Maggie Judy Smith Dench:
Hello Austen! I am a cruel and haughty and one-dimensional snob, but I do lament that it is my misfortune to not be very funnym either. Miss Austen, there’s a prettyish sort of wilderness over there.
Stop! I must take a moment to crib your writing in a cheap gesture towards my observational talent. [writes it down] Okay, done! Heave, bosom, heave.
I LOLed, and as pleased she thoroughly encapsulated my sadness that what I’d hoped would be an Austen-esque story about Austen, wherein Jane herself has to navigate the restrictive social milieu she was so famous for satirizing was actually a story of how a girl can’t possibly a good writer until she has “experienced life,” and by life, I mean “a penis.”
So I thought, like I do, “What a great blog! I will read some other posts and see if they are as funny and insightful.” And lo, there was a post on Tina Fey. She was responding to criticism of the piece she — the blogger — had written for Bitch that I had really not enjoyed at the time, but kind of just passed over. She basically says that she gets Tina Fey’s comedy, she just perceives it as failing.
But I don’t think she does. To wit, her description of one episode of 30 Rock, “The C-Word”:
But I keep coming back to Fey’s character. In one episode called “The C-word,” Liz gets called a–you know–by a male underling. She fears she’s become a too-demanding boss, bakes treats for her staff as an apology, and promptly loses all authority. After an angry speech and subsequent collapse in exhaustion, the message has been hammered home: women can’t handle authority.
Okay, see, I literally saw the exact opposite thing in that episode. See, she’s a woman boss in a man’s world, so when she tells an underling to do something he doesn’t want to do, he responds by calling her a cunt — reducing her to nothing more than a sex organ in a classic “keeping women in power down” move. Liz feels guilty for being mean — because women are totally socialized to always be nice — and tries to be a nice boss by baking goodies (woo traditional domesticity!) and letting her employees take advantage of her easygoingness. This obviously doesn’t work and she winds up going back to being a bitch.
In other words, this was a pretty clever, spare depiction of a woman personally dealing with the double bind that women in positions of authority (especially in a male-dominated field) have to deal with, and losing in a way, because women always lose. That’s what a double bind is. When the show ended I am pretty sure I said something like “I can’t believe they got all that in there! It was all feminist, but it didn’t actually explain anything! It was lovable on several different levels! I can’t believe it’s actually on TV, it’s so good! Every week this show gets more awesome!”
So, what is it? How can two avowed feminists see such complete opposite things in the same 22 minutes of TV? Is 30 Rock that hard to understand? Am I crazy? I don’t think I am. Initially, when I started writing this, I was going to say something about how maybe the show is more polysemous than I’d assumed, but I don’t think it really is. Obviously since it’s satire, the show’s values aren’t on the surface, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. And the “some people don’t understand it and are just like ‘haha female incompetence’” argument doesn’t fly for me. It’s like saying Jonathan Swift may not have meant what he wrote about eating babies, but maybe he shouldn’t have written about eating babies anyway, because maybe some people wouldn’t get it and think that eating babies was a good idea. It bugs because generally the people who complain about stuff like this (and I’m not just thinking of 30 Rock, I’m thinking of that Vanity Fair cover with Tony Soprano and the naked lady) are the same people who also complain when pop culture plays to the lowest common denominator.
I just don’t see what this girl sees when she calls Tina Fey as “the Valedictorian who wants to be the popular girl,” I see Fey as getting that it’s unfair that the Valedictorian is valued less than the popular girl, and I see her as really brave for letting the joke be on her. There’s lots of comedy that makes people more comfortable with stereotypes, but 30 Rock’s not it. (Seriously, Tracy Morgan is supposed to make people comfortable?) This is the kind of face-value reading that gives feminist criticism a bad name. Also, I’m not going to pretend that Mean Girls was a great stride for feminism, but come on, having Lindsay Lohan play a mathlete is at least a tiny little baby step.