Photo from thewrap.com. This contains spoilers for “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”:
Tina Fey’s role in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is exactly what we’re used to from her — a working, somewhat unhappy adult, rooted in her ways and heavily concerned with her job and impressing her boss. We saw this with “Baby Mama”, where Fey played the careful, collected woman intimidated of chaos; we saw it again with Liz Lemon in “30 Rock”, who was unhealthily committed to work; and we saw some glimpses through her several stints as Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” (“somewhat unhappy”, “concerned with impressing her boss”, you get the point). Fey’s role in “WTF” is no WTF — but it’s the jarring portrayal of women that caught me unexpectedly.
When Fey’s character, Kate Baker, first reaches Afghanistan, where she will work as a war reporter, a Marine general forwardly urges her not to “distract” the other Marines. Another reporter, who later strikes a romantic relationship with Baker, jokes while she is unconscious about taking advantage of her. Her security guard asks her if she will have sex with him. An Afghan attorney general asks her the same, but more incessantly, and by gesturing to the bed in his office and asking if she will be his “special friend”. Meanwhile, back in the States, Baker’s boyfriend is cheating on her, and when Baker finds out, the boyfriend blames her.
In many other films, this objectification of women could spark severe criticism of taste. But in “WTF”, because of our knowledge of Afghan culture (however limited), our expectation that humor will ooze out of Fey and the grounded, strong attitude she brings to every woman she plays, we walk away from the film inspired rather than offended.
In the movie, the women in Afghanistan wear coverings over their heads, and in some regions, over most of their bodies. Afghan people call Baker out several times in the movie for immodesty when her scarf slips off her head. This reaction is unsurprising, and we understand that cultural differences account for some of the forwardness Baker withstands from men in Afghanistan.
A movie starring Tina Fey comes with the expectation of laughing the way we do watching her in “SNL”, “Mean Girls” or “Sisters”. When presented with some of the darker underlying themes in “WTF”, it’s easier to take them lightly — we look for the humor in them because we expect Fey to do the same. And more often than not, she does. For example, when the attorney general asks her for a sexual favor, she misleads him by unbuttoning her coat — only to retrieve her cell phone that contains a blackmailing video of the attorney general seemingly dancing ridiculously in the street outside of a party, something that someone of his position is banned from doing. It’s not a laugh-out-loud joke, but it’s Fey’s classic, girl-power sass that lightens the mood. In an interview with The Washington Post, Fey explained that ‘if you make people laugh, they’re more likely to acknowledge that it’s screwed up,” which justifies the humor in some of the movie’s tense moments.
In the role of Kim Baker, just like many of her roles in the past, Fey fiercely combats misogynist comments. Most notably, when the attorney general comes to her house trying to persuade her, she screams at him, accusing him of being inappropriate, disgusting and even cracking that if this was happening in America she would get a book deal out of it. Fey has also proved through various roles that women don’t need men to have a happy ending, and this role is no different. Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post said “WTF” “suggests that a man might not be the necessary icing on the cake of a woman’s self-improvement”. When Baker learns that her boyfriend is cheating, she calls him out immediately for being pathetic and repulsing, and is almost unrealistically stoic after the breakup. Near the end of the movie, Baker tells her new boyfriend that she’s going back to the States, that he’s welcome to come along, but he can’t change her mind. She says, “It’s okay, I know you’re not coming,” and chooses her professional happiness over the personal happiness she found in Afghanistan, a place that she said “started to feel normal”, which she knew was unhealthy. It’s the usual work-over-boyfriend decision Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” has been faced with, and Baker handled it with similar confidence. Female characters like these, played by Fey and other women, like Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries” and Jennifer Lawrence in “Joy”, affirm the notion that women can be content and successful without a male partner.
Tina Fey was an obvious pick for Kim Baker. She’s played the personality before, and she will probably play it again. And that’s okay — in fact, it’s encouraged, because witnessing her characters’ independence and focus on their own happiness never gets old.