I realized Tina Fey must not be for me in 2015, when I finally got around to reading her memoir Bossypants and got to the part in which she describes her reaction to Saturday Night Live castmate Colin Quinn allegedly calling her a cunt: “You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me and I am not the child of alcoholics who take that shit.”
I don’t mean that line made me realize I didn’t like Tina Fey, it made me realize that Tina Fey saw us as two different types of women. She, a person with dignity, and myself an unloved child of alcoholics who takes that shit. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it in the book, from her belief that having an admirable father was a major, and seemingly necessary, contributor to being a “girlboss,” to an implied warning to her daughter that “damage” would invite molestation from her soccer coach. But as I realized Tina Fey didn’t think much of me, culturally, America also started to reconsider our collective esteem for the feminism of Tina Fey, noticing the mean-spirited and sometimes racist punching down in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, co-created by Fey, and finally questioning things like the use of blackface in the Fey-fronted NBC sitcom 30 Rock. And it was with this idea—that it might not be “for me”—in mind that I reluctantly tried Peacock’s Girls5eva, produced by Fey but written and created largely by Kimmy Schmidt and SNL alum Meridith Scardino, only to find that it is for me—a person who came of age in the early 2000s, specifically—and is also pretty fucking great.
The series focuses on the four surviving members of a washed-up late-’90s/early 2000s girl group called, obviously, “Girls5Eva,” the concept itself seemingly a riff on a running SNL skit I remember fondly from my teenage years about a girl group called “Gemini’s Twin,” a less successful Destiny’s Child. In this iteration, the original archetypes are there: two women who can sing (played by Sara Bareilles and Renée Elise Goldsberry) plus a hot one who can’t (Busy Phillips), with the welcome addition of Paula Pell, who jokes in the first episode that she’s the youngest of the group, as a neurotic, reluctant and closeted pop star who has become a neurotic, reluctant, and divorced but openly gay dentist. And while the series does laugh at the idea of people who genuinely believed they were going to be “famous 5 eva” as the group’s one hit proclaims, the real central joke of the series is all the bizarre and shitty messages women my age grew up with in the pop culture we consumed and are still attempting as adults to untangle from our concept of ourselves.
For example, in the series’s second episode “D’wasg,” the group hopes to announce their comeback by performing a former b-side called “Dream Girlfriend” in the same mall where their careers were launched, only to find the mall gutted and themselves singing by the glow of a makeshift ring light in the form of a broken Sabarro sign. The lyrics of the song, describing a perfect early 2000s “dream girlfriend,” with “eyebrows thin, bronzer thicker,” and “whale tail peekin” are also a long-abandoned glimpse at the girl MTV told me was hot as I tried to sort out how to be hot myself.
But the song, written by Fey, her husband Jeff Richmond, and Scardino, has a lot more empathy for the now-grown women Fey’s book seemed to assert would allow themselves to be called a “cunt” by a co-worker. “Dream Girlfriend” still plays with the idea of a fatherless dream girlfriend whose “dads are dead” so the high school dropout boyfriend will get “no pushback.” But this time, adult women sing these lyrics while simultaneously figuring out that this type of girl was something they were told guys wanted by the adult men writing the songs for them. This updated viewpoint seems to finally absolve the people an early 2000s Pink once accused of being “Stupid Girls.” It also interrogates the cultural conditioning of a time period during which I, as a 19-year-old girl, listened to a one-hit-wonder boy group called “Custom” singing to a girl’s imaginary father that his daughter “just likes getting her fuck on and it’s a good one at that I’m sure” and “You raised her so well/now she’s calling me dad” in a song called “Hey Mister.”
The show’s not perfect; its Pride episode, to be sure, leaves plenty to be desired. And surely we haven’t delved so deeply into our aughts nostalgia that Tina Fey will once again become the spokesperson for feminist American television, just as she should never have been in the first place. But Girls5eva is a laugh-out-loud funny, woman-led comedy that does perfectly encapsulate so much of what was fucked up about the adolescence of those of us, right at first-mammogram years old.