"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
What goes up must come down; those who are worshiped must one day be reviled. The laws of gravity and celebrity dictated an eventual Tina Fey backlash, one I expected eons ago, when the comedian started winning Emmys and appearing on every magazine cover shy of Horse & Hound. But adoration for the former “Saturday Night Live” head writer and creator and star of NBC’s “30 Rock” has remained constant for a remarkable stretch. Until now.
Fey has recently come under critical assault. What’s surprising about the form it’s taking is that the mob gathering to pull Fey from her pedestal is not made up of withered cynics irritated by her ubiquity, but by a group of once-enthusiastic female fans who helped hoist Fey to great heights and are now mutinying. The ardor and (occasionally personal) ferocity with which these critics are tearing down their former muse may say more about the intensity of longing for a perfect feminist idol, and about the degree of idealization many of us young feminists have projected at Fey, than it does about any change in the star herself.
The opening shot in the anti-Fey uprising was lobbed by Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan, who griped about the media’s obsession with Fey’s fixation on food and fat but then stopped herself, explaining that after considering “a post about how Tina Fey isn’t Doing Feminism Right … I realized that if Tina Fey weren’t positioned as Hollywood’s Token Feminist … I wouldn’t even have to care about Tina Fey … And that’s not really Tina Fey’s fault.” Feministing’s Chloe Angyal soon wrote about the lame conceit that Fey’s Liz Lemon is frumpy, pointing out that Fey is actually a perfect specimen of conventional female beauty.
These points were dead on. But Fey did not invent the body dysmorphia associated with female celebrity, and news that Hollywood casts total babes as purportedly average characters and has no space for the aesthetically imperfect should surprise no one who recalls that when Fey created “30 Rock,” she cast longtime collaborator Rachel Dratch as Jenna Maroney and then had to replace her with buxom blond Jane Krakowski. Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle wrote an astute critique that went beyond Fey’s aesthetic double-consciousness to the heart of her principles. Doyle, who copped to an over-identification with Fey’s Lemon, detailed what she increasingly understood to be the feminist shortcomings of “30 Rock.” This includes the fact that Fey’s Lemon is presented as “the only smart, capable woman in a field of slutty, slobby, neurotic [female] morons,” as Newsweek’s Kate Dailey put it. Dubbing Lemon’s version of feminism “Liz Lemonism,” Doyle observed that it seemed rooted in Lemon’s white, straight, privileged self-interest.
The wave of Fey criticism crested this week in response to the comedian’s turn as host of “Saturday Night Live.” During the show, Fey reprised her role as Sarah Palin and did a Weekend Update Women’s News segment in which she lit into Jesse James’ tattooed mistress Michelle “Bombshell” McGee; she played a 9-inch-tall prostitute, a hooker golf commentator, a schoolteacher fantasizing about an underage Justin Bieber, and the star of a commercial for a brownie for single women that is shaped like a life-size husband (posted below). I thought it an uneven, if better-than-average show. Other Fey fans were disturbed by it to a degree that, in turn, began to disturb me.
Fairly noting how many of Fey’s “SNL” characters were single ladies, Jessica Grose at Slate’s Double X wrote, “the pathetic single woman trope is such a constant refrain … that one has to wonder what she’s really trying to say.” Grose’s colleague Hanna Rosin speculated (oddly, given Fey’s descriptions of her prudish youth) that perhaps Fey lampoons single women because she is long married and that all of her “funny juice comes from her single days, when her life was free and wild and full of adventure, and she secretly resents that.” Doyle, meanwhile, tore into Fey, seething about the comedian’s vision of a “sad lonely single lady who fills her barren body with fudge” and her lewd attacks on Bombshell McGee. Doyle concluded, “Feminism is for women, but Tina Fey’s Feminism seems like it’s for … Tina Fey.” Linking to Doyle’s piece on Twitter, the feminist writer Amanda Marcotte added the disturbing ad feminam suggestion, “When I hear a married woman rant about the evils of sluts out there, I tend to wonder who her husband’s been dicking.”
I am a Fey fan, but have no problem hearing criticism of her: There were some pretty arid years at “SNL” under her stewardship; I too have grown weary of the “30 Rock” ugly jokes; even while loving the smart and occasionally daring work she’s done in recent years I have quietly wondered whether the level of acclaim she’s received has rendered her ever so slightly overrated. But the swift and high-pitched pile-on, in which considered appraisals of the attitudes reflected in Fey’s work quickly descended into her ejection from feminism, guessing games about the imagined tedium of her marriage, and the suggestion that her husband is “dicking” someone else, resembles nothing so much as the cafeteria from “Mean Girls.”
In trying to unpack what’s producing the level of ire, it seems reasonable to start with the fact that while a woman who calls herself “Bombshell” McGee, covers her body in tattoos, and engages in Third Reich-themed sex play might merit contextual consideration from feminists, she is a giant, neon, flashing target for comedians. And Tina Fey is a professional comedian. She is not a professional feminist.
In the eagerness to embrace a star who seemed to think briskly and amusingly about gender, who was not afraid of showing off her smarts or her ambition, who reminded some young professional women of ourselves, some of us may have briefly forgotten that she is not, nor was she ever, us. It is a testament to the paucity of role models available on the pop culture landscape that many young feminists – including me! – cleaved so quickly and so closely to a woman who made some pretty smart jokes about women. But Fey was not elected Celebrity thanks to the support of EMILY’s List; I am not confident that she has ever read, much less written or commented on, a feminist blog. She has been far less voluble about her personal feminism than her compatriot Amy Poehler, who has done a lot more talking than Fey about her feminist beliefs. While it might be fair to argue that Fey has profited from a feminist embrace, she did not ever pretend to be a standard bearer for contemporary feminism. We’re the ones who made her that, who overidentified with her, or with Liz Lemon, or with the Weekend Update host who declared that bitch was the new black, and attached to her a passel of our highest expectations and ideals.
This kind of projection would fit a classic pattern in which people who are not adequately represented in pop culture or the media catch glimmers of themselves reflected in a public or acclaimed person, and are so surprised and pleased that they unquestioningly accept her as being just like them, only to be disappointed when it turns out that she is not like them, or perhaps that she is like the parts of themselves that they most deplore (see also: Clinton, Hillary Rodham).
Except that in this case, what is so perplexing about the recent censure of Fey — some of which has been incisive and provocative — is that it has come in response to things that have always been endemic to her work.
Personally, I thought “Brownie Husband” was hilarious, and took as its target not single women, but the Cathy-cartoon stereotyping of independent femininity to which Fey makes frequent reference on “30 Rock.” I saw the sketch as in line with Sarah Haskins’ eviscerations of the dumb ways that companies market dumb products to dumb versions of women, and also with the Fey-penned classic “Mom Jeans,” the parody commercial about cinch-wasted unflattering denim “that says, ‘I’m not a woman anymore; I’m a mom!’”
But even if Fey’s comic embodiment of the chardonnay-sipping, cat-owning auntie was not meant as meta-critique, even if she were directly lampooning the nighttime chocoholism of the single professional female, how was it so different from her role as the uptight control-freak executive with a bad case of baby lust (“Some women got pregnant; I got promotions”) in 2008′s “Baby Mama?” How was it different from Lemon, whose acts as a sex-starved single lady have included stealing a stranger’s baby, buying an aspirational wedding dress, and consuming large blocks of cheese alone in her apartment in the middle of the night?
Sure, Fey was fast and loose in calling Bombshell McGee a whore. But “whore” has been one of Fey’s go-to epithets for years. Remember her old “SNL” sketch “Old French Whores!” a game show in which dissipated Parisian concubines partnered with high-school honors students and which culminated with one of the youngsters piping up, “I think my whore is dead.” Fey has also long been obsessed with sex workers, and not from an activist perspective, but from a judgmental one. In a cover story on Vanity Fair, she told Maureen Dowd about a fight with her husband after he went to a strip club, saying, “I love to play strippers and to imitate them … I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.” Fey may or may not have intended that comment to reflect a compassionate concern about the objectification of women, but she has often described herself, and been described by others, as a pious and savage critic of other people’s morally loose behavior. In a 2003 New Yorker profile in which Fey referred to herself as a “mean girl,” writer Virginia Heffernan reported that as a teenager, Fey admitted to feeling acute contempt for peers who “drank, cut school, overdressed, or slept around.” Amy Poehler described her as “monastic,” and Fey’s husband called her “judgmental.”
I’ve frankly always been surprised that her fans regarded Fey with such fuzzy affection. I’ve thought her to be famously (and self-avowedly) one of the chilliest, prickliest celebrities around. Which is great! I’ve got no problem with women who don’t conform to expectations for cuddliness. I’ve just always operated under the assumption that Fey was something of a misanthrope, and now find myself surprised at other people’s surprise that she would play a tiny prostitute or lash into another woman for her sexual misdeeds. This is part of who Tina Fey has always been.
None of this is to suggest that her work should be immune from criticism. Indeed, it might offer an accessible entrance to vital exchanges about popular portrayals of feminism. Doyle’s description of the white privilege of Liz Lemonism is in line with long-standing critiques of the feminist movement, critiques that are ongoing and crucial. But what some of her critics seem to have forgotten is that Fey has often presented herself as emblematic of the inconsistencies inherent in contemporary feminism.
Doyle described the typical “Liz Lemonist” as a “white, coastal-city dwelling, fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered woman, a woman with a comfortable white-collar job … This woman doesn’t do posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about ‘raunch culture’; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do ‘body image’ … she’s Brooklyn not Queens, brunch not breakfast, flirty not slutty, fond of cupcakes and feminist theory but unsure how to make either one herself, and thoroughly incensed about Vajazzling.” Very funny! But Tina Fey already told this joke about herself, on the premiere episode of “30 Rock,” in which Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy summed up his new employee to her face as “New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for a week.” The comparative profiling demonstrates the degree to which Fey has already said of herself most of the things that her feminist detractors are now saying about her.
Liz Lemon is a gutless, self-interested semi-feminist? She sure is! When Lemon met her feminist comedy idol (played by Carrie Fisher) she found herself unable to sign on to the Watergate-era rule-breaking of her idol, ending the episode by censoring an edgy joke in exchange for a corporate sponsorship check from GE. Fey’s Lemon is blind to race, class and body issues different from her own? Yes! Which is part of what Fey was making clear when, as Lemon on Ambien, she mistook a heavy-set young black girl for Oprah Winfrey. The fact that Liz Lemon does not comprehend or consider much about her own privilege, or about other people’s problems, is made evident on nearly every episode of “30 Rock.” Tina Fey and her writers make it so. Outside of her sitcom role, Fey is a woman who joked in 2008 that she was the kind of person who would tell her friends she was voting for Barack Obama and then secretly pull the lever for Rudy Giuliani. One of the things that makes Fey funny — if not always likable or admirable — is her keen awareness of her political and empathic limitations. Occasionally suffocating self-awareness is the hallmark of Fey’s style. She’s not pretending to be anybody’s ideal, least of all her own.
Even if Fey’s “SNL” sketches were her mean girl-worst and not her meta-best: The larger questions that her critics raise are not about the authenticity of Tina Fey’s feminism, but about their own expectations and tolerance for the unstable union between comedy and feminism.
The women’s movement has never enjoyed a reputation for hilarity. Part of what earned second-wavers a reputation for frigidity and humorlessness were their objections to jokes that diminished, denigrated and objectified women.
But Fey and some of her female comedy contemporaries have not only demonstrated their ability to be raunchy and political, but have sometimes successfully made gender imparity — long an impediment to comedy — a central part of their act. And that’s terrific. But it’s really hard. And we cannot come to count on an uneasy alliance between activism and humor. Ideology and political purity are frequently the enemies of all that is hilarious in the world; the fact that Fey and her colleagues have managed to pull off the balance at all has been thrilling to watch. As Amy Poehler told me in an interview in 2008, “Feminism certainly informs my day-to-day, but then you’ve got to let it go. You have to not worry too much about who you’re offending and who you’re poking fun at.”
That means that feminist consumers of comedy will often be made uncomfortable, and may be confused. What to make of Margaret Cho, who has written that everything she does is about feminism, and has also joked about Laura Bush’s pussy tasting like Lysol? This summer, as I worked on a book chapter about the increasingly funny cast of the modern feminist movement, activists were picketing David Letterman’s studios protesting his jokes about one of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughters getting pregnant. Privately, I shook my fists at these protesters, who conformed to the stereotype of humorless feminism I was trying to declare dead. But I also understood they had a point: It wasn’t cool to sexualize a young girl whose only crime was being the daughter of a politician.
This is the hard part about bringing funny to feminism. Where do we draw our lines? Some of Fey’s critics think that the brownie husband or the jokes about Bombshell McGee are the place to do it. And fair enough. But I can’t help thinking about Fey’s response, in Vanity Fair, to the critics who called her brilliant and damaging Sarah Palin impression mean. “Who would ever go on the news and say, ‘Well, I thought it was sort of mean to Richard Nixon when Dan Aykroyd played him,’” Fey wondered.
In that old New Yorker profile, Heffernan described Fey’s response to a male “SNL” staffer who asked if a particular sketch was anti-woman; Fey explained that the purpose of “SNL” was to mock people, and that if they were unable to mock women, there would be no work for the show’s female performers.
What was bad for the goose must necessarily be bad for the gander, and that’s not easy to swallow, especially for some geese who have spent a lot of time thinking about how goofing on women has historically been a means to oppress, degrade and objectify them. But if the playing field is to be even, there has to be some sort of give. Feminist comedy cannot always take as its targets the Jesse Jameses and the Richard Nixons of the world. Women also have to be able to mock — sometimes harshly, sometimes sexually, sometimes intellectually — the Sarah Palins and the Bombshell McGees, to laugh at our single selves, at our high-achieving selves, at our professional selves and our maternal and sexual and idealistic selves, or we will quickly re-earn a reputation for humorlessness. We can’t expect to escape all the mean jokes, or the mean girls. And we can’t lay the blame for the often ruthless nature of equal-opportunity mockery at the feet of a woman who never promised to do anything but entertain us.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)