Tina Fey’s ‘Sisters’ Role Is More Regressive Than It Looks


It became an iconic aspect of Liz Lemon’s character that she often — at least as far as she would have admitted — would have preferred night cheese (literally: cheese that is consumed at night) to sex. Her Sisters character Kate, though, would be appalled by the idea of “night cheese.” That, or she’d assume it were an unpalatable innuendo and be completely fine with it. Kate wears clothing that would not be seen as particularly “workplace appropriate.” Liz Lemon wears clothing meant to suggest organization and togetherness — clothing which walking conservative patriarchal parody Jack Donaghy claims will repel men and keep her evenings free for Gouda.

And yet, ultimately, while Kate appears to be a divergence from the sexually self-deprecating characters Fey usually plays, the film’s conclusion suggests a conservative approach to female sexuality that is actually far more regressive than anything Liz Lemon could have said or done.

The splendor of Liz Lemon was that she was a specific character (in fact, one of the only non-caricatures on a show that was a chorus of absurd simulacra) who never seemed prescriptive. A lot of viewers wanted to be Liz Lemon (who ends up literally managing relative happiness as a self-deprecating neurotic). But it never seemed like 30 Rock itself wanted any of its viewers to want to be Liz. She was not a wholly affirmative character — she represented the acceptance of being comfortable with, well, not being comfortable with every aspect of oneself. Liz isn’t liberating as an ideal, but in that she frees us from the smothering notion that we should be fully liberated.

You can certainly classify Lemon as a particular curmudgeonly, careerist, or even — per an excellent piece in The New Inquiry — Thatcherite type, but the show never moralized about her being any of those things. Her neuroses about sex are never challenged with an antidotal turn towards “sex positivity,” nor do they seem to suggest that the key to success for women is to stifle sexuality. All of it seems particular to Liz Lemon’s character, who, like Tina Fey, arrived in the entertainment industry following an extremely nerdy adolescence that manifested in styling that wasn’t in keeping with Vogue-cover-worthy beauty standards.

A lot has been said on the topic of Fey’s SNL-era transformation. Anyone who had to undergo a makeover and join Weight Watchers before being judged fit for television would undoubtedly be left with a certain cynicism about the connection between sexual desirability and success. A physical transformation towards normative standards is not an immediate means to self-acceptance, and there’s something to be said for the way Lemon — and maybe Fey — residually maintains a mentality typical of someone who’s received society’s message that she shouldn’t be comfortable with herself.

Even after Liz Lemon is happily married to a man who isn’t a loser, she maintains her staunchly unromantic, sexually apathetic stances, which themselves don’t seem to reflect second wave feminist slut-shaming as much as the character’s personal preference based on her neuroses. Liz Lemon is a former über-nerd, who never got over the fact that she used to be maladjusted. For similar former über-nerds, her near-dysmorphic sense of self seems a refreshingly light-spirited way of addressing a fact that’s key to remember: sex isn’t comfortable for everyone.

While it’s great to steer culture in a direction where it doesn’t shame people for being sexually open, it’d be absurd not to acknowledge people who survive on a daily basis deal with self-confidence issues. Yet somehow, the fact that Liz Lemon was a successful woman on television led to think-piecing questioning of why she wasn’t a more affirmative beau ideal of such a person. What seems the most “problematic” about this is the notion that every fictional character who is a woman and is successful needs to be a role model. For a relatively amoral TV show, this seems particularly absurd.

It’s a little different with the characters on Sisters, who we only get to know over the course of the movie’s two hours. Having limited time, and existing within a film whose entire premise hinges on the two sister characters’ polarity, writer Paula Pell’s characters never grow beyond the archetypal. Because of this, their arcs — both toward perceived functionality and self-improvement — seem quite moralistic. It is in this vein that the character Kate, played by Fey, seems to echo some of Fey’s own more archaic views on how others present themselves sexually. “I love to play strippers and to imitate them,” Fey said in her famous breakout cover interview in Vanity Fair in 2008. “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.” The same aforementioned New Inquiry piece also points out that Fey has dichotomized women she deems respectable and those she doesn’t: “For every Elin Nordegren there’s a Hooters waitress who spells Jamee with two Es and a star,” she’d said as part of a long rant on SNL.

When a TV character’s sense of sexual discomfort is turned inward, it can be helpful to other people who don’t vibe with a discourse of unwavering affirmation. But when it’s turned outward — as it is in those two Fey statements — as some principle of a higher feminine morality, it clearly becomes regressive. Since the Sisters characters don’t seem like real characters, but rather polarized archetypes moving towards a tepid sexual middle ground where happiness lies, their trajectory feels similarly sanctimonious and morally confining. While Amy Poehler’s character Maura is notoriously awkward and celibate (we’re supposed to know this because she wears pants!), Kate is depicted as the hyper-sexual, partying, skimpy and primp-y character who’s a train wreck of a mother (tight outfits with holes in them!).

The broad comedy moves, as broad comedies often do, in a predictable moral direction that leads Poehler to warm up to the idea of having male support and Fey to wear less makeup, yank out her purple-hued hair extensions, suddenly style herself more like Tina Fey, and thus… suddenly be a far more acceptable mother. Sure, being a negligent parent is nothing to brag about. But, since this movie gives the impression that the following isn’t obvious, it somehow needs to be said: your parenting skills do not suffer when you wear tight outfits. Nor do they suffer when you’re sexually active. Nor do they suffer if you present yourself as such.

Despite seeming — at first glance, and in trailers — like a step out of Tina Fey’s comfort zone of sexual discomfort, allowing her to explore characters with different senses of sexual selfhood, it turns out Kate is merely a setup for a strange lesson in acceptable moderation: Don’t be too sexual! Meanwhile, Poehler’s character warns: Don’t be entirely averse to sex! Together they scream: Find your beige middle! Only then, they seem to say, can you be a real person and not one of two archetypes in movies with messages about which levels of sexuality are and aren’t functional!

Fey had nothing to do with the writing or the direction of the film, but her archetypal character’s arc seems to parallel her own statement about enjoying “imitating strippers,” while thinking that in real life we can do better. Because only at the end of the film has either sister developed a grasp on a reality the film seems to deem acceptable. The unremittingly sexual Kate, who dressed and spoke in innuendo, “gets her shit together.”

Tina Fey is a brilliant and nuanced comedian who has done morally complex (or purely amoral) things with sexuality — and a general, comic aversion to it — in the past. Since she’s made characters, like Liz Lemon, who are at once indicative of a helpful form of non-affirmational sexuality and not dictatorial about that point of view, it’s a shame to see her breaking type only as a means of ultimately reaffirming the constricting morality she’s espoused in interviews.