I have to imagine that Amy Poehler is not unfamiliar with the passive aggressive undertones of Yes Please, the title of her new book. Sure, in the mouth of a well-bred 10-year-old boy accepting a slice of meatloaf from his grammy, it is all courtesy and humility. But coming from a grown woman, the phrase carries hints of frustration mixed with a sense of entitlement.
The tension between courtesy and frustration, humility and entitlement, sits at the center of Poehler's book, a mash-up of humor writing, advice, and biography of her time working on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. As a piece of literature it isn't great. The quality of the writing is inconsistent and the pace is bumpy. As a source of inspiration for women, however, it's spot on. The book has an important and uplifting message, one that can be boiled down to the fact that Amy Poehler is really not very nice.
This isn't my interpretation. Poehler says early on: "I am not as nice as you think I am." Yes, that is important and uplifting.
The freedom to not be that nice is a new one for women — and it's one that we are just beginning to figure out. We know we shouldn't be meek, but many of us still have trouble navigating the path between trying to get our way and not being a total bitch. Likability might have become a dirty word in recent years, but I think I speak for a lot of woman when I say I want to be liked, but I also don't want to be a sucker. The question is how.
Messages of empowerment for women tend to be limited to the self-indulgent variety, but in the end those SoulCycle classes and designer bags aren't really moving us forward. When we are encouraged to speak up for ourselves, by women's magazines or powerful businesswomen, the advice rarely goes beyond bromides. This is where Poehler comes in.
Amy Poehler is a little angry. She got angry at the male producer who screwed up her sound and then asked her to retape it while giving her a hug. And she got angry at the "boring, rich-guy" who told her, Tina Fey, and Ana Gasteyer that they were talking too much in first class on a flight. "You rich motherf--ker! Who do you think you are? You're not better than me." The nice thing about many of the stories in which she sticks up for herself is that they aren't about fighting for a promotion or a new film project. Instead, she's expressing herself for the sole purpose of saying how she feels.
Poehler explains her impersonation of Hillary Clinton as a "highly focused and slightly angry woman who was tired of being the smartest person in the room." She then goes on to say that she hoped that Clinton "watched some of [Poehler's] sketches and could live vicariously" through them. Reading this book had a similar effect on me.
She thinks her life is exhausting and says writing the book was so painful it "nearly killed" her. She doesn't gloss over the demands of young children, the pressure to stay attractive, or the way strangers demand her time. This might not sound like a great feminist epiphany, but feeling overwhelmed is one of the central women's issues of our time. I'm glad Poehler owns it rather than making it all sound effortless, like so many famous women do.
Nobody likes to hear women complain, especially rich and successful ones, but it is through the act of complaining that we figure out what exactly is wrong and how we can fix it. The women's movement began with some not-so-nice women complaining; Poehler is only carrying on the tradition.
It's important to note that in much of the book, Poehler reveals herself to be a loyal and kind woman who thrives off teamwork. She gushes just as enthusiastically about her early improv days in Chicago and New York as she does working on SNL and Parks and Recreation. As she tells these stories we see how she can be the sweetest, most encouraging woman and also someone who has no qualms about getting scrappy when the moment calls for it. Really, the secret of her success all boils down to being a good woman who is not afraid to call someone out for crossing the line.
In Fey's Bossypants she recounts a now infamous moment when Poehler was improvising a vulgar bit and Jimmy Fallon requested that she stop.
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. "I don't f--king care if you like it."
Here we have a whole book's worth of proof that she really didn't.