The ‘unruly’ feminization of the sitcom | The 30 Rock case
Since her years at SNL, Tina Fey has been a favorite of all of us here at TCP. Her alter ego on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, is not someone women aspire or should aspire to be. Rather, she is a reminder that there is still a lot out there for women to fight for, whether this is the right to be able to stuff our faces with all the junk food in the world, or having power and being taken as seriously as a man would be in the same position. Liz is an ‘unruly’ character because she is likable by being ultimately unlikable (just ask the feminists). We hope you’ll enjoy reading this meditation on the status of women on TV, and Liz Lemon’s relevance in particular.
There is still much debate about whether the portrayal of women in sitcoms has changed that much since I Love Lucy (1951-57). There appeared to be a tendency toward a feminist agenda, and women in sitcoms were gradually transformed from domestic goddesses, like Lucy, into outspoken feminists who challenged the accepted stereotypes of body image. Now with the emergence of beloved female heroines like 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon (2006-present, with Liz played by the show’s creator, Tina Fey), has the ‘unruly’ woman typical of Roseanne (1988-1997) and Designing Women (1986-1993) entered a new stage? Have we now opened our arms and hearts to the acceptance of a more career-obsessed, unruly yet loveable, post-feminist leading lady?
Roseanne was a family-targeted show, an I Love Lucy with a spin, if you will. Butler writes that “[Roseanne’s] excessive
weight, her publicly reported sexual activities, her tattoos, her displays of these tattoos on taboo body parts, her ‘unpatriotic’ rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’: all of these acts breach conventional ‘standards and practices’. Thus, while still grounded in domesticity, Roseanne (played by Roseanne Barr) was a woman who didn’t fit the cookie-cutter image of Lucy, the beautiful and silly blonde wife who is always well put-together.
Gradually, sitcoms evolved from removing the woman, the ‘Roseanne,’ from the house and into the workplace. Shows like Designing Women and Murphy Brown portrayed women as career-driven and preoccupied with feminist issues such as single motherhood and body image, for example. The ‘unruly’ woman of Designing Women was Suzanne (played by Delta Burke), who, although hardly a feminist, became an image of the rebellious woman, mostly due to Burke’s highly mediated weight gain. Butler discusses that the show tried to address Burke’s now curvier body in an episode when Suzanne attends a high-school reunion in which she is the victim of various ‘fat jokes.’ “This episode is less about women who are overweight than it is about ‘beauty queens’ such as Burke and her character, Suzanne”, who formerly adhered to the patriarchal ideal of the perfect female body, only to lose control of themselves and gain weight.
In 2006, a new TV female character was introduced to audiences. Liz Lemon of 30 Rock, played by the show’s creator and former SNL head-writer Tina Fey, is a career-woman in charge of a late-night TV show named TGS: The Girlie Show. Lemon is in her 30s, dresses like a “hobo” according to her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and is notorious for dating losers, like beeper salesman Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters). I would like to discuss how she is an example of the ‘unruly’ woman that Butler discusses in his article, and in this case, an example of how the female character has evolved (or, arguably, descended) since Roseanne and Designing Women.
Liz is ‘unruly’ in the sense that — not so much like Roseanne, but perhaps more like the characters of Designing Women — she is in charge. She is the head-writer of a TV show and she has to deal with two spoiled stars on a daily basis, Tracy and Jenna (Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski). Like Roseanne, she does not care what she eats; jokes about her bad food habits are a running gag on the show. Liz is not fat, but she is not the prototype of an attractive woman either. She keeps referring to a ‘toe problem’ she has, like in an episode from season 4 when she meets her new pilot boyfriend, played by Matt Damon and says he likes her in spite of it. Thus, like Butler would say about Designing Women, Liz Lemon belongs to “an unruly sisterhood of TV women who have disrupted the discourse of patriarchy, who have dared to become subjects in a medium and culture that thrives on the objectification of women.” Liz’s close friendship with her extremely conservative and traditionalist boss makes her ‘unruliness’ all the more evident (“Lemon, if you were any other woman on Earth, I’d kiss you right now,” is only one of multiple quips in which he tries to put her down, pegging her as undesirable).
Butler’s article highlights the ‘unruly’ TV character of the modern woman as a challenge to the patriarchal agenda.
However, this is as true as it is contradictory. We see in all three shows that women are submitted to the manly gaze nevertheless, and this is due to the question of body image. Roseanne is a housewife, so she is committed to her family, and her unruliness is contradicted by her domesticity. The show Designing Women had to change narrative, suffering more or less from the weight gain of one of its main stars. And in 30 Rock, although Liz Lemon seems to be comfortable with her messy way of life, she still accepts Jack Donaghy as her mentor. Hence, she would like to change, and perhaps be less ‘unruly.’
30 Rock has been the subject of many online disputes in terms of how well the show deals with misogyny and female stereotypes. By analyzing a few key episodes, namely “Rosemary’s Baby” from season 2, and “TGS Hates Women” from season 5, Mizejewski addresses Liz Lemon’s ‘contained’ feminism, or what has now been termed ‘Liz Lemonism’. The point Mizejewski is making is that while Liz Lemon most often fails to better the injustices against women that she runs into on a daily basis (like Rosemary Howard, her childhood ideal, being completely broke and living in poverty, or finding out that the jeans she just bought were not really ‘hand made in USA’), she and the show nevertheless succeed in raising these issues and addressing them.
While in his comparative article “Redesigning Discourse” Jeremy Butler discussed Roseanne and Designing Women as feminist shows because they challenged body image, critics of 30 Rock blame Liz Lemon for typifying “the so-called feminist whose most active concern is ‘body image’…without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled person she conforms to the ‘beauty standard’ herself”. In this way, Liz Lemon has been criticized as confirming the status quo rather than challenging it, and in this case, she is seen as a “gutless, self-interested semi-feminist.”
While Mejewsky, and undoubtedly even the most devoted 30 Rock fans would agree with these criticisms of the show’s main character, the fact remains that this is a sitcom that pushes the envelope like no other show on TV. Much like the fictional TGS, 30 Rock is a satirical show; it mocks conventionalism and attempts to destroy it with equal force. As Mejewsky explains, 30 Rock satirizes the strategies and discourses of second-wave feminism as much as it mocks Liz Lemon’s privileged feminism by exposing her unconscious prejudices. Yes, Liz Lemon is ‘unruly’ in this case because she does not conform to feminist norms, which is ironic because feminists don’t want to be stereotyped either. Mejewsky explains that “Although Liz Lemonism can be identified as both a satirical device and also a political perimeter, it works as part of a broader range of gender discourses that 30 Rock typically puts into play, most often through satire and parody, but often as competing discourses.”
While I agree with Mizejewski’s argument, I can see how radical feminists might still see Liz Lemon as the anti-hero rather than their knight in shining armour. At the end of each episode, Liz shares her concerns with Jack Donaghy, her boss, with whom she pretty much always agrees. As in the episode outlined by Mizejewski, “Rosemary’s Baby,” when Liz finds out her childhood idol lives in the most demeaning conditions, all due to the fact that she sacrificed herself for future generations of female comedians instead of having children, she quips to Jack “I can’t end up like that. I’ve got to make money and save it. And I have to do that thing that rich people do when they turn money into more money. Can you teach me how to do that?” In other words, Liz Lemon is an ‘unruly’ female character not only because she doesn’t aspire to the patriarchal image of a woman as an object of desire (as Butler pointed out), but also because she is ‘unruly’ to her feminist sisters, raising the issues they most care about, while failing to take action to forward their cause.
First off, a definition of ‘postfeminism’ must be established in order to discuss the criticisms that Liz Lemon, often coincided with her creator Tina Fey, has aroused among feminists. ‘Postfeminism,’ as Eleanor Patterson describes it, stands for “a move away from the political implications of second-wave feminism”. Ultimately, it “depoliticizes feminism and shifts the focus of feminine agency in mainstream media to superficial choices such as whether to wear a miniskirt.”
Thus, in a way, postfeminism dismisses feminism as no longer relevant, and instead stands for female power through personal choice.
Tina Fey’s star text (which includes her personally, her work, and her star persona) is, according to Patterson, a case of postfeminist contradiction. I will focus on Liz Lemon, the character from 30 Rock, specifically, as a postfeminist achievement and consequence, as discussed by Patterson.
Liz Lemon is described in this paper as ‘ugly,’ in the sense that the character doesn’t conform to the beauty
expectations of men, who “function as aesthetic judges.” She is undesirable beyond physical appearance; her manners, food habits, and etiquette have often prompted the “Good God, Lemon” reaction from Jack Donaghy. Liz is thus rendered manly, which evidently makes her ‘ugly’ or, as previously discussed, ‘unruly.’ Liz Lemon, when broken down is, ultimately, a heterosexual career-driven woman with bad taste and bad manners, or, as Patterson describes her in fewer words, a “straight drag king”. However, we mustn’t forget that 30 Rock is, above all, a satire of hegemonic rules. Lemon’s ‘unruliness,’ although controversial among feminists because it belittles their cause by stereotyping them as ‘manly,’ works to “capitalize on the humour that comes from revealing the derivative nature of dominant masculinities.” Therefore, we must think about what makes men manly and why are they the only ones allowed to enjoy boys’ club privileges.
Ultimately, what we could argue is that Liz’ aggressive and unpolished attitude is a stab at male dominance. If Liz is indeed ‘manly,’ then why is that necessarily ‘ugly’? Why can a man get away with that same attitude and be successful, but a woman is not allowed to? Liz’ unruliness is, after all, both the confirmation and challenge of postfeminist discourse. If a woman can be equally judged by feminists when she wears a miniskirt and when she acts like a man, then what would be a more effective and critically acceptable feminization of TV?
1. Butler, Jeremy. “Redesigning Discourse: Feminism, the Sitcom, and Designing Women.” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 45, No.1 (Spring 1993), pp. 13-26. University of Illinois Press.
2. Mizejewski, Linda. “Feminism, Postfeminism, Liz Lemonism : Comedy and Gender Politics on 30 Rock.” Genders OnLine Journal Issue 55, Spring 2012.
3. Patterson, Eleanor. “Fracturing Tina Fey: A Critical Analysis of Postfeminist Television Stardom.” The Communication Review, 15:3, pp. 232-251. Routledge, 2012.
By Radina Papukchieva