Tina Fey mixes laughs with serious talk about women’s equality

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 30, 2011

Now that we’ve basked in the escapist bath of Duchess Kate’s fairy tale wedding, let’s look at some real-life issues facing smart, young women who aren’t sufficiently lucky (or harebrained) to marry into one of the world’s richest dysfunctional families.

To do so, I recommend reading comedian Tina Fey’s bestselling new book, “Bossypants.” It offers plenty of laughs, but it also highlights the many challenges that still beset ambitious, talented women nearly a half-century after Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Lingering prejudice against women in the workplace. Obsessive negative body image. Acute personal torment in trying to balance motherhood with a job you love.

If a woman as driven and successful as Tina Fey is struggling to deal with all this, then imagine what the average woman goes through.

Although feminist themes underlie much of Fey’s humor, she isn’t joking all the time. Far from it. As many reviewers have noted, the book is an inconsistent mix of straight personal memoir and comic riffs typical of Fey’s writing for television (“Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock”) and film (“Mean Girls”).

For me, the serious passages offered an authentic glimpse into the obstacles — societal and psychological — that women face as they move up through the workforce. I was particularly struck by the anguished last chapter, in which Fey describes her worry that having a second child will wreck her career.

“Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty,” she writes. “It feels like my last five minutes of being famous are timing out to be simultaneous with my last five minutes of being able to have a baby.”

She’s now pregnant, at 40, so motherhood won out.

Fey speaks for a generation of college-educated women who faced less sex discrimination than their mothers when they started working but grew frustrated as they began families and choices got harder.

“A lot of women who are my age didn’t have a strong sense of inequality in the workplace. If they went to a good college and got good jobs, they were doing okay,” said Betsy Reed, 43, executive editor of the liberal magazine, the Nation.

“But when they had children, they saw some real, lingering effects of sexism. I think there has been a feminist reawakening around issues having to do with maternity and the desire to fulfill your professional ambition,” Reed said.

(Note to loyal readers: As you might have guessed by now, this is a rare column not devoted to local issues, except insofar as a majority of Washington area residents are women.)

Fey said she experienced “institutionalized gender nonsense” only once in her career. When she worked for Chicago’s famous Second City comedy troupe in the mid-1990s, a director justified making a cut on grounds that “the audience doesn’t want to see a scene between two women.”

Her problems with prejudice now are mostly about the difficulties faced by women past 40 in the entertainment industry. Noting that Hollywood often rejects older women for jobs because they’re supposedly unstable, Fey suspects that the “definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to [have sex with] her anymore.”

Since the birth of daughter Alice, now 5, Fey has been shaken by the collision between her commitment to motherhood and her workaholic thirst for success.

Once, soon after Alice arrived, Fey sobbed in her office for 10 minutes when she realized that there would never be a time when she had the baby full-time to herself. “This ‘work’ thing was not going away,” she writes.

In the early days of “30 Rock,” she’d spend 14 exhausting hours shooting scenes and then go home to her apartment to work with writers on scripts until well after midnight.

“We kept a video baby monitor next to the computer screen, and I could watch my daughter sleeping while we worked. I would excuse myself occasionally to change a diaper in the night,” she said. “Everything I cared about was within ten feet of me.”

Although her liberal, feminist perspective is unmistakable, Fey shows little interest in overt political activism. She mainly wants to get laughs and movie roles and be a good boss for her 200 employees at “30 Rock.”

Some feminist commentators have criticized her for being too mealy-mouthed.

“Fey takes such careful pains not to commit to a position or offend anyone’s sensibilities that she comes off like one of the politicians she and her colleagues so roundly mock,” Anna Holmes, founder of the Web site Jezebel and a new Washington Post Style section contributing columnist, wrote in The Daily Beast.

That may be, but Fey doesn’t need to make speeches explicitly advocating equal rights for women. Her humor and her own life experiences make a compelling case by themselves.

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