30 Rock and Liz Lemon and Feminism - Oh Blurg!

From her television appearance as a phone sex operator to her penchant for night cheese, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon has provided a lot of laughs this season. Since the season finale of 30 Rock airs tonight on NBC, this seems like as good of a time as any to revisit some of Lemon’s more memorable third-season moments. Since this is Bitch, this also seems like as good of a time as any to ask the question that is burning a hole in all of our minds: Is Liz Lemon a feminist? And does that matter?

Let’s start this retrospective way back at the beginning of season three. Here is a recap of the season premiere (sorry about the annoying NBC promo stuff):

So… Liz Lemon is baby crazy and (sadly) not the victim of sexual harassment. Yeah, I guess that might not be overly feminist. Is it wrong then that I laughed out loud (especially at all of the Will Arnett parts)?

Here is a recap of episode eight, where Liz decides to take a stand and refuse a flu shot because her crew members aren’t allowed to get one (again, sorry about the NBC crap).

So I laughed at this one too, but I do think this episode is a good example of some of the problems I have with calling Liz Lemon a feminist. Almost every episode of 30 Rock starts with Liz and Jack disagreeing about something (in this case it was whether or not everyone deserves equal access to flu shots) and the resolution is almost always that Liz comes around to seeing Jack’s side of things (usually after he solves her problems for her because she can’t do it herself). I know Liz has flaws, just like everyone, but it does feel like those flaws almost always fall along stereotypical lines (She’s overly emotional! She can’t manage a team of men! She wants a boyfriend!) and that her rich, white, powerful, father-figure of a boss is usually framed as having the right idea.

OK, let’s watch one more video. In this one (from episode 20), Liz and Tracy have decided to eschew the preferential treatment they both receive as a woman and a person of color.

Of course, their experiment turns out to be a mistake, and they choose to go back to the way things are supposed to be (with each of them being treated differently than the white men around the office). (This theme was also explored in episode 2, “Believe in the Stars” when Jenna and Tracy decided to switch places.) While the very fact that a sensitive issue like preferential treatment based on race and gender was explored on a network sitcom is a great thing, once again the resolution reinforced the notion that these topics are better left alone. Hmmm…

Here is the thing: I know Liz Lemon might not be a feminist, but 30 Rock is still an amazing show, and I think it has helped make inroads for women in comedy that weren’t there before. For example, Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation would most likely not exist without 30 Rock, and The Office’s Mindy Kaling (who I love!) just got an NBC deal to create her own show. The fact that women are being considered to create their own comedy shows is a major step forward, and it’s important not to forget that.

On the other hand, just because Tina Fey is a feminist, or 30 Rock is great for women, that doesn’t exactly make Liz Lemon the second-coming of Susan B. Anthony. In his article last week on 30 Rock’s conservative streak, Jonah Weiner asks,

How do these story lines [wherein the plot resolutions are politically conservative] fit into a show masterminded by a successful, self-described feminist like Fey? Flawed people are funny, sure, but why does Liz Lemon have the traditionally gendered flaws she does? Elaine Benes and Murphy Brown, for example, were strong, feminist-friendly characters and funny, to boot.

When it comes to answering the question of whether or not Lemon is a feminist, the fact that the answer might be no, or maybe on a good day, isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps I am simply justifying my own love of the show, but I like to see 30 Rock as a step in the right direction for feminist comedy. While its protagonist may be an infantilized, baby-crazy, lonely lady who relies too much on men to solve her problems, 30 Rock is also a show that puts funny women in the spotlight, flaws and all.

So here’s hoping that tonight’s season finale of 30 Rock is just as funny as ever, and that the next generation of comedy shows get us that much closer to seeing a smart feminist on the screen, as well as behind the scenes. I know I’ll be watching. Will you?

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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19 Comments Have Been Posted

After I read Mr. Weiner's

After I read Mr. Weiner's article last week I kept going back to it, because I had to agree with pretty much everything he said. He/you are right: Liz's problems are generally always solved by Jack - or if they aren't solved, it's Jack who explains how they could have been avoided.

But something in this didn't sit right with me and I'm pretty sure that it's not just because I think this is some of the best TV out there right now (and I watch an embarrassing amount). Because the number one thing about 30 Rock that has always stood out for me is how well it will present some social faux pas - usually one that directs back to a much larger issue - and it will play out in such a way that we can recognize it in our own lives/our own colleagues and friends. Yet, it's always off a bit, like a head tilt where you just say "Huh." As "realistic" as it is, I also see that 30 Rock is completely mocking the situation and essentially saying, "This is really not right."

So in the case of Liz always turning to Jack to solve her problems - yes, I see that happen in a variety of ways in my own life so it's something I can relate to; but I also see the mockery in it, the part that makes me say "Gosh Liz, can't you just figure it out yourself and stop being so incredibly awkward"; this despite the mass amount of love I have for Liz Lemon. The satire of both the PC culture and the reasons we have it (unfortunately) is what I find truly smart about this show.

But maybe I'm just justifying myself too.

Heck yeah I'll be watching!

I'm just bummed that I'm in California and all of the East Coast people get to watch it first. It's the funniest show since Arrested Development left us. =(

I have no feminist critique to offer. I just love the show. We got our three year old singing "workin' on my night cheese..."

This show is a rarity ...

... in that its writing and humor is always sharp, and Tina Fey is a better performer than certain talentless A-listers I am sick of hearing about every day. As for a feminist critique ... I admit that I don't think about one while I'm watching. Probably because my laughter won't let me.


I call bullshit. As a character, Liz Lemon not only runs TGS, but is in charge of team of mostly men. Her power and strength lays outside of her sexual prowess and ability to get a man. She has her position based on her talent, hard work and merit. She's able to have strong friendships with the men on the show without having a sexual under(or over) tones. With Jack, as much as he helps her she helps him, like with Elisa or his dad problem. Her awkwardness shows that women don't have to be perfect to be successful.

She's hardly infantilized. Don't let one shitty article written by a man erode our strong women in pop culture (especially by Slate. STFU slate).


1. <i>30 Rock</i> is not funny. It's not well-written, it's not well-directed, and it's unevenly acted. And the fact that so people think it <i>is</i> gives me a sinking, faint feeling, and causes me to doubt human nature.

2. <i>30 Rock,</i> and in particular Tina Fey's character, are not feminist. She is a single childless woman who has a white-collar job; and when that is the definition of feminist, I will eat my powder compact.

You wrote, "While its protagonist may be an infantilized, baby-crazy, lonely lady who relies too much on men to solve her problems, <i>30 Rock</i> is also a show that puts funny women in the spotlight, flaws and all." When I read the first part of this sentence, I assumed a joke was coming...and then it never arrived. So let me get this straight: foregrounding members of an identity group and mocking their pathetic, identity-related flaws equals championing equal rights and respect for them? Wow, who knew—in which case, minstrel shows really <i>were</i> good for the civil rights movement! As long as we can laugh at women, it doesn't matter whether they're infantalized. In fact, the more infantalized, the funnier!

Which is not to say that something has to be ham-fistedly educational in order to be culturally valuable; or earnest in order to be funny (usually disastrous, in fact). I just think this particular show is neither. A couple of months ago I put myself through the entire flu-shot episode, didn't laugh once, never watched again, and haven't looked back.

PS—although having said that...

Fey was magnificently, tear-wringingly, an-entire-country-skeweringly PERFECT as Palin. For which service I think she should have received the NEA Chair—but since she didn't, maybe the Congressional Medal of Honor.

"She is a single childless

"She is a single childless woman who has a white-collar job; and when that is the definition of feminist, I will eat my powder compact."
Obviously, there isn't one particular type of woman who is "the definition of feminist". Yet your comment seems to imply that her being "a single childless woman who has a white-collar job" somehow means she can't be a feminist, or would be less likely to be one.
Since when does martial status, number of children, and job level dictate who is or isn't a feminist?

Yeah...no. Didn't say that.

And not just because I myself somehow manage to be both a feminist and a single childless woman with a white-collar job.

All my comment implies is that this is, in general, the sum <i>total</i> of the popular representation of a feminist—and as such, it's confining and dull, and hasn't been updated since <i>The Mary Tyler Moore Show.</i>

I'm curious what you qualify

I'm curious what you qualify as something that is funny, well-written and well-acted. I know tastes vary, but I've heard very few people say that 30 Rock isn't funny or is poorly written.

I don't understand how you

I don't understand how you can say "it's not well-written, it's not well-directed, and it's unevenly acted" when it's won multiple Emmys for all three categories, its writing (Tina Fey), its direction (Outstanding Comedy Seasons 3 years in a row) and its casting (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin).... not to mention its received even more nominations (79 thus far).

Tina Fey's character is a believable human being, regardless of her gender. Why do her strengths and weaknesses need to conform to some lofty "identity group"? Idealism isn't funny. Laughing one's way through awkward bullshit is funny. Her quirky imperfections are what make her hilarious and relatable.

You wrote that Liz Lemon defies the "definition of feminist," yet you couldn't even provide us with a correct definition. According to m-w.com, "feminist" is "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." Explain why then that you seem to find it so reprehensible that a woman be single, without child, and career-minded? The character is infantilized because she is independent and focused on her job? I cannot follow your logic there.

I also find it absurd and a little disturbing that you can equate a cultural tradition of white actors portraying black culture as subhuman, to a successful actress creating, producing, writing for, and starring in her own critically acclaimed show on prime-time national television. That's an offensive argument, and incorrectly couching it in terms of "feminism" makes the agenda you're promoting all the more dubious.

I absolutely adore 30 Rock

I absolutely adore 30 Rock as well (I'm watching right now), and I do agree that Liz Lemon isn't quite a feminist. I can recall an episode from Season 2 called "Succession" where Jack promotes Liz to Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Programming and she essentially becomes one of the guys. Although I found the episode to be hilarious, she ditched her feminine qualities to fit into the league of old, conservative men. However, the show does have a somewhat feminist undertone, so it could go either ways, I suppose. Plus, you are absolutely right, this show opened up opportunities for such immensely talented women in the tv show business. I had no idea about Mindy Kaling! I'm really excited about the prospect of a show created by her. Although Liz Lemon may not be a feminist, I absolutely adore the hilarious nature of the show.

"Opened up" to do what?

<blockquote>"this show opened up opportunities for such immensely talented women in the tv show business."</blockquote>

To do what, exactly? To create <i>more</i> depictions of infantile, baby-crazy, male-dependent females? Why is it better for "talented women" to create such depictions than for the same old dipshit male to do so? The fact is, I think it's <i>worse</i> when such depictions are the creation of females. They are just what the backlash points at to say, "See, even other women think women act like this." Yuck.


I disagree with your statement that women who are involved in the television business will in fact "create more depictions of infantile, baby-crazy, male-dependent females." I feel as though <i>Parks and Recreation</i> is a pretty solid example of a television series that does not undermine a woman's intelligence nor does the show portray women characters as infantile, baby-crazy, etc. Then again, this is my own opinion. You may watch the show and take an entirely different outlook on whether or not the female roles are being depicted fairly. There are a few objectionable moments in the five episodes that aired, but I believe that overall, the show does a pretty decent job. In addition, who is to say that women writers are going to continue to portray women in the fashion as you describe? Amy Sherman-Palladino, writer of <i>Gilmore Girls</i> for six of its seven seasons, most certainly did not create protagonists that were complacent with men running their lives, and Lorelai Gilmore’s character is a testimony to this fact. Sherman-Palladino is an immensely talented writer who did not convey women as Tina Fey does, so how can you argue that other women writers will follow in suite as Fey? None of us can make the assumption that other writers will do the same as Fey. We will just have to watch and see.

We could argue this fact all day, but I feel as though it comes down to what you find to be funny. Comedy tears down everyone: ever watch The Office? They've had several episodes discussing race, gender, and an array of other topics, often in the most offensive ways possible, to the point where you have to turn away at times, it’s that bad. 30 Rock does similar things as well. Yet, it gets the issues out there into the consumer public to contemplate whether or not these sexist or racist remarks are right. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's right that women are being portrayed as negatively as you mention, but when you examine the larger scheme of things, women are finally getting the opportunity to create their own comedies that are pretty darn hilarious (so I feel). Kelsey Wallace sums this point up best by stating that: “The fact that women are being considered to create their own comedy shows is a major step forward, and <i>it's important not to forget that</i>.” Sure, you may not find the show to be comedic, but that’s your own personal opinion. At least its opening doors of opportunity for women writers, and then maybe one day, these nasty stereotypes will no longer be a component of our television programs.

perfection is a myth

while there are some valid points here and in the slate article, but i'm not going to stop watching the funniest show on television-- that's also written by, created by, and stars a fabulously hilarious woman. of course it's not perfect, but only mary poppins falls into that category....

May or May Not

I think Liz Lemon may not exactly be a feminist, but 30 Rock is still a feminist show...if that makes sense. Also, don't see her as infantilized...she is a boss, and while she goes to Jack for help with her problems, he is a bit older than her and he also cares about her approval as he is always asking her things such as "do you like me?" "do you approve of her?" "do [love my mother]?" Liz doesn't exactly have her stuff together, but I think the show does a good job of poking fun at sexist attitudes.

Just like I Love Lucy

I see a close correlation between Tina Fey's real life feminism v. Liz Lemon's parade of stereotypes both personal (ie, she's called uggly/"mannish," she's considered inept in her romantic life, etc.) and situational (crises arise related to gender and race, but are solved in a conservative manner) and that of Lucielle Ball and "I Love Lucy."

In real life, Lucielle Ball was a visionary, an incredibly ahead-of-her-time business woman, a master of comedy, a strong and in-control person. On screen, Lucy was flighty, flaky, always trying to rebel against her husband's rulership but always failing in her attempts to do so. Her quests for independent action always ended up lander her in some major bind, causing trouble for herself, her husband and her friends, until Ricky had to bail her out...again.

But one way that things have changed for the better in contemporary sitcoms: a certain level of abject control of women is no longer considered funny. On "I Love Lucy," there was a semi-constant (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) threat of violence from Ricky when Lucy acted out. I remember writing something in the early 90s about images of violence against women in 60s sitcoms v. 80s/90s sitcoms -- I watched about a dozen eps of "I Love Lucy" at the Museum of TV & Radio and found numerous blatant examples of threats of violence from Ricky to Lucy -- for ex., she'd tell Ethel she needed to figure out how to resolve some mess she'd created before Ricky got home "or else Ricky's going to hit me!" and then she'd burst into her famous "Waaahhhhhh!" tears. Or Ricky would find out about whatever shenanigans Lucy had gotten into and would end up putting her in some sort of dangerous position, or at the very least would threaten violence. And, you must understand, this was filmed as if such reprisals were absolutely status quo... (even though in real life Lucielle Ball was quite in control).

Liz Lemon would never be written into situations in which Jack (or others) beat her up or regularly threaten to assault her in order to keep her in line. Hey, that's progress. And Liz is depicted as supremely confident about her job (for ex., the recent ep where she has to take a short leave and she misses work, things go wrong without her, etc.), where Lucy was incompetent pretty much everywhere.

Still, though, the similarities between gendered cliches in "30 Rock" and "I Love Lucy" -- with two brilliant comedic actresses whose characters are written in ways that make mockeries of their beauty, their interpersonal relationships and their social fitness -- show that the old ideas about women and comedy die hard.

I'd venture to say that

<p>I'd venture to say that precisely because Liz think of herself as a feminist, but does many things that contradict that, is part of the humor. Humor seems to stem from things being incongruous (remember that Jack Donaghey has an extensive collection of porcelein cookie jars!). If Liz was a perfect feminist and perfect in social situations etc—there'd be no humor! Humor comes from flaws in people. So here's a woman who shares a lot of concerns that we do (yay, she's relateable), but she's flawed just was we all are.  </p><p>Here's the bottom line for me—I want to laugh when I watch the show. I watch the show more than any other because it's well written/acted and because it works with challenging social issues that are interesting to me and that I deal with as well—while STILL being funny.  </p>

So, I've watched the

So, I've watched the interview and now I'm puzzled with some questions. I just wonder if Liz really believes that 30 Rock is the "ultimate symbol of how feminism should be taught?" And do you agree that comedy is "the most powerful tool for the demonstrating of feminism."? Are there any tools to reach the goal?

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