Bossypants: Not about being funny


Tina Fey’s Bossypants is not about making the reader laugh. To clarify: the book has funny parts, an occasionally sarcastic tone, and intentional jokes; however, the purpose of the book (if I can be so bold as to discern it) is not about the reader having a chuckle, or about noticing how witty Tina Fey is; rather, the book is about – and sometimes cumbersomely so – institutional and systemic sexism (and, yes, I’m aware this sentence has too many clauses).

An odd place to begin a review, you might be thinking, with a description of what the book is not about. Well, in telling folks that I was reading Bossypants (a gift from S.) I heard from a few people that “Tina Fey is not funny,” or “the book is not funny.” Well, that’s swell, and perhaps true (defend “what is funny” – or get N. to defend “what is funny” and we’ll talk), but it is also totally beside the point.

The tone of a book – whether satirical, whimsical, condescending, depressed, or didactic – is often intended to reflect, compliment or contrast with the content. (see in the previous sentence an example of didactic – or condescending? – tone). Whether or not a book succeeds in being “funny,” the content of the book still remains open for questioning and consideration. And so leaving aside the contentious (and not altogether productive) conversation about the relative hilarity of Fey’s humour, I’d like to suggest this as a book to read for its engagement with institutional and systemic sexism.

Fey’s self-conscious reflections on the decisions she’s made as a woman ask readers to consider the expectations working women place on themselves and on one another. The book’s explicit call for readers to reconsider supposedly “finished” debates about opportunities for women to advance in the workplace are complimented by thoughtful engagements with “continuing” conversations about work-life balance, unrealistic maternal expectations, and gendered employment opportunities.

Occasionally Fey references personal discomfort with classist, racist and heteronormative assumptions that underpin or have underpinned her decisions, and I do wish greater space had been given over to these reflections. Given that the book is an autobiography, and so about a white woman’s experience in the entertainment industry, I don’t mean to suggest Fey ought to explore the plight of all women of all races, classes, and sexual orientations. Instead, I had hoped that in the moments when Fey does consider her relationship to other women – I’m thinking here of the chapter addressing her nanny “babysitter” – she might have turned to the self-reflection that characterized her engagement with her high school gay friends, rather than glossing the relationship as one that makes her “uncomfortable.”

That said, her exploration of the ways her gender has impacted her work and personal lives through specific, personal and poignant examples was engaging. I did not always agree with her assessment (see the chapter on photoshopping), but I was never meant to agree with her. The book aimed – I think – to raise questions for the reader about the supposedly finished and unfinished conversations that surround white working women in North America, and it succeeded. Whether I laughed or not? I’m not telling, because it really (really) doesn’t matter.


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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Funny

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