Tina Fey’s ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ Is A Feminist Story Set In The Unlikeliest Of Places

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If you have not yet seen Tina Fey’s latest movie ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’, we highly encourage you to do so. It tells the real life story of foreign correspondent Kim Barker who was sent to Afghanistan in the early 2000’s during the height of the Afghan-US war which signaled the end of the Taliban rule in the country.

Tina Fey produced and starred in the film after optioning Kim’s book ‘The Taliban Shuffle’. It is not the type of standard comedy fodder we are used to seeing from the ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum, but there are plenty of Fey-isms threaded throughout the story.

The story is a mix of drama, comedy, and (sort-of) romance, but not in the way you would expect, which is what makes it so great. Sure Tina’s character (whose last name was changed from Barker to Baker to coincide with the fictional aspects of the on-screen story) has to navigate the intensified sexual environment among the war correspondents in the Kabul compound she lives in, but there is nothing typical about her on-screen love life. This is not the story where in the end, the woman gives up her career to settle down, have babies, and play into the standard trope peddled by Hollywood when it comes to portraying “happiness” for women on screen.

Kim’s life is troubled, messy, adventurous, sexual, distressing, depressing, awkward, and realistic. We’ve seen plenty of movies showing a very accurate portrayal of what happens to soldiers when they return from war and struggle to re-assimilate into a Western society while they struggle with PTSD (think ‘The Hurt Locker’ or ‘Brothers’). And although Kim Baker is technically a civilian, this is not the type of female character Hollywood is accustomed to.

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But it is important. Audiences need to start getting used to female characters who don’t have their life sewn up in a happy ending, and who don’t have it all figured out. This is Kim Baker’s story to a tee in ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’, but you aren’t made to feel sorry for her at all.

Everything about Kim’s life is positioned as her making the right decision for herself without apologies and without second guessing herself. Want to know the most outrageous aspect of this type of story-telling? It’s real life! Not every woman in this world walks around with regrets because she wasn’t married by 40 and didn’t have kids or own a house.

Not every woman feels the need to conform to society’s expectations of her (especially sexually – an aspect of female characters we are starting to see an exciting emergence of with films such as ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ and ‘Obvious Child’) which makes Tina’s ‘Whiskey’ so badass in terms of moving the needle forward for women in film.

In an interview with the New York Times, she revealed what drew her to Kim Barker, including the dichotomy of Kim being a serious war journalist by day, and a party girl by night. (Note: in real life, Kim was a print journalist, in the film she is portrayed as an on-camera reporter).

“That’s one thing that surprised me. I just found it fascinating, the weird mix of Kim having this freeing, wild experience privately, in the middle of a place where women are so oppressed,” she said.

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Tina says she felt a certain sense of responsibility to put a flawed, complex female character like Kim’s on screen to break away from stereotypes, which is why she became a producer.

“‘Sisters’ was the first time I was a producer on a film, and this is the second. It’s much more gratifying to have some say. I really like that Margot and I, we don’t start out with some kind of knee-jerk, immediate rivalry, because that wouldn’t ring true to me. Having been in environments where there’s very few women and a lot of men, that usually bonds you immediately. I also really liked that no part of this story is Kim being like, ‘And I should have a baby!'” she said.

The real life Kim Barker told The Artery in an interview about the film that Tina did a great job with her story, and was happy with the end result.

“They managed a balance between the humor, the sadness and the dark parts really well,” she said.

She also pointed out the realistic aspect of Kim being a go-getter, looking for the action stories. During that time women were not typically assigned to cover war so she was already in an unfamiliar space even for a journalist.

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Kim Barker described Tina’s portrayal of her, especially her dealing with a high-ranking Afghan politician who takes a fancy to her and who Tina puts in his place in a very dramatic way, as “pretty badass”. For us, that speaks to more than just Tina Fey’s performance, and as a symbol of the types of female characters finally being welcomed on the big screen.

There are a couple of incidents in the story which point out both the juxtaposition and importance of women in war zones. The first is when Kim travels with a Marines envoy (led by the brilliant Billy Bob Thornton) into a small town to find out why insurgents keep blowing up a well which the American built for women so they wouldn’t have to walk long distances to collect water and risk being attacked.

Being a woman, Kim walks into the house where all the women and wives are hiding during the Marines’ visit, and ends up solving the mystery of the well continually being bombed. It is the women who are sabotaging it because they liked walking the long distance to collect water. It was their sole moment of independence and social interaction, and it took Kim Baker telling the Marine commander for them to figure out what the problem was.

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The second was Kim reporting on the first female driver in Afghanistan, and as she is doing her piece to camera, the Afghan woman hits the gas peddle but reverses and crashed into a house instead of the “forward momentum” or progress this story is meant to signify.

“That sucks. That sucks for women,” she says on camera.

There is also a scene where Kim must don a full body chadri to blend in to the crowds. As she is adjusting the garment on her head for the first time, she quips: “so pretty I don’t even wanna vote!”.

There is an unapologetic take on women’s sexuality in this film which begins when Margot Robbie’s character asks Kim if she can sleep her her bodyguard. It takes you a minute to get used to the idea of two female characters talking about sex and rivalry without any of the typical cattiness, and it is a pivotal aspect of this feminist story.

It is a film worth seeing and supporting, because we want to see more of these diverse characters in the mainstream. Tina Fey does a brilliant job of transitioning from a comedy actor to playing a dramatic role not dependent upon one-liners. ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ is part of the movement allowing feminist stories in film to be less “WTF?!” and more “finally!”.


 

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