Feminism, Postfeminism, Liz Lemonism: Comedy and Gender Politics on 30 Rock

By Mizejewski, Linda | Genders, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Feminism, Postfeminism, Liz Lemonism: Comedy and Gender Politics on 30 Rock


Mizejewski, Linda, Genders


Picturing Feminism

[1] The title of Tina Fey's humorous 2011 memoir, Bossypants, suggests how closely Fey is identified with her Emmy-award winning NBC sitcom 30 Rock (2006-), where she is the "boss"--the show's creator, star, head writer, and executive producer. Fey's reputation as a feminist--indeed, as Hollywood's Token Feminist, as some journalists have wryly pointed out--heavily inflects the character she plays, the "bossy" Liz Lemon, whose idealistic feminism is a mainstay of her characterization and of the show's comedy. Fey's comedy has always focused on gender, beginning with her work on Saturday Night Live (SNL) where she became that show's first female head writer in 1999. A year later she moved from behind the scenes to appear in the "Weekend Update" sketches, attracting national attention as a gifted comic with a penchant for zeroing in on women's issues. Fey's connection to feminist politics escalated when she returned to SNL for guest appearances during the presidential campaign of 2008, first in a sketch protesting the sexist media treatment of Hillary Clinton, and more forcefully, in her stunning imitations of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which launched Fey into national politics and prominence.

[2] On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon is the head writer of an NBC comedy much like SNL, and she is identified as a "third wave feminist" on the pilot episode. Liz Lemon's feminism is broadly caricatured on the series, as in the Season Four episode "Problem Solvers," when Liz learns that in the Chinese version of her newly published book, her name is translated "Lesbian Yellow Sour-Fruit," reflecting the stereotype of the humorless, man-hating feminist. However, at other times, the target of satire is not feminism but rather postfeminism, a concept very much debated as a theory, a politics, and a practice. Postfeminism is lampooned on 30 Rock in its popular figuration as a lifestyle that invites independent (white, heterosexual, upscale) women to focus on consumerism, "girl" culture, traditional concepts of glamour, and a romanticized ideal of motherhood (Projansky 66-89, Negra 2-7). In its cover image, Bossypants morphs the stereotypes of both feminism and postfeminism, as well as morphing Tina Fey and bossy Liz Lemon, in a grotesque mash-up. The medium-shot photo shows Fey wearing tasteful makeup and lipstick, her hair arranged in loose waves down to her shoulders, but she also wears men's clothing--a fedora that sits back on her head and a man's white shirt and tie. More than that, she has rolled up her sleeves to reveal huge, hairy male forearms and gigantic hands--an unnerving way to picture the woman who "wears the pants" and a startling rebuke to the ubiquitous tee-shirt proclaiming "THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE." The conflation of these two sets of images in the photo is a savvy comment on gender politics and visual culture, but its payoff is the joke rather than a challenge to the media that promote both stereotypes. Is the photo nevertheless a feminist joke? Or just a joke that references feminist issues in popular culture?

[3] This is the line of inquiry that informs this essay on 30 Rock, which represents feminism as a contentious, often contradictory bundle of beliefs conveying mixed messages about female power and authority. Given the high expectations of Tina Fey's politics, online feminist media critics have expressed considerable disappointment with the series because 30 Rock so often undermines Liz Lemon's feminist ideals and also because it replays the cliches of the feminist as frumpy, unfeminine, possibly a lesbian, or--as suggested by the Bossypants photo--secretly a man. The complaints often fall into the assumption that "bad images" of feminists and professional women are politically detrimental and out of place on a series that in most ways espouses a progressive ideology. The targets of these criticisms include Liz Lemon's hapless state as a "desperate" single woman, her lack of female friends and focus on male relationships, the ugly-feminist jokes, and the good-old-boys mise en scene that includes only one, habitually silent, woman writer on the staff ("Life Hands You Lemons;" McEwen; Sady; Dailey).

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