Photo by Kuni Takahashi

Meet the Female Journalist Who Inspired Tina Fey's Latest Movie

Kim Barker was once a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, her memoir is the inspiration for Tina Fey's upcoming film "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot." We caught up with the journalist to talk about the women left behind in Afghanistan, why...

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Mar 4 2016, 8:25pm

Photo by Kuni Takahashi

Tina Fey's much anticipated war dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot hits the big screen this weekend. In the film—which is based on the 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle—Tina Fey plays a fictionalized version of the memoir's author, Kim Barker (Kim Baker is Fey's character in the movie), serving as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the tumultuous early years of the US government's Operation Enduring Freedom.

Barker's memoir—which was recently re-released—recalls what it's like to report from a region enduring major instability and war in a style both "hilarious and harrowing."

In anticipation of the film's release, Broadly sat down with the real woman behind it all. In a candid conversation, Barker—now a reporter on the Metro Desk at the New York Times—opened up about the women left behind in Afghanistan, why foreign reporting is so addicting, and all the men she's had to punch.

Photo courtesy of Kim Barker

BROADLY: In your book, you say that when you first started reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it had become the "sideshow" rather than "the big show"—which was happening in Iraq. What do you think is the big show versus the sideshow now? What story do you think has gotten shafted?
Kim Barker: Obviously, what's happening in Syria is just a disaster of proportions we don't fully understand yet, and it just feels like this quagmire—this never-ending spiral. What's happening with ISIS in Syria and in Iraq and even in Libya—that's become more of a focus. It feels like a lot of the coverage is about fear of ISIS here, rather than what's actually happening over there.

Afghanistan is still a forgotten war; it's not like things have gotten better there. It was our longest war—is our longest war. I'm not quite sure how to define it. Combat was declared over in December 2014, but we most definitely [still] have troops there. Things are very troubled there right now, [but] you never hear about what's happening. That said, I do feel like what's happening in Syria and Iraq and Libya is a huge story.

Afghanistan is still a forgotten war; it's not like things have gotten better there.

How do you think—this is a difficult question, I think, if you don't want to be the spokesperson for all media and journalism—but...
I am not the spokesperson for all media and journalism. [Laughs]

OK, glad we cleared that up. How do you think the media—or journalists in general—can do a better job of not leaving a war behind, in terms of the storytelling, even when everyone else is moving on; the government is moving on?
It's funny because you hear people saying, "Well you know, it's the journalists' fault for not covering this." And a lot of times, man, the journalists cover it, it's just [that] people don't wanna read about it anymore. There's a sense of war fatigue. And I get that—there's Syria fatigue now. It's difficult to deal with the same sort of stories; hearing about tragedy day after day. But I think it's important—as voters in a democracy—to read about what's happening around the world. That's idealized, obviously. And as far as journalism outlets, and where they've got their focus: It's really expensive to have foreign correspondents. I also think it's vitally important. I'm not sure how to reconcile that. Because a lot of it is about, "how do you get the resources to pay for really good stories?" I guess that goes back to me saying in the book that what we do is important and people should pay for it. [Laughs]

Right now, as you just said, everyone's talking about Syria and Iraq, but where does the Taliban fit in now? How high are the stakes with the Taliban taking power? Especially for women, as the main narrative in the West: the problem with the Taliban is how they treat women.
Yeah, that was definitely the narrative that was sold after 9/11. I mean, Laura Bush came out in November 2001, [and] did this address all about women of Afghanistan and how they were treated under the Taliban. It was hilarious to me, because women had been treated like that under the Taliban, and it wasn't like it was a secret. There were stories about it. But it's not like we cared. I mean, let's face it—Americans cared more about what happened to the Buddhas in Bamiyan than they necessarily did about what was happening to women there.

I think it's important—as voters in a democracy—to read about what's happening around the world.

After 9/11, we used those women. By "we," I mean America. You could use what had happened to them as a way to rally support for the idea of war—to get liberals involved and invested, like, "Yeah we're going to help the women there; we're going to save the women there." Then the Taliban is driven out, [but] it's not like the Northern Alliance was much better towards women; it's not like women have had a great run of it in Afghanistan. There's a situation where you're basically going in there, as "the West," saying, "Hey women, come out of your houses! Take off your burqas! Go to work! Become police officers!" you know? "Go back to teaching! Girls go to school! You can vote! We're going to reserve a quarter of the seats in parliament for women! Women, women, women!"

And I think it's great, but it's almost like that sort of emphasis was placed before there was even security there. Just look at the story of Malalai Kakar, in Kandahar—one of the toughest women I've ever met in my life. [Any] Afghan woman [is] a tough woman. They would meet me and hug me and look at my cuticles and take my headscarf off and play with my horrible hair and act like I somehow knew what they had been through, simply because I was a woman, and I, of course, had no idea.

So, Malalai is a cop out of Kandahar. In the beginning, [she went] to work in a burka, with her gun beneath it. And eventually she was like, "Nah, man, I'm going in just a headscarf—" which was a statement in Kandahar, especially at the time. She was in charge of a lot of the domestic dispute issues. She was a chain smoker, she would swear, she [made] fun of other cops who ran away from the Taliban. She had all these letters left at her door saying,"You're very brave, Malalai, but if we catch you, we will kill you." It's not like [they were] signed "The Taliban," but [they were] from the Taliban—and all these different groups that call themselves the Taliban.

Americans cared more about what happened to the Buddhas in Bamiyan than they necessarily did about what was happening to women there.

I asked her if she was scared, and she was like, "No, I know the international forces are here, and I know this country is rebuilding, and it's going in a proper direction, and blah blah blah." She was gunned down a year and a half later. Killed in front of her house.

I don't understand what exactly is happening [now]with our foreign policy because obviously I'm not in those conversations, but I know they're trying to work on some sort of negotiated peace with the Taliban. I don't know if that means they'll come back into power, but it's not like things are great for women under some of these warlords. You fear what's going to happen to them—especially the women who were brave enough to step forward.

In your book, you talk about how it's addicting to be over there—why? I'm curious about that mindset that drives foreign correspondents.
I think for any journalist—not just foreign correspondents—for us, it's always about the story. And when you're on a good story you don't want to leave it, and you live it, and you breathe it. Especially when you're in an environment like Afghanistan or Pakistan, you are 24/7 in it. When you're in the situation, you feel like [it's] the most important story going on in the world.

Photo by Kuni Takahashi

What were some of the negatives you found [being a female correspondent]?
I mean, Jesus—I've punched so many guys. I really did. I'm five foot ten, man—[those] guys were shorter than me. They [were] grabbing my butt, and I just hit them. They're littler than me, too. What is it about my unremarkable ass that they were just drawn to it? I got pretty good at catching guys who were [grabbing me], and punching them.

On the other side of that: It's not great being groped; it's not a good feeling. But I don't want to say that anything [that] happened to me was at all comparable to what's happened to other female correspondents. I always try to hold on to the idea that [groping] happened, [but] at least I punched a few of [the gropers], and they probably wouldn't do it again.

I try and focus on things like that, take the good more than the bad from it. I don't know what it's like to be a male reporter in those circumstances, but I'd much rather be a woman over there. I think it was an advantage. I mean, who doesn't want to tell the stories of women?

What do you want people to take away from the movie, or the book?
The movie is obviously telling a similar story [to the one in the book], in a different way. It's more Hollywood, there are more explosions, I'm much braver in the movie than I am in real life. I'm also a TV journalist named Kim Baker as opposed to a newspaper journalist named Kim Barker. The names are changed to protect the innocent or the guilty—not quite sure. But it's fictionalized. What I really like, though, is what they do with the war. They talk about it being forgotten. My greatest hope is that people enjoy the movie, get curious about the real story behind it, buy the book—and by the end of the book, unwittingly learn a lot about Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to write it in a way that was really easy to follow. It's a primer— it's not like it's a foreign policy book. I think it's a fun book to read, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote it.

I just hope people want to know more about Afghanistan, that they see Afghans as real people, as opposed to this idea of "the other." Normally, people feel[ing] their money was well spent is all you can hope for. But as the journalist, I'll always hope for more.