Last week, within a 24-hour period, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey, the star, producer, writer, and creator of NBC’s “30 Rock,” grandly left their respective stages and said goodbye to the nation and, yes, to women like me. For those of us who are of an age that is no longer young but not yet distinguished, the dual departures of Clinton and Fey came as something of a blow.
Both women were appealing because of their substantive talents, their unapologetic ambition, and their capacity to remain calm when everybody wanted something from them. Both shined not just under constant supervision and analysis, but also in the face of the expectation that their choices should somehow reflect on all of womanhood. Women often use terms — “tiger moms,” “stay at home moms,” “how-does-she-do-it? moms” — or fall into camps that tend to pit us against each other.
Clinton and Fey have been liberating exceptions to this oppressive pattern.
History will be kind to Hillary Clinton. She is more than a reflection of her own generation, which achieved so many breakthroughs for women. She also appeals to a younger generation, for reasons that have less to do with any one facet of her life than the fact that she’s had so many. The many complicated incarnations of Clinton — student, mother, lawyer, author, first lady, senator, secretary of state — speak to women’s abilities to remake themselves, and to play multiple roles. She now says she has no specific plans besides relaxing, getting healthy, and going to the spa. The most powerful woman in the world feels self-assured enough to say: I worked hard, and the next step isn’t quite clear, but, in the meantime, I need a manicure.
The fortysomething Fey, through her character Liz Lemon, reminded us that the bustle of our lives demands a laugh track. It is telling that in the final episode of “30 Rock,” Lemon, who like Fey herself is a new mother of two, gets increasingly frustrated with the judgmental parenting advice she reads online. A simple query about buying a bike for her daughter quickly devolves into a hostile debate about helmets, gender-specific toys, and vaccinations. Lemon wants none of it.
Instead, she feels more in her element managing the difficult, moody actors on her highly demanding show. Her attitude is: whatever works. In the “30 Rock” finale, she needs to lure Tracy Morgan, the lead actor in the show Lemon produces, to the set for their final episode. And even as she goes on at length to him about their friendship, the point is that she’s the boss and needs him back at work. And it doesn’t faze her in the least that the scene takes place at a Manhattan strip bar, with “On the Skank Train” playing in the background. Again, whatever works.
The virtue of this approach couldn’t be clearer than in the final scene of “30 Rock.” Jack Donaghy, Lemon’s boss, is a captive of business-school platitudes and pie-chart presentations, and he has spent all seven seasons of the show obsessing about how to accumulate more power at the network. And even as he takes the corner office, he remains unfulfilled. So instead, he tells Lemon that he is going off to “find his bliss.”
His search for the meaning of life, he announces, will take place on a sailboat for a year. But he returns from his nautical journey within a minute. His self-reflection is complete. He has found his calling: manufacturing “clear dishwashers” so customers can see how plates are cleaned. The minimal nature of his self-analysis is comical, and it’s clear that his “bliss” probably won’t get him far.
Fey, like Clinton, reminded many of us that life can’t be charted out so easily. It turns out that the best theories about how to live are those with the least theorizing and the most flexibility. Just don’t think about it too much.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.