Tina Fey’s new book Bossypants is an eclectic combination of memoir, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock tell-all, and humorous vignettes. It moves somewhat jerkily from one episode to the next, but on the whole it’s an entertaining read with some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments.
In one of her funniest chapters, entitled, “Amazing, Gorgeous, Not Like That,” Fey describes what it’s like to have your picture taken for the cover of a magazine. This section is full of Fey’s typical self-deprecating humor, but its most arresting content is her substantive discussion of Photoshop at the close of the chapter.
Fey suggests that Photoshop is, on the whole, nothing to write home about. Or as she puts it, “It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society… unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.” No one has ever really accepted the human form exactly as it is, she argues—from corsets to earrings, we’ve always shown an interest in altering and enhancing our appearance, and Photoshop is no different.
Even more importantly, Fey argues that no one is really fooled by Photoshop. Everyone knows how to recognize an altered photo. “As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds,” Fey says. Thus, she believes that our collectively being “in” on the digital trickery means that “giving women unrealistic expectations and body issues” isn’t really something we have to fear from Photoshop.
There is tension, however, between her happy-go-lucky acceptance of the modern industry of beauty engineering and her concern for women’s advancement. For much of this book, Fey argues for women’s right to be independent in the workplace and to express themselves creatively. She applauds the advances that have been made, particularly in the world of comedy, where women are gradually earning more recognition for being funny people in their own right. In answer to those detractors who claim that she, or women in general, are not funny, she replies, “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good.” She advises other women to ignore their detractors and focus on whatever “neutral proving ground” they can use to show their worth. In fact, the mantra she adopts from her SNL coworker Amy Poehler is, “I don’t care if you like it.”
But where Photoshop is concerned, Fey comes across as deeply double-minded. She comments that on some magazine covers, “You can barely recognize yourself with the amount of digital correction… You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pox scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?” At some point the person in the picture is not you, but only an illusion of you. Fey doesn’t like it, but she wants to “look her best” in photos—and it seems clear that the “best” she means is “what other people like.” The point of the contemporary beauty industry is make you look beautiful. But, we might ask, according to whose standards? Fey grounds her impassioned defense of women’s humor in the legitimate diversity of tastes that exist in the world. Yet, when it comes to her personal appearance, she is willing to submit to the standards created by others.
John Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Yet the illusion created by digitally altered photos is preferable in our society to an unaltered—a true—picture. When society prefers illusion to truth, then there must be an accompanying guilt, a kind of cognitive dissonance between trying to embrace the truth and yet still calling the illusion the more beautiful of the two. That there might be something more deeply wrong with a society that rejoices in a shared falsehood (even if it does not directly cause eating disorders or poor self-esteem) to the extent that deception becomes the norm, or that such a state of affairs might corrupt our relationship to reality or our capacity for honesty, are issues that Fey leaves untouched.
Whether or not we agree with Fey that the mutual acknowledgment of falseness makes Photoshop a harmless tool, we ought to examine our attitude toward the subject in another light. The more that we insist on getting what we want—on upholding a certain cultural standard of beauty in both ourselves and others—the more we are incapable of recognizing any other sort of beauty than the one upheld by that standard. Photoshop ultimately teaches us that a doctored appearance is more beautiful than the unaltered image, that illusion trumps reality. But does this attitude destroy our individual and cultural capacity to see the beauty of what is true? The glamor of Photoshop, as much as we may deny its effects upon us, may yet be blinding us and muting our perceptions, rendering us incapable of looking beyond our compulsive wish fulfillment and confronting the underlying issue that made us embrace this falsehood in the first place. Our society, as a whole, is increasingly permeated by artifices that set themselves up between us and reality, filtering and processing all our perceptions and mediating our contact with the world. The implications of this may be unclear, but they bear reflection. At least, much more reflection than Fey is willing to give them.