Sexist Beatdown: Liz Lemonist Feminism Edition
According to Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown's ex-boyfriends, Sady Doyle bears a striking resemblance to 30 Rock anti-heroine Liz Lemon. "The popular television sitcom 30 Rock premiered in the year 2006," Doyle writes. "Since that time, each man that I have dated has made a point of saying how much I remind him of the main character on that show, Liz Lemon. They said this, in each case, while we were breaking up."
Doyle goes on to catalog all the ways in which the two have been compared: Being born to parents who enjoy gifting flavored popcorn; displaying marked difficulty in putting on clothes correctly; being a "shortish, thinnish, smartish brunette woman who writes, has fairly stylish glasses, and is a bit high-strung"; feminism. It's that last bit that inspires Doyle to "both hate and love Liz Lemon"—for Lemon's particular form of feminism, which Doyle coins "Liz Lemonism," works to awkwardly reflect back all the horrific failures of the feminist movement.
And so! In this edition of Sexist Beatdown, join Sady Doyle and myself as we discuss Liz Lemon's insufferable and endearing flaws; the perceived space between Tracy Morgan and Tracy Jordan; and the other women of 30 Rock—delusional Jenna Maroney, ditzy Cherie Xerox, and the perpetually absent Girl Writer.
AMANDA: Hi, Liz.
SADY: Why, hello, Fellow Liz! I have forgotten to ask you: Do you too suffer from Liz Lemon Identification Syndrome? It is a pervasive illness!
AMANDA: I look nothing like Liz Lemon. However, I do have some similar personality traits. For example, I am an annoying white lady who talks about feminism. And I'm really bad at eating without getting food everywhere.
SADY: Ah, yes. Such are the symptoms! I would say that you remind me, in face yet not in personality, of the other On-Screen Blogger Surrogate Of Our Times, Amy Adams. BUT THAT IS A DIFFERENT STORY!
AMANDA: I talk to my cat! (I don't have a cat). But I would talk to it. To my fantasy cat.
SADY: I think talking to an imaginary cat is even more Jane Sadwoman, as an experience, than talking to an actual cat that you own. So I would say this qualifies. Okay, SO. I have been watching 30 Rock a lot while I answer my e-mails this afternoon. And I was particularly fond of the recent episode "Anna Howard Shaw Day," which for me summarized the Lemonist problems really, really neatly. Because, like, Liz is all talking feminism and making up separate feminist holidays which coincide with The V, simply so that she will not have to deal with the fact that she does not have an—oh noes!—Boyfriend Who Loves Her. So that's one example of a pretty common form of feminist narcissism I fall prey to.
AMANDA: That episode was brilliant. I'm of the opinion that Liz Lemon is the best TV feminist hero that we could ask for, because she is just so awful in all the ways that feminism is awful.
SADY: Haha, EXACTLY. And there's a moment where she's talking to a receptionist, who's like a Caribbean black woman, and she calls her "sister." And then is like, "not in a black way! Or, in a black way because I'm also black! OH FUCK NO I'M NOT!" And, like, on the one level that's a really neat puncturing of well-meaning white lady racism. And on the other hand, LIZ FOR FUCK'S SAKE.
AMANDA: Yeah, but the amazing thing is that they manage to make her likable.
SADY: You are so right: She shares the sins of a certain privileged feminist lady, and that is why we love her, and that is why we sometimes want to throw things at her. She just means so well and often knows so little. But she also really likes Batman, so.
AMANDA: I mean she's racist, she is devoted to Oprah, she is adopting a baby for no reason, she has had sex to get ahead in her job, she blames her problems on other people, and she's awesome. What I'm interested in, though, are the points in the show where there are racist and sexist tropes that aren't employed simply to show how flawed the heroes are ... that are just racist and sexist tropes Tina Fey uses to make funny jokes. You know?
SADY: Yeah. Like, I mean: We can talk about Tracy Jordan. Because my understanding is that Tracy Jordan, the character, is very much like Tracy Morgan, the comedian. But the way plots are structured around him, as a crazy irresponsible childlike black man who these white people have to look after and keep on track, are just kind of . . . uncomfortable-making. And you've got other characters of color, like Jonathan and Dot Com and Grizz and Twofer, who DON'T fit stereotypes, and often serve to point up the racism, BUT. Tracy is the guy who gets the most focus.
AMANDA: Right, and I wonder how much of Tracy Jordan is really Tracy Morgan, and how much of Liz Lemon is really Tina Fey, & c., and how much the characters exist to comment on and poke fun at the people behind the show. I mean, I feel like everyone is a lot more eager to be like, "Tracy Morgan is JUST LIKE HIS CHARACTER!" than they are to do that with Tina Fey, who everyone sort of recognizes is this amazing writer, actor, and businesswoman and totally beautiful lady who is self-consciously commenting on her own character through this incredibly flawed person. Because Liz Lemon is none of these things. I mean, she's a terrible writer.
SADY: Yeah, exactly. The whole "Tracy Jordan IS Tracy Morgan" thing kind of serves to strip the actor of any credit for this character he's created. The idea is just that he's SO WACKY and they somehow manage to capture his innate wackiness on film. Through... carefully worked-out scripts that go through several drafts and are shot in several takes and probably take lots of rehearsing? Like, it's not like everyone else has a script and then Tracy Morgan just comes in drunk at three in the afternoon and says some silly shit and leaves. That wouldn't be as funny as what he's actually doing.
SADY: I would buy that Alec Baldwin does that, though!
AMANDA: It's interesting, because I think 30 Rock's great innovation was taking the idea of the Generic Stand Up Comic Who Plays Himself In A Different Situation and subverting that, so that Tina Fey is playing herself, but this completely bizarro version of herself. That's why I can get with the constant jokes about Liz being ugly, because I feel like there's a self-consciousness there. Although it does go overboard sometimes. But with Tracy, I feel like it's the opposite, and people really get a thrill out of thinking he is the guy, which, who knows how much of him is in that character.
SADY: Yeah. And, I mean, the dichotomy you pointed out fascinates me: actual Tina Fey is this huge celebrity who's happily married and has a daughter and seems like a very fulfilled lady and everyone in the world knows her to be pretty. Liz Lemon is none of the above, and maybe wants to be, but feels completely unsuited for it; it's like she's that girl who lives in your head, your worst-case scenario version of yourself, and that's why so many people love her. But I keep getting really frustrated with the way they write Jenna. I used to love Jenna! Liz and Jenna! That was a friendship that I would buy!
AMANDA: I know. Jenna has lately descended into ridiculousness.
SADY: Right. First they didn't write anything for her, and now they write shit for her, and it's the most shrill misogynist stereotyping. Thanks, but NO THANKS.
AMANDA: She used to have this really interesting relationship with ridiculousness where she would always come back to being humanized after, like, skating around and singing about her muffin top.
SADY: Right! And you could tell that, like, she was the girl who'd hold you hostage at a party by singing to you because she was insecure about her job, or her friendship with Liz, or whatever, and it was a more human insecurity. And now it's just, like, she has exactly three qualities: 1. Kinda slutty, 2. Kinda whacked in the head, 3. Vain, and 4. Stupid. There are four qualities, apparently. THERE! ARE! FOUR! LIGHTS!
AMANDA: I have to admit that I really like 30 Rock's other misogynist construction, Cerie.
SADY: Really? Do tell!
AMANDA: I don't know! She's just so pretty and nice and her last name is Xerox. I like her!
SADY: And I actually think the actress is funny, though it's hard to tell because the character isn't supposed to be. That very chill stoner voice she uses in every situation: It's great.
AMANDA: Yeah, I think a lot of the pleasure I get out of 30 Rock is more about the performance than anything else, and the space between the character and the actor, and I just really like her performance. The character, on the other hand ... not so awesome. I'm waiting for the episode where the stereotypes are upended a little bit for her, like when Frank becomes a lawyer.
SADY: Yes! That would be great. On the other hand, we got a show about Girl Writer, and that one... not so great. That's what really peeves me. We've gotten several good Frank episodes, good Twofer episodes although only in the early seasons, Lutz gets his jokes, there was even a JOSH episode, and then . . . It takes four years for the girl to get a speaking part and it ends with her getting date raped and Tracy not caring about it? YIIIIIIIKES.
AMANDA: Yeah. What was that?
SADY: And that's where the whole joke of Liz, "oh it's so hard to be a girl Making It in a room full of boys," falls apart. There's a girl! A girl right there! Trying to Make It also! And you two never talk?
AMANDA: Haha, no, she does not give a shit about that woman.
SADY: I have no idea. I actually think that 30 Rock makes some not-terrible, not pro-rape-culture rape jokes. Like saying that Elizabeth Banks was in MAXIM's "I'd Rape That 100," which: a) I'm always down for a joke at MAXIM's expense, and b) I think Tina Fey is too, because they had beef when MAXIM wrote about her not being pretty or funny or something a long time ago. But then it veers right into some weird shit. Like, I thought the "Jenna and her stalker" plot was funny, but I've know some ladies were just NOT. PLEASED.
AMANDA: Yeah, I wasn't offended by that, but I wasn't really committed to the entire thing. I thought it was OK funny-wise. I mean, whenever we turn to Jack's stories it's a lot of jokes at the expense of conservatives, and when we turn to Liz's stories it's a lot of jokes at the expense of liberals, and there's never too much controversy there. It's just funny. When we get into the other characters' storylines it's pretty much a toss-up because there's not a particular ideology we're supposed to be laughing at.
SADY: Right. Although, for me, the joy of 30 Rock is often in those side characters. Like, if I had thirty million dollars I would use it to fund a spin-off about Dot Com and Jonathan being roommates.
SADY: And Frank being their super.