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Liz Lemon's Feminism

sarahk's picture

Sarah Kaufman
Critical Feminist Studies Web Paper #3

Liz Lemon’s Feminism

Jack: Are you familiar with the GE tri-vection oven?
Liz: I don’t cook very much.
Jack: Sure… I gotcha. New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says “healthy body image” on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for [pause]… a week.
Pete: That is dead on!
Liz: What, are you going to guess my weight now?
Jack: You don’t want me to do that.

The television program, 30 Rock, is one about the every-day struggles of Liz Lemon, a head writer for an SNL-type comedy show, and her relationship with her boss, Jack, the embodiment of the juxtaposition of patriarchal power and the self-consciousness that comes with that power. Liz, played by Tina Fey, is often described as a “Super Every-Woman, clumsily but bravely waging all those perennial battles: achieving a sane work-life balance, managing a staff without becoming a tyrant or pushover…” (Jessica Winter, Oprah Magazine). Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, is a Republican who wears tuxedos after four in the evening (“what am I, a farmer?” he states…) and gives Liz an incredibly hard time about what he believes to be her mediocrity, appearance and class-wise. The constantly developing relationship between these two characters is a symbol of hegemony within the patriarchy, but because the comedy involved is so self-aware of its power structures, it allieviates the hegemony of its potential destructiveness to feminist messages. A type of comedy such as this one – one that is so often entirely written by the actress who plays Liz, herself – inspires viewers, both men and women, to confront patriarchy head-on, because the comedy itself is nonconfrontational. The sarcasm involved possesses an inherent acceptance of the status-quo, the type of acceptance one needs to feel safe enough to choose the disempowering aspects of life that most strike one personally within a dialogue and confront them head on. This is why the character of Liz Lemon is the ultimate symbol of how feminism should be taught: she is caught in a patriarchal, hegemonic web, but she is simultaneously aware of that web and continuing to actively practice life-style choices that contradict schema created within it. There is a big place in this world for theories of overturning power structures to the advantage of feminism, but the most efficient way to gain empowerment is to extract the comedy from current disempowering situations. Liz is the ultimate embodiment of comedy using patriarchal hegemony to its advantage - to inspire women to rise above with a cool acceptance rather than to dig themselves into a hole with a fervent confrontation that might be seen as irrelevant to those with the power to “solve” it. If comedy is indeed tragedy plus time, then it is the most powerful tool for the teaching and demonstration of feminism: it has distanced itself from the tragic feelings of disempowerment that perpetuated power structures, and can now find amusement and thus agency within the consent and the interpellation. Feminist teaching and assessment should reflect the values presented through the writing of 30 Rock; it should have a curriculum and an environment that promote individual expression, even when one’s unique qualities clash with the power system that has been created in the classroom. 30 Rock’s comedy does not have to choose between representing the world as it is and the world as the writer believes it should be. Rather, it allows for both to be represented at the same time in a way that inspires personal confidence in changing the status quos each individual believes to be disempowering.
The dichotomy of hegemony and interpellation within the patriarchy can be seen clearly in many comedic dialogues on the show. The scene quoted above is the introduction of Liz Lemon’s character in the Pilot Episode as seen through Jack’s patriarchal, categorically-driven mind. He observes Liz as a category of feminist woman to whom to be marketed, and his description of her includes all the primary observations imposed on women who resist the patriarchal pressures placed on them. The main patriarchal pressures placed on Liz, and by all women in present American society, are: she must be skinny to be successful, she must care about her love life more than her work life to be happy, she must wear designer clothing to be taken seriously, and she must be a pushover to her employees in order to avoid being seen as a bitch (as we will observe in “The ‘C’ Word” episode, later on.) There are many jokes throughout the show in which Liz is made to feel temporarily disempowered by these pressures, such as when Jack sees her eating a cookie in the middle of the day and she defensively responds, “I gave blood!” to which Jack answers, “Does that burn calories?” Liz gives him a hurt expression and walks away, physically expressing her emotional pain at being pressured to lose weight. However, she continues eating the cookie, and we find out later in the season that Jack’s weaknesses are brought out by his stress eating, a hypocricy that undermines his ability to hurt Liz. And as the writing creates a friendship between these two characters, their give-and-take becomes less about his power over her and more about his jealousy of her precise qualities that clash against the power structure in which he is so high up. The running gag becomes his emotional instability which drives him to pressure her with patriarchal expectations, representing the fragility of the system itself and the strength of each individual to resist it.
The power of comedy is such that it can portray Jack’s emotional fragility and Liz’s pain at the same time in a cool and distanced way such as to make the audience feel safe enough to laugh. It is that space occupied by the audience which is able to inspire them to make change through expressing their individual characteristics that do not perpetuate the destructive qualities of the hegemonic patriarchy. The power to make fun of one’s self is the ultimate indication of agency.
The episode that most clearly expresses Tina Fey’s ability as a writer to make fun of Liz’s weaknesses in patriarchal society through her comedy is “The ‘C’ Word.” In this episode, Liz overhears one of her writers call her a “cunt,” and is visibly hurt by his back-stabbing verbal attack. In confessing her hurt two of her male colleagues, she says she loves swearing, but that “cunt” is different because there is no male equivalent. Her colleagues recognize her pain and attempt to create a word that is the male equivalent. They try many words that sound like they could inhabit that role. “Muncus.” “Fungdark.” Liz is still angry because she thinks those new words won’t work, and when Pete, one of her colleagues, tells her she needs to calm down, she says, “I will not calm down, you fungdark!” He responds, “Yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t work.” The comedy of the situation gives the characters the agency to be able to explore the structures of sexism embedded in insults that are already in place. Comedy gives them the freedom to create new words for a reciprocal sexism. It allows for a situation in which ideas seen as stupid win, so no one is afraid to express their ideas. In the classroom, this is the ideal setting.
Because none of the words they create for the male equivalent of “cunt” ring true, Liz decides she has to become nicer in order for her employees to like her. This leads to an extreme change in her behavior, so much so that her employees start taking advantage of her niceness and leave her to do their work, forcing her to pull an all-nighter finishing their scenes. There is a scene in which she is in the bathroom, her appearance flat-out messy, and Jack walks in to see her break all the rules of what she is supposed to appear like in front of her important, model-dating boss. She visibly does not show regret for this situation, only anger for the way her employees took advantage of her, creating a funny scene when Jack reveals to her that she is actually cleaning herself up in the men’s bathroom and giving herself the agency to resist the pressures of what he considers to be attractive. In the final scene of the episode, she gives a passionate speech to her employees about how she has the power to fire them if they cross her ever again. In an amusing and reflective turn of events, she gets her inspiration from an old television show called “Designing Women,” in which the main designer asserts her territory of power over the others, saying, “this is my house.” Liz finally tells her employees, “You do not cross a sugar baker woman!” and starts sobbing from lack of sleep. She is able to express the sobbing in a way that is not disempowering because it illicits guilt from all of her employees and appreciation from Jack, observing her speech from the hallway. The relationships created between these characters due to the comedic writing give Liz the ability to perform historically stereotypical attributes of disempowering femininity in an extremely self-aware and clever way. This helps to overturn the power structures by endowing stereotypes, which have historically caused so much tragedy, with the distance out of which comedy is created. If this type of self-aware comedy was implemented in the classroom alongside serious discussions of feminist theory, students would be much more inclined to explore more ideas and be proud of the part of them that thinks sarcastically and outside the lines.
Peggy McIntosh, a feminist education theorist, created a layout of feminist education phases one thru five. Phase one is “Womanless History”, Phase 2 is Women in History,” Phase 3 is “Women as a Problem, Anomaly, or Absence in History,” Phase 4 is Women as History,” and Phase 5 is “History Redefined or Reconstructed to Include us All” (McIntosh, 3). The comedy of 30 Rock represents the defining difference between Phase 3 and Phase 4, and paves the path for Phase 5. McIntosh reminds us that in Phase 3, women are only in history or present in society as a “problem.” In Phase 4, however, “the fact that we [women] are different from men and diverse within our own group doesn’t necessarily mean we are deprived” (14). Comedy is responsible for that touch of casualness, that acceptance to be able to say, just because there are certain dilemmas for women that are not present for men does not mean women are deprived. The tragedy that has since morphed into comedy with time hinted at deprivation. Comedy has the distance to be cool about the deprivation, to refuse to endow it with the power to hurt or inhibit. Liz Lemon does not inhabit the body or position of a powerful woman in American society, and she certainly does not possess any goals to inhabit that body or position. She is able to observe her dilemmas in a realistic way and not have the audience view her as a weak woman. She is able to express her concern about her dilemmas in whichever empassioned ways she feels appropriate, sometimes make stupid mistakes, and not have everything under control at all times. As the show continues and the relationships develop, she and Jack become really good friends, and his mockery of her always has a touch of admiration and jealousy that he does not possess her precise sarcasm that allows her to think outside the lines. However much he tells her she wears inappropriately masculine clothes (“Those shoes are definitely bi-curious…”) or that she needs to date on Friday nights instead of staying in, eating a meatball sub, and watching Top Chef, he knows that she has abilities he doesn’t because in his entire life he has never been exposed to a feminist classroom.


Chris's picture

Wow! What an interesting

Wow! What an interesting perspective. I just watched the "sugarbaker woman" episode and was trying to find the quote when I stumbled on your post. I've been watching 30 Rock voraciously for the past week or so and I agree that treating these issues with enough distance to be able to laugh at them does rob them of their power and make space for action to challenge them. I'd be interested to hear if the conversation with the commenter above me continued.

"This is my house!"

I love it.

Anne Dalke's picture

Reality Show


I have a long-standing interest in humor as a "feminist" genre, beginning w/ the old saw that feminists don't have a sense of humor, and eventually working my way into a course called "Thinking Sex," in which we spent some time exploring (among other things) the degree to which humor helps us accept or subvert the status quo. I have a friend now who does comedy improv, and have been struck, listening to her, by how very conservative that genre is: it relies heavily on the quick gag, which relies on stereotypical, conventional assumptions about groups of people....

Anyhow, if you'd like to go on thinking some more about these questions, you might look @

Leonore Tiefer's essay, "The Capacity for Outrage: Feminism, Humor and Sex." Sex and Humor: Selections from The Kinsey Institute. Ed. Catherine Johnson, Betsy Stirratt and John Bancroft. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. 22-38.

Brottman, Mikita. "The Scholar who Found a Life's Work in Dirty Jokes." The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 12, 2002.

I also have a longstanding interest in genre--in particular in how a knowledge of generic conventions can help us know how to respond to a work of art--so am curious about the way you talk about form: how sarcasm, satire, humor work, what distinguishes them from one another. In the Emerging Genres course last spring, I got a paper on how humor takes uncle tom's cabin endward, which your work reminded me of. It begins w/ a contrast--developed by John Bruns in "Get Out of Gaol Free, or: How to Read a Comic Plot," between comedy--always in (undirected?) motion--and tragedy--always moving toward an end. That's very different from your argument, yes? in which feminism is moving endward, towards a certain position?

Most of my questions for you have to do with that sense of certainty: about your claims (for instance) that 30 Rock "is the ultimate symbol of how feminism should be taught," that comedy is "the most powerful tool for the demonstrating of feminism." Isn't there a hierarchy built into those statements--along with a presumption that there is one standard, one goal, and one best way to reach it?

I am also curious about how you get from feeling "safe enough to laugh" to being "inspired to make change..." Not inevitably, eh? Mightn't the feeling of safety be precisely what keeps us from agitating for change? Am wanting to know a little more, also, about what you mean by "agency." It seems to involve, in part, the freedom to create new words--but even when (as your example demonstrates) the words don't work? Also want to know some more about how you are thinking about guilt-induction as a feminist act: how can it be "empowering" to make others feel guilty? I have related questions about how you are defining/using "coolness," "realism," and the relation between admiration and jealousy....


But what strikes me most of all is your argument that the laughter provoked by comedy might prove to be a good model for a feminist class, an ideal setting where everyone is fearless about expressing their ideas.

Now that's an idea I'd like (you?) to work more with...interested?