Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Read Bossypants like a fancypants

By Michelle Rafferty

Summer heralds many important things: 3D movies, involuntary camping trips, and sidewalk distribution of ice cream samples in tiny disposable cups. But the greatest tradition of all is, of course, book club (or your local library’s summer reading program). If, like me, you’re the weakest link in your coterie, you’re probably looking to contribute more than, “The ending was awesome,” or “Favorite character. Ok…go!”

This summer will be different. We’re going to trick our bookclubs into thinking we’re literary geniuses. Let’s begin with a few key concepts from John Sutherland’s How Literature Works, applied to the book that seems to be on everyone’s reading list.

How to Read Tina Fey’s Bossypants (like a literary critic)

1.) Irony
Saying one thing and meaning another. Typically accompanied by the four ‘s’s: sarcasm, satire, subversion and skepticism.

Fey makes excellent use of irony in the chapter “Dear Internet,” in which she responds to message board bullies:

From tmz.com
Posted by Kevin 214 on 11/9/08, 11:38 a.m.
“Tina Fey CHEATED!!!!!! Anyone who has ever seen an old picture of her can see she has had 100% plastic surgery. Her whole face is different. She was ugly then and she is ugly now. She only wished she could ever be as beaufiul as Sarah Palin.”

Dear Kevin 214,

What can I say? You have an amazing eye. I guess I got caught up in the whole Hollywood thing. I thought I could change a hundred percent of my facial features and as long as I stayed ugly, no one would notice. How foolish I was.

Keep on helpin’ me “keep it real,”

And on page 161:

I have thus far refused to get any Botox or plastic surgery. (Although I do wear a clear elastic chin strap that I hook around my ears and pin under my day wig.)

2.) Imagery
What one sees while reading or what Wordsworth called “the mind’s eye.” Or simply put: the pictures in your head.

From the chapter “Secrets of Mommy’s Beauty”:

By nineteen, I had found my look. Oversize T-shirts, bike shorts, and wrestling shoes. To prevent the silhouette from being too baggy, I would cinch it at the waist with my fanny pack. I was pretty sure I would wear this look forever.

In literature imagery is not always visual; one can “taste” or “smell” with the mind. See page 247:

If there’s on thing my husband’s hometown has that St. Barts does not, it’s the water. “Legally potable” doesn’t quite capture it. Straight from the tap it smells like…How can I describe it? – if you boiled ten thousand eggs in a prostitute’s bathwater.

3.) Allusion
When literature connects with other works, enlarging (and complicating) the perspective. Very common in titles (for example, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man refers to Rembrandt’s picture of himself).

One of Fey’s chapters is titled: “My Honeymoon, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again Either*” Fey acknowledges the allusion with this footnote:

*If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!

4.) Allegory
Say one thing by means of saying something entirely different (for example, Aesop’s Fables allegorize the human condition in terms of animal narratives).

In her introduction Fey explains how to read Bossypants as an allegory:

If you’re looking for a spiritual allegory in the style of C.S. Lewis, I guess you could piece something together with Lorne Michaels as a symbol for God and my struggles with hair removal as a metaphor for virtue.

Note that allegory is different than a metaphor or simile because it is extended over length–sometimes the whole of the work. Think of a metaphor as a “one-off device or ornament.” Like this:

(Fey explained the metaphorical cover to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I thought that since I was writing a lot about working in male-dominated environments, it sort of made sense.”)

5.) Sexual Politics
The term “sexual politics” was the title of a book published by Kate Millett in 1970. Sexual relationships were not, as Millett saw it, biological, but rooted in “power” – or, as she preferred to call it, “force.” Think: who is in charge of the scene? When man has power over woman this is referred to as “patriarchy” (a system of oppression that can be traced as far back as literary and biblical texts can take us).

From the chapter “The Windy City, Full of Meat”:

In 1995, each cast at The Second City was made up of four men and two women. When it was suggested that they switch one of the companies to three men and three women, the producers and directors had the same panicked reaction. “You can’t do that. There won’t be enough parts to go around. There won’t be enough for the girls.” This made no sense to me, probably because I speak English and have never had a head injury.

And on the Hillary Clinton/Sarah Palin opening sketch that ran during the 2008 election on SNL:

In real life these women experienced different sides of the same sexism coin. People who didn’t like Hillary called her a ballbuster. People who didn’t like Sarah called her Caribou Barbie. People attempted to marginalize these women based on their gender. Amy’s line “Although it is never sexist to question female politicians’ credentials” was basically the thesis statement for everything we did over the next six weeks. Not that anyone noticed. you all watched a sketch about feminism and you didn’t even realize it because of all the jokes. It’s like when Jessica Seinfeld puts spinach in kids’ brownies. Suckers!


These tips are excerpted from John Sutherland’s book How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts. Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL, currently teaches at the California Institute of Technology, and writes for the Guardian.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

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