Man Hands: Thoughts on Tina Fey’s Bossypants

April 29, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 11 4 min read

coverThe photo on the cover of Bossypants embodies–in all senses of the word–Tina Fey’s comic schtick.  Her auburn-colored hair is lustrous and a touch windblown, her face artfully made up, but not too much so.  Even with that jaunty black hat on, which, to me, reflects her improv/drama kid dorkdom, she is attractive, in a non-threatening, accessible way.  But one can’t look at the photo for more than a millisecond before cognitive dissonance sets in: Wait a minute!  She’s got the huge, hairy arms and hands of a huge and hairy man! It’s disgusting.  Some have called it upsetting.  Most people call it funny.

It’s also a sharp commentary on being a powerful, successful American woman in 2011.  As Fey says in the prologue of her book, people often ask her if it’s uncomfortable being the boss, “You know, in the same way they say, “Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?””   Fey loves to point out the double-standards and unfair expectations placed on women: in high school, in motherhood, in the world of entertainment.  But she always does so with a wink;  she disparages herself, making herself the butt of the joke, so that the joke sings louder and better than you thought it would.  She undermines her own femininity with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek.  Yep, Tina says, I’ve got man hands.

So do I.  (Well, that’s not totally true: my hands are less mannish and more just, well, ugly: crooked and dry and wrinkly, no matter how much expensive hand cream I slather on them. But I digress.)  My point is, a lot of women I know identify with Tina Fey, or at least with Liz Lemon, her character on 30 Rock.    Liz is a broadly-drawn character in a sitcom of broadly-drawn characters, but, as with all good satire, there’s zing of truth to her.  She is an overworked, unmarried woman whose hips, to her chagrin–and it seems, to everyone else’s–are a little on the wide side.  Even if that doesn’t describe me exactly (though, dear reader, my hips are wide!), I see myself in her.  She’s competent, and she’s a mess.  She’s running the show, and no one will listen to her.  She’d make a terrible hooker.

It’s in this spirit of fandom that I picked up BossypantsMy first celebrity memoir! I thought.  I wonder who ghost wrote this! I thought.   (I’m actually still wondering:  Did Tina Fey have a ghost writer or not? Is that a stupid question? Can anyone shed some light on this for me?)  I read the book in 48 hours–probably in 4 of those 48.  It was a fast and entertaining read, and I laughed aloud many, many times.  A few turns of phrase really pleased and surprised me, my favorite one being, “A sweet, quiet girl with short curly hair and a face as Irish as a scone.”  Man, I wish I’d written that! The chapter about her father Don is a concise and sharp character sketch, and Fey’s assessment about her own complicated homophobia as a teenager was honest and perspicacious.  She admits of her gay friends:

They were supposed to be funny and entertain me and praise me and listen to my problems, and their life was supposed to be a secret that none wanted to hear about. I wanted them to stay in the “the half closet.”

When I read this, I felt a shameful twinge of recognition.

But even with the one-liners and the nuggets of wisdom and honesty, the book lacked structure and direction.  It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be.  One chapter was about her childhood, one was about standards of beauty for women, one was about her honeymoon cruise with her husband, and on and on. The placement of these chapters seemed almost arbitrary, their relationship to each other tenuous.  The chapters about Fey’s stint as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live struck me as workman-like, as if Tina were describing a day of errands.  Even as I was laughing, I wondered what I was supposed to glean from these stories, these jokes.

It became clear to me, over the two days that I lapped up this book, that Tina Fey is a true comedic genius, but she isn’t a master of prose.  Bossypants was a delight, but it lacked power, intention.  Perhaps that’s what happens when someone wants you to write a book before you’ve actually written it.  I mean, let’s get real–that’s what happened, right?  She sold this book on the idea of it alone, and then she had to whip it up for her editors like a creative mom whips up dinner on few ingredients. The meal is tasty, but is it inspired?  Will it keep you full?

I wish that this book were organized better, with a stronger sense of purpose.   I wanted to trace Fey’s evolution better, from dorky little girl to dorky, successful woman.  I would have liked more interpretation from her, about 30 Rock, and her character Liz Lemon–it’s not enough to just recount experience.  I would have liked a deeper investigation into this notion of being a bossy woman.   I just wanted something deeper, I guess.

But, you know, it is a celebrity memoir.  I think I’ll go read some other examples of the genre, so that I understand better how it works.

But next time, Tina, maybe you can hire me to be your ghost writer.  (You know there will be a next time!)  Lord knows I would benefit from hanging around with you.  Also, like all fiction writers-turned-ghost writers, I could use the money.  Call me!

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I was wondering if you guys were going to review Tina Fey’s book. Thanks for this one, Edan.

    I was pleasantly surprised by “Bossypants”, too (although I made some super-elitist comments in the margins a few times, things like “This prose is workmanlike”…and then I thought it was probably unfair to impose my literary standards on what is essentially 200 pages of engaging, well-paced shtick). I doubt Fey had a ghostwriter, if only because her voice really shines through on every page, and the whole thing is really personalized and such. (I’ve never read a book that, to my knowledge, was ghostwritten, though…so maybe I’m wrong about the consistent voice. Maybe her ghostwriter was just really, really good.)

    I agree that, structurally, the book makes some missteps. But, really, it’s just a collection of tangentially-connected essays, a sort of Nora Ephron-esque thing, so I can forgive the lack of a sturdy narrative thread. At the very least, most of the chapters seem to go chronologically. And the list chapters (about being skinny, and fat, and the beauty tips) offered a nice break from the longer, more story-driven ones. Both the summer camp chapter and the honeymoon chapter struck me as almost short story-ish; they were two of the more accomplished chapters, in a literary sense. Oh, and the YMCA chapter had a short story vibe to it, too.

    And shit, man, the lady is funny. And quietly, self-deprecatingly feminist. That’s good enough for me.

  2. I haven’t read the print version, but I did listen to the audio book, which Fey narrates and I found it entertaining.

    I’m interested in reading the print version, because the lack of structure you write about and the less-than-great prose isn’t a hindrance. The prose criticism isn’t noticeable in the audio book.

    Perhaps “Bossypants” is one of those books that’s better heard than read.

  3. Jess, I doubt Fey had a ghostwriter, too–my question was kind of in jest, as I was just having fun when I was writing this piece, wondering about the world of celebrity bios. But, I will say, I have friends who “co-write” books with celebrities, and often the job is having the celebrity tell their story, and getting him or her to narrate certain key details, to find the dramatic thread in all these life anecdotes. Then, the writer has to write the story in that celebrity’s voice–it’s an act of ventriloquism–while also crafting and shaping the narrative. A real skill!

    Micheal, I’ve heard the audio book is awesome by more than a few readers (listeners). I’m curious to hear some of it.

  4. Like, Michael, I also listened to BOSSYPANTS on audiobook. It was an A+ experience listening to Fey herself narrate her story, but unfortunately missed out on all the priceless-sounding photographs she kept referring to as being located in a PDF my iTunes apparently did not download.

    For me, BOSSYPANTS was all about the second half of the book, from Second City to SNL to 30 Rock. I wanted 200-something pages about THAT, the childhood/teen/college/sad, starving post-college stuff was fun, but those stories didn’t hook me the way here career tales did. The anecdote where Lorne gets Tina to come back to SNL after she flees to her apartment in the wake of a-mysterious-threat-that-I-won’t-give-away-because-spoilers-in-comments-sections-suck-balls, that story broke my heart it was so sweet. I also loved her career woman advice, and I ESPECIALLY loved her beauty tips.

  5. I agree with Jess. I didn’t have as much trouble with the structural problems either. Going in, I guess I really didn’t even consider this book a celebrity memoir, more a bunch of comedic essays. I’d read a couple of them in the New Yorker previously and I was actually sort of surprised when I realized the book began to roll out in chronological order.

  6. Edan: I figured you were kidding about the ghostwriting thing, but it’s something I wonder about from time to time, when I see celebrities (or random people with Inspiring Stories) writing memoirs. There’s something strangely romantic to me about the idea of ghostwriting; it’s an exercise in…something. I think you’re right, that there’s a certain artfulness to it, to making it appear seamless and natural and from-the-horse’s-mouth. At any rate, I didn’t mean to imply that you doubted Fey’s writing chops–and, of course, it’s good that you were having fun writing the piece. Hopefully I didn’t just sully that good fun with my humorlessness. ;)

    And now I really am interested in hearing Fey narrate the book herself. Reading some of the essays, I noticed they had the cadence of a stand-up routine or something. It would be cool to hear each of the chapters “performed” by her.

  7. Oh, and I will also add–on a completely unrelated-to-the-article note–that I had no idea that text smileys in a comment are translated into *actual*, spookily yellow smileys once you hit “submit.” That’s a little mortifying.

  8. Very nice review, Edan. I haven’t read Bossypants yet, but I tentatively agree with Jess. I see the book as a collection of comedic essays, not so much a meaty narrative. I would definitely prefer the kind of book you were looking for when you picked up Bossypants, I just never expected it.

  9. I just finished it last night. I was also my first celebrity ‘memoir’, and I pretty much chose it only because I love 30 Rock so much. SNL is something I am unfamiliar with (being a non-American) so I wasn’t aware of Tina Fey until 30 Rock.

    (Oh and FTR, Tina joked about how she was ‘looking forward to reading the book’ in a recent Letterman interview, but then went on to say she wrote the entire book)

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.