What This Academic Learned From Tina Fey’s “Bossypants”

Tina Fey as the angel on top of a Christmas tree

This is the first in what I hope to be an occasional recurring series of posts wherein I review popular books in the light of my own academic interests. 

If my Facebook news feed is any indication, young academics love 30 Rock and Tina Fey. This makes  a good bit of sense as both Fey and her show have a certain quick witted humor that emphasizes language in ways that appeal to the over-educated humanities demographic that make up my friends and colleagues. I finally got the chance to read through Fey’s new book Bossypants and I found it both funny and enlightening. So, here’s what I learned  from my favorite comedienne. (Warning: This post is written as True Believe in the work of Tina Fey and may not contain enough critical analysis for those of you outside her media influence.)

First off, you can talk about theory without talking about theory. Fey’s book is chock full of gender theory. While I’m not anywhere near a specialist in women’s studies, I do think this book would be great in a seminar course on womanhood in the contemporary United States. My favorite example of Fey’s gender analysis shows up in the chapter “All Girls Must Be Everything,” where she narrates a history of female body norms in American popular culture from Cheryl Tiegs and Farrah Fawcett through J-Lo and Beyonce. The chapter culminates in her list of things every girls body is expected to have:

  • Caucasian blue eyes
  • full Spanish lips
  • a classic button nose
  • hairless Asian skin with a California tan
  • a Jamaican dance hall ass
  • long Swedish legs
  • small Japanese feet
  • the abs of a lesbia gym owner
  • the hips of a nine-year-old boy
  • the arms of Michelle Obama
  • and doll tits

Fey uses stories from her life as an actress and writer to illustrate and critique gender norms in American culture in ways that make key concepts in gender theory accessible. It’s an encouraging sign to see a bestselling book from a producer of popular culture reflect critiques that began in the halls of the academy.

I think Fey also has a lot to offer graduate students in the way of professional advice. When she outlines “The Rules of Improvisatoin That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” I immediately thought about how they could be applied to life as a Ph.D. student.  The first rule is “Say yes” or “the rule of agreement.” Here the point is that you have to say yes to be able to build a scene. In graduate school it is very easy to always say no, to always disagree, to always point out the hole in everything everywhere always. This is good. This teaches us to sharpen our thinking. But when it comes time to sit down and build something, to write something, to create something, it can stunt us. You have to say yes before you can write a dissertation. As Fey puts it, “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

Related to this is the next rule to say “Yes, and…” This is the way scholarship is built. Sometimes it’s a “Yes, but…” but whatever the case, academics build on the work of others. Her third rule is “make statements.”  By which she means, “This is a positie way of saying ‘Don’t ask questions all of the time.'” Again, we graduate students are great at asking questions; at finding things that are “interesting” or “useful.” However, real scholars make statements. You’re here to learn how to make statements, not ask questions.

Her last rule is “there are no mistakes.” This is very important for graduate students to realize. That seminar that you are halfway through and you realize has nothing to do with your project, that dissertation chapter that you wrote and then realized won’t work in the project, that time you said something stupid in front of your advisor, on one level these are all mistakes. On another level, though, they are opportunities. They are a class that might open you up to your next project, a future journal article, and a chance to admit you are stupid and be a humble person. If you look at the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion you’ll find an article about a terrible publishing mistake. The authors took that terrible mistake and now it’s become an article in the field’s flagship journal. As Fey says, “there are no mistakes, only beautiful accidents.”

There are plenty of other great nuggets of wisdom in Fey’s book. I think the list of “Things I Learned from Lorne Michaels” is especially good and could also be applied to academic life. Yet, the thing that is most enjoyable about Bossypants is the frankness and fairness of Fey’s voice. When she discusses her stint as Sarah Palin’s SNL impersonator she is honest about her misgivings over certain jokes she did or didn’t make at the vice presidential candidate’s expense. She is honest about her own insecurities and flaws. She is fair in her descriptions of those she encounters for good or ill. Fey’s book reminds us that good storytelling, like good scholarship, always comes from a place of humility, honesty, and fairness.

[Image from Flickr user fieldtripp Creative Commons licensed]

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