when she was about to become a network TV star. I blame her for 30 Rock. I missed the first two seasons when they were on but caught up in a massive 30-rock onslaught over the holidays, and I was shocked. Yes, it’s well written, and yes, there are clever and critical plots about the war in Iraq and the environment and the politics of product placement. But the gender politics are positively retrograde. Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character, is so worried about her biological clock that she steals a baby. She so wants to get married that she buys a wedding dress even though she’s not dating anyone. When she stands up for herself and tells her (male) writers that she can’t always be nice to them, the brief moment of empowerment ends with her bursting in to tears and being swept into the arms of a man and carried, like a bride over the threshold, from the room. Sex and the City never stooped this low.
Even the things about Tina/Liz that are supposed to register as enlightened and post-patriarchal–she’s a bit of a dork and doesn’t have many feminine wiles, despite wearing a lot of Ally-McBeal-length skirts–are played in a typical chick-lit fashion: they invite female solidarity through our failure to meet gender norms, but they place the emphasis on failure. We’re supposed to rue our collective inability to be the proper girly girl we see in the magazines, but we aren’t supposed to actually challenge the standards or celebrate what we are good at. We can come together as women, but only through the vehicle of self-loathing and defeat. It’s a sneaky strategy, because it acknowledges our anger at gender standards, thereby seeming feminist and progressive, when it in fact turns most of that anger at ourselves. In short, this is the same mindset that inspired a thousand Cathy cartoons.
And then there’s the whole Jack thing. Sure, he’s played for humor too, but there’s no doubt that, for the great majority of the time, he is the one offering tutelage and transformation to Liz, rather than the other way around. In fact, a lot of the time the show reads to me like a thinly veiled allegory: How Neoliberalism Turned Postfeminism into a Capitalist Tool. And, frankly, that’s a story I have lived through for most of my adult life; I didn’t really need to see it encapsulated in a network TV show. As Zoe said sarcastically to Mal in an episode of Firefly, ‘Thanks for the re-enactment, sir.’
Finally, I resent the hell out of the fact that I’m supposed to love and cheer for any woman whose sole reason for fame isn’t her looks–all the while being asked to marvel at the fact that she can be smart and pretty at the same time! That last one, of course, isn’t Fey’s fault–which is why I was prepared to like her until the 30 Rock marathon re-educated me. She may not have signed on to her popularization through cleavage, but as far as the rest of post-feminism goes, she’s right on message.