Last night I decided to watch Baby Mama while doing some not very mentally taxing work online. Oh, my. Was that movie worse than I expected or what? It was so bad, in such an interesting, ugly bouquet of ways, that I feel the need to share my thoughts with you, both about this movie in particular and my ish with Tina Fey’s schtik in general.
The various characters played by Tina Fey on television and films form a more or less cohesive comic persona. Fey was the head writer on SNL (where she co-chaired the Weekend Update segment) when she successfully pitched 30 Rock, a sitcom on which she plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of a comedic variety show. The Lemon character is similar to the persona Fey adopted on Weekend Update, as well as to Kate Holbrook, the character she portrays in Baby Mama (which she didn’t write, but seems tailored specifically to her appeal.) In all of these Fey plays a version of a financially privileged woman in a powerful corporate position who is conventionally pretty, smart, a bit awkward, and romantically challenged.
I’ll start by mentioning my own hesitancy to use one of my dwindling days as a Feministe blogger to criticize Fey. Her success as a feminist(ish) comic and writer is notable. She is skilled, talented, and often funny, and I feel kind of gross going at her on the internet—I don’t like the catfight vibe. Somehow, somewhere, I have a deep seated desire to support other women rather than tear them down. All those years doing Riot Grrrl zines and talking about “Girl Love” really took. That said, Fey should not be above criticism. She has become a kind of feminist heroine, especially to middle to upper class nerdy white liberals, and while I share some of her fans’ appreciation, there are aspects of Fey’s comedy that I find constantly chafing.
Let’s start with her whorephobia and slut-shaming. I can imagine that the kinds of sexist pressures that Fey has probably faced as a conventionally attractive lady in showbiz include people trying to sex her up more, go the Maxim route, whatever. I absolutely respect her choices regarding how she does or doesn’t actively present herself sexually. However, her derogatory attitude towards women that she finds unacceptably slutty needs to be checked.
I watch 30 Rock occasionally, and enjoy it, though the Liz Lemon character’s anxiety around sluttier women makes me a bit uncomfortable. It’s fine if I view Lemon as just another flawed character with her own set or quirks and neuroses (I certainly buy the anxiety,) but not if Lemon is meant to be the “sane”, neutral audience entry point into the world of the show, as if of course all self-respecting intelligent women wish to police the sexuality of others, wish they’d button up their shirts and put on some pants and view the fact that they sometimes don’t as a sign of stupidity, if not evolutionary failure.
Kate Holbrook in Baby Mama is a similarly wealthy, liberal professional who seems to view women who aren’t exactly like her in these respects as somewhat alien. The classist “friendship” she develops with Amy Poehler’s character Angie Ostrowiski , a “white trash” woman who is contracted to carry a baby for her, contains this theme to a degree. There are various comments throughout that further establish Fey as being on the proper side of sluttiness; “My avatar dresses like a whore!” she exclaims in befuddlement while playing a karaoke videogame. Later, her love interest jokingly asks if she works as a prostitute at night, the humor lies in the outlandishness of such a notion– corporate women never do sex work on the side!
It’s harder to watch Fey’s characters exhibit slutphobia and not take it personally when she makes comments like this :
“I love to play strippers and to imitate them,” says Fey. “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.”
what does it mean for Fey as a self-avowed feminist use a group of people (Women, I assume, in her imagination,) for their comedic possibilities while believing that they should cease to exist? I don’t want to read too much into this quote in terms of the contempt Fey appears to feel towards strippers. Maybe she just sees them as victimized by an evil industry. Paternalism is so much better than out and out malice, after all. The wording suggests that Fey engages with strippers—or at least the idea of strippers (as well as other inappropriately sexual women)—only as a subject of ridicule. How is this feminist?
Here are some other things that I hated about Baby Mama:
-There is a recurring joke where Fey discusses the horrific possibility of having an intersexed baby. Intersexed people themselves are the semi-mystical, thoroughly confusing and gross butt of the joke. Ha ha ha ha.
-Fey’s character is the VP of a Whole Foods stand-in called Round Earth. Steve Martin’s portrayal of the company’s capitalist hippie CEO is funny. Less so is the subplot about Round Earth opening a massive flagship store in an abandoned warehouse that I think was supposed to be in West Philly (I was multitasking, if they clarified the neighborhood, I missed it.) The film reduces tensions between Round Earth and small local businesses and residents who feel invaded to some kind of irrational bias that can and will be overcome if we just listen to Tina Fey, caring corporate VP. Gentrification is great when it’s companies with Liberal appeal doing it. Baby Mama throws a few softballs at Whole Foods through the Round Earth subplot (health food is gross! Some yuppies are too obsessed with vitamins!), but at the end of the day the company triumphs as responsible and admirable and Good For The Community. The film creates a space for Liberals to scoff at Wal-Mart as Evil but embrace Whole Foods, in all it’s healthcare opposing union busting as a Good Corporation that’s just a little silly sometimes.
-Racism. There are few roles for people of color in Baby Mama’s white world. The biggest is that of Fey’s doorman, Oscar Priyan (played by Romany Malco), who assumes the role of the Magical Negro, receiving no character development but dispensing much sassy advice and support to the two white female protagonists with whom he never, ever has any sexual tension. Towards the end I though perhaps Amy Poehler’s character would end up coupled with him—during a climactic spat Fey calls her white trash” to which she replies “I deserve that” and Malco intones “no, you don’t”. Wow, is Baby Mama actually going to develop the latent class-solidarity theme that cried out from under the cutsey scenes of Poehler and Malco asexually bonding? Given the predictable, formulaic trajectory of the entire movie (I spotted the films final “twist” the second Fey met Greg Kinnear), they should have gotten together—except for the Magical Negro law which forbids him from having any sex life, especially one involving a white lady. Despite the existence of his own child, who we see in a birthday party montage over the closing credits. It is actually Malco who gives the film it’s name—Fey explains that Poehler is her surrogate, to which he replies “oh, your baby mama.” Fey tries to explain no, it’s different, she has no romantic relationship with Poehler, to which Malco replies (paraphrasing) “Relationships have nothing to do with it—she has the baby, you pay the bills. Ask any black man in Philadelphia.” HA HA HA shoot me. That line might be a little less overwhelmingly less offensive if there were, I don’t know, any black female characters in the movie, but no. The only woman of color I recall at all was a sexxxy Asian woman coupled with Tina Fey’s ex who is on screen soley to cause insult to the injury of Fey’s bruised ego. I don’t think she got to say anything.
-It was directed semi-incompetently and never reconciled it’s balance between comedy and drama, slapstick and heartwarming, resulting in an agitating and tone-deaf eyeroller. Strange edits and flat scenes abound. Scenes go on too long. It has its funny moments, but doesn’t cohere. Even as an entertaining piece of offensive, oppressive propaganda for white ladies’ liberation within liberal corporate capitalism.
Fey didn’t write Baby Mama, but she chose it as her start vehicle into the world of feature films. It fits nicely into her oeuvre as a “feminist” icon, if feminism is only for rich white straight ladies doin’ it for themselves by climbing the corporate ladder with their exclusively abled bodies. (another recurring joke involved a woman with a speech impediment, btw LOL.) Of course they have to climb over the bodies of everyone else—except their white male bosses, natch—to do it. Woooo sisterhood!
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