‘Yes Please’ Is White Liberal Feminism in Full Force

Yes Please is an honest but dull book that embraces the politics, and thereby the problems, of white liberal feminism.

Yes Please is the first book by writer, actor, comedian, and producer Amy Poehler. Poehler leaped into the public consciousness in 2008 when she portrayed Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Since then, Poehler has starred in the NBC series Parks and Recreation, supported Tina Fey in the film Baby Mama, and done several voice acting parts.

She has become a highly successful female comedian in a sphere largely dominated by men and their ideas of what stories are important and what jokes are funny. Yes Please follows in a growing line of bestsellers written by established female actors: Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me?, and most recently, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.

One thing that these books share in common is that they are written by women who are concurrently influential in and are sharping the American entertainment industry. As a result of this phenomenon, it was only a matter of time before Poehler herself would join her contemporaries and author her own book. Unsurprisingly, Poehler sticks to the increasingly well-worn format of these books: part memoir, part humorous essay collection, and part advice column.

When in “memoir-mode”, Poehler shares how she came to do improv in college, and discusses her tenure in the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). That experience, combined with the relocation of the UCB from Chicago to New York City, positioned Poehler well to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live. Poehler shares stories of living with very little money in erratic ’90s NYC. She details what it’s like to work on a show like Saturday Night Live, and explores the transition from the sketch-based, live-format series to the mockumentary-style Parks and Recreation. She expresses a deep admiration and genuine love for her castmates and mentors both currently and along the way, sharing what she has learned from her teachers and peers.

Like other books, Yes Please presents the typical narrative arc about growing up in small town America — an experience replete with relentless boredom, poor fashion choices, and “unfulfilling” summer jobs — and the struggle to become successful in a precarious career. Yes Please also offers honest accounts of Poehler’s experiences with pregnancy and motherhood, and the simultaneous joy and grief that both can bring. Poehler offers Yes Please as a humble book in which she just tries to “tell the truth and be funny.”

The implication of the book’s title is that the term “yes please” is both “a response and a request.” Poehler, like Fey before her, links the act of saying “yes” to the rules of improvisation, which encourage performers to support their scene partner(s) instead of shutting the scene down by refusing to participate. Poehler states that “please” comes from “the wisdom of knowing that agreeing to something usually means you aren’t doing it alone.” Poehler stresses that the act of saying “Yes please” is “not about being a good girl” but about being a “real woman.”

Importantly, for Poehler, women who embrace the notion of “yes please” do not render themselves incapable of saying “no”, nor do they have to wait for permission to do something. The takeaway? Be amenable and collaborative, except when you decline to, and be polite and collaborative, except when you want to act of your own volition. It’s a vague and confusing slogan that means everything and nothing. The book itself is saturated with similar mantras, which are innocuous but not especially useful or insightful: “No one looks stupid when they are having fun.”

Poehler works to establish funny but politically aware positions on femininity, sex, motherhood, and career, concerns that are not unusual for an upwardly mobile white woman living in the West. In the book, Poehler herself does not write about feminism or identify as a feminist, but she has asserted, both directly and indirectly, a relationship to feminist politics. She recently critiqued the online movement that disavows feminism, and she is aware that she has directly benefited from the gains of feminism. She is associated with feminism by critics and has been called an “easy-to-understand” feminist.

Throughout her writing, which is situated within three parts titled “Say Whatever You Want”, “Do Whatever You Like”, and “Be Whoever You Are”, Poehler expresses and responds to the above-mentioned concerns in a way that largely aligns with the fun, feel-good politics that comprise contemporary white liberal feminism. As a result, Poehler can, even if inadvertently, be positioned within the group of white liberal feminists who use humor and the memoir form as a conduit through which to present ideas about, among other things, women’s experiences and female equality.

One of the reasons that white liberal feminism relies so heavily on humor is to both communicate its intentions and to defend itself against inaccurate but longstanding critiques of feminism. In order to be accessible, feminism now has to be funny to gain the social and political support of non-feminists. (However bewilderingly, “accessibility” is supposedly now a tenet of the movement.) In addition, humor allows women feminists to renounce and position themselves against the dominant discourses of feminism that assumes we are humorless, angry man-haters.

Poehler is clearly no stranger to this stereotyped misunderstanding. She explicitly states that she wants men to read her book because she “love[s] the shit” out of men. She invites the readership of men not by propping up the ideas, experiences, and stories she has to offer, but by joking that the book is like a video game in which male readers can find “Easter eggs” that will lead them to new levels (because every man loves video games and video game analogies). Such an approach to engaging male readership, while amusing, not only reinforces the assumption that only women do and should read books by women, it also flags one of the problems with funny feminism: centering humor over content, being funny over being profound, and being cheeky over being strong in argument or position.

The white-lady memoir, as informed by white liberal feminism, is complicit in a stagnant form of popularized non-politics that emphasizes non-confrontation, positivity, and individualism. For her part, Poehler maintains that women should embrace a position she calls “Good for you, not for me” when determining how women should respond to the choices that other women make about and for their lives and bodies. For her, this reduces conflict between women, a phenomenon she calls “woman-on-woman crime”.

In the book, the “Good for you, not for me” approach is used to offer support for the decision to be a stay-at-home mother or a working mother, but, more generally, it’s a way of encouraging women to support other women in doing what is best for them in their lived circumstances. “Good for you, not for me” is useful, Poehler suggests, in a social context in which women are continuously set up, whether in actuality or hypothetically, as being in competition with one another.

Yet, what Poehler neglects to acknowledge about “Good for you, not for me” is that the majority of choices do not occur in a social, political, or economic vacuum, and therefore cannot be understood only for how they affect or impact the person who makes them. Choices that might be liberating for some women, might be made possible by or contribute to the exploitation and oppression of others. What’s more, the conditions under which choices get made may not be the same for all women: coercion often masquerades as choice.

Indeed, Poehler shares many life lessons throughout the book, and she connects these to her own experiences and admitted mistakes. Here is the point at which the book takes a sharp turn for the problematic. When recounting experiences and sharing what she has learned through those experiences, Poehler cannot connect her experiences with extant political, social, or economic conditions. Poehler seems equally unable to look beyond her own experience as an able-bodied “BLOND, WHITE lady from AMERICA” (caps in original), even though she is aware of the power and privilege that that position affords her.

Near the end of the book, for example, Poehler shares a candid account of her travel to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. (Poehler is an ambassador and active fundraiser for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, which works in Haiti among other places.) She discusses the lived experience of children orphaned by the earthquake and the work being done to help them. She also shares her affective response to that experience. Poehler tells us about some of the children she met there, and expresses a profound sadness towards their circumstances, as the children live in poor conditions with limited adult presence or intimacy. Her attention quickly wanes, however, and she starts to draft e-mails in her head.

The story reveals how difficult it is to give sustained attention to natural disasters or social injustices to those who are not materially or personally affected. We read the Twitter feed, we sign online petitions, we move on. But Poehler does not pause on this phenomenon. She doesn’t talk about how, because she gets to go home, she has the luxury of inattention and distraction. This is not to suggest that Haitians affected by the earthquake are continuously preoccupied with the experience; it is to suggest a missed opportunity to attend to the ways that disavowal is often a comfort created by the relative safety of class, race, and geographical privilege.

Also difficult to uncritically accept is Poehler’s retelling of a time when she took too long to apologize for her pejorative treatment of people with disabilities in a Saturday Night Live sketch. The book reproduces, presumably verbatim, a series of emails exchanged between Poehler, Anastasia Somoza, a disability advocate and one of the women Poehler made fun of on live television, and Marianne Leone Cooper, who is close with Somoza. Leone Cooper called Poehler out for using Somoza and her twin sister as a prop in a sketch and perpetuating the idea that disability is funny. Poehler reproduces these emails to show that, even though she put off responding and apologizing for her actions, Somoza still accepts Poehler’s apology. It’s an honest story in which Poehler admits to screwing up badly, and reveals that it’s never too late to admit to mistakes and apologize for the mistreatment of others.

While this is, first and foremost, a story about apology, it fails to critically address what happened to make that apology necessary. While Poehler might have learned something about apologizing, she learned little about disability: her method for apologizing was to communicate to Somoza through Leone Cooper. Poehler neglects to connect the damage done by the skit with the ongoing barriers and oppressions that many people of disabilities still face. She emphasizes apologizing to people with disabilities at the expense of encouraging non-disabled people work on doing better in the first place. It does even less to show how non-disabled people can become allies for people with disabilities.

In presenting this story, as well as that of her time in Haiti, Poehler misses an opportunity to write thoughtfully about these ongoing issues. But that’s not the function of these stories; instead, these stories work to show how Poehler herself has been enlightened by her mistakes and experiences. This is a case of authorial sleight of hand, in which the reader’s admiration for Poehler is used to present Poehler as “real”, “human”, and “relatable”, an impression that has clearly stuck based on the response to Yes Please.

Poehler’s ethics and politics are not only problematic, they are frequently inconsistent and often contradict the to-each-her-own mentality set up by the book’s structure. One example of this inconsistency occurs early on in the book, when Poehler speaks candidly about some of the gendered behaviors that women internalize: we constantly apologize for things that are not our fault and for things that do not warrant an apology. Poehler also maligns the “demon voice” that women internalize, which tries to convince us that we are ugly and/or that our bodies are problematic. Women can suppress this voice, she says, by temporarily agreeing with and ignoring it, or by telling it to go away because we have other (and presumably better) things to do.

Immediately thereafter, however, Poehler offers a “Plastic Surgery Haiku” that makes light of the results of cosmetic surgery. She writes that “fake boobs are weird, y’all” and that facial fillers make it unclear whether “you are happy or sad”. Poehler seems incapable of recognizing that, for many, a breast augmentation might be the way to quiet the “demon voice”. Instead, what’s more important for her to communicate is the extent to which she is made uneasy or uncomfortable by the appearance of those who have cosmetic surgery. This opposition to cosmetic surgery is misdirected, making the problem with plastic surgery the people who elect to have it, rather than the heterosexist patriarchy that creates and reinforces oppressive aesthetic norms.

Like other books in this category of the “white lady memoir”, Yes Please presents Poehler’s experience of and thoughts on career, family, growing up female, and being a woman. The book carefully positions Poehler as nice, likeable, and relatable, but also as someone who is unwilling to be steamrolled. As other reviews have noted, the book contains a lot of filler, not all of which is well-situated in or useful to the book. However, the book has a much larger issue besides its problems with filler, and that is that Poehler engages with important social issues with neither the careful attention required to consider those issues nor the wherewithal to turn the frame away from how she is affected and onto what is really at stake.

Despite these challenges, Yes Please is a relatively pleasant and sometimes funny book. It offers some insight into Poehler’s personality and professional life without deteriorating into “tell-all” territory. It reveals, as other books have, the difficulties of “making it” in an male-centric industry world and the ways in which professional and personal situations, women are treated differently.

Even though the essays and ideas in Yes Please contain political and ethical shortsightedness, Poehler herself is a progressive public figure, relatively speaking. Her charity work is significant, and her work as a producer often supports the success of other female actors and performers. Her web series and online community, “Smart Girls at the Party”, co-created with Meredith Walker, celebrates young women for who they are and what they do.

Clearly, Poehler is committed to create a better and safer world. However, her thinking and politics need some sharpening to reflect her generosity. The limitations of the positions in her book are perhaps understandable, given that Poehler is not an academic and/or a feminist writer. Still, Yes Please reveals an intellectual and political carelessness, for Poehler simply did not think thoroughly enough about the message she conveys.