The popular television sitcom 30 Rock premiered in the year 2006. 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.
The ways in which I have reminded men of Liz Lemon vary from highly specific point-by-point comparisons to more general observations. One man was particularly moved by a Christmas episode, in which Liz’s absurdly friendly, supportive, and upbeat Midwestern parents come to visit, along with her brother, who is slightly off. (HE WAS IN A SKIING ACCIDENT!) They convert Jack to the side of joy by giving him three different flavors of popcorn in a single giant tin. This was, the man said, making him sad about our break-up, because my family had extended similar kindness and support and popcorn in his direction, and he loved them for it. “It’s weird that the character is so like you that you even have the same family,” he said.
The other is a little more infuriating. I was going through an absurdly painful break-up, and was supposed to meet a co-blogger at Feministe (hi, Jill!) for the first time. The break had occurred only a few days ago; I was still living with the man; I was not eating or sleeping, and I was so distraught that I had apparently forgotten how to put on shirts. I kept realizing, after wearing them for several hours, that they were on backward. I told the man about this, as a way to demonstrate how upset I was: “I was waiting for Jill at the bar, and I had to pull my arms inside my sweater and turn it around before she got there so that she didn’t think I was an idiot.” He laughed, and said, “see? You’re so Liz Lemon.”
The experience of having what I thought was a fairly serious indicator of my pain mirrored back to me as a wacky sitcom moment made it abundantly clear why this man and I had to break up. I bit my tongue and avoided, for that moment anyway, saying anything regrettable about Dennis, the Rat King. (He would not, I can tell you, have deserved it. But it was RIGHT THERE!)
Other than that, well: I’m a shortish, thinnish, smartish brunette woman who writes, has fairly stylish glasses, and is a bit high-strung. These things are inevitable, really.
I have, for some time, been referring to a particularly irritating brand of privileged semi-feminism as “Liz Lemonism.” I associate this brand of feminism with a certain variety of white, coastal-city dwelling, fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered woman, a woman with a comfortable white-collar job that is so very comfortable and so very white-collar that she is free to spend her spare time yearning for, and semi-believing that she could attain, something with more “meaning.” This woman doesn’t do Blogspot, but she does do Tumblr; she doesn’t do posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about “raunch culture”; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do “body image” (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on); she can’t have a conversation with you about Michelle Tea, Sugar High Glitter City, Kathy Acker, or Carolee Schneeman, but she can tell you that as a feminist she has a right to be Concerned About Porn; she’s Brooklyn not Queens, brunch not breakfast, flirty not slutty, fond of cupcakes and feminist theory but unsure how to make either one herself, and thoroughly incensed about Vajazzling.
I am describing a stereotype. No one woman fits all of these qualifications, or is this woman precisely. But this woman takes up a larger and larger space in my head lately; she has become the spectre who haunts my days and nights. She is, can I tell you, one of the reasons there are fewer posts on Tiger Beatdown lately, because I worry that she reads me, and I don’t want to be her entertainment. And because Tiger Beatdown has, until this point, nominally been a “feminist blog,” and last night, while getting drunk with C.L. and talking about our lives, I came up with a perfect metaphor for how I feel about feminism. I was standing in my tiny living room, and I said:
“Okay, so here’s me. Privileged in basically every way. White, middle-class, cis, straight, first-world American, whatever. Except, I’m a lady. That’s the one way I might be oppressed a little. So here’s me standing in my privilege.”
I walked over and stood in the doorway to my study.
“Here’s me in feminism. In the doorway.”
I stepped over the threshold and into my study, which is a much larger room.
“And here’s me in the entire rest of the world, dealing with all the ways people have their humanity denied, dealing with concern and solidarity with basically everybody who is not privileged. And realizing there are way more people without full, uncompromised privilege than with it, and that this is kind of an essential fact of the human experience. Dealing with, like, the experience of being human on Planet Earth.”
Feminism being, in this metaphor, not the endpoint, not the destination, but the necessary way in to the actual problem; feminism being not the room, but the door. Liz Lemonism is a door with a wall of brick behind it: you don’t get anywhere after you’ve opened it. So my imaginary enemy, the woman who is not a feminist but a Liz Lemonist, gets to the point at which she can start to politicize her specific problems, but she can’t get any further. And what she does then is to boil “feminism” down to an excuse to permit herself certain rudenesses and complain about certain issues only as they pertain to her own personal life.
Then again, look at the first two parts of this post. And I write a lot, apparently, about Vajazzling, so. The Jungians say that we hate people because they resemble bad parts of us that we aren’t willing to own up to, yet; we love people because they resemble good parts of us that we’re not confident enough to recognize in ourselves. I’m a pretty firm believer in that theory, myself. And I both hate and love Liz Lemon.
We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women’s movement has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman.
– Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken”
Seriously, are there like no other sympathetic female characters on 30 Rock?
No. There really aren’t. There is Jenna, of course, whose plotlines typically center around how vapid, unstable, narcissistic, and foolishly ambitious she is; there is Cerie (or, there was Cerie, before the character got put on the Josh Track and stopped really showing up in any episodes at all), Liz’s assistant, whose main role was to use her extremely beautiful body as a means to set up punchlines, those punchlines usually consisting of men getting turned on by her extremely beautiful body, and whose few character moments indicated that she was shallow, oversexed, and profoundly stupid; there are the high-profile female guest stars who play Jack’s love interests every season, who are usually pretty sharp and tough and interesting (Edie Falco, as the liberal senator against whale torture who was turned on by the degradation of sleeping with uber-Republican Jack, being a particular favorite) but always disappear after a few episodes because they are famous; there is Jack’s mother, always a delight, but a rare delight; there is “Girl Writer,” who had fewer lines than even Josh, to the extent of only having a speaking part in one episode. And the episode culminated with a joke about Girl Writer being date raped.
Liz barely interacts with any of these women. She certainly doesn’t have a deep friendship with any of them. At one point, we were meant to believe that Liz and Jenna were old, good friends, that they talked to each other about their lives and took each other out and displayed concern for one another. I liked that: A lot of my close friendships, as it happens, fit a Liz/Jenna dichotomy, with me being the smaller, nervouser, more analytical party and the other girl being dazzling and socially capable and reckless, me giving her advice from my skeptical and pessimistic perspective, and her buying me drinks and making me do karaoke and flirt with boys despite my natural inclinations to stay at home and eat cheeses and avoid any sort of spotlight altogether. But that plotline withered away, and is now basically nothing: If Liz interacts with Jenna out of any feeling at all, these days, it’s frustration and the desire to condescend.
So mostly, Liz interacts with men: Tracy, and whoever her boyfriend is for this three-episode run, and Kenneth the Page because he’s in every fucking thing when there could be more scenes of Jonathan who is always funny, and her platonic husband, Jack.
Also, what the hell happened to Twofer? Twofer used to be all over! Where is he?
There are a few strange things about Liz Lemon interacting with and befriending men almost exclusively. The first is that the character is a self-described feminist — but then, that’s not so strange, considering that the Liz Lemonist brand of that particular lifestyle seems to consist heavily of passing judgment on and slamming other girls. Liz Lemonism, being so solipsistic, is content with a feminist movement dedicated to the advancement not necessarily of women, but of one particular woman, the Liz Lemonist in question, and perhaps a handful of the friends who agree with her most often. Girls who aren’t Lemonist enough are always open for a “critique” or two.
The second strange thing about Liz’s preference for the company of men, her closeness to male friends and boyfriends and not any of the women with whom she works, is that we are constantly told that Liz is just disastrous with men. She can’t keep a boyfriend, she’s never been married, she rarely has sex, in the company of men she’s awkward, weird, dorky, inappropriate, too smart, not sexy enough, too opinionated, not giving enough, just plain wrong. More than one man on the show has compared her to the comic strip “Cathy.” These qualities are frequently endearing to other women, or frankly irrelevant; there’s a reason so many women, including me, relate to the character. But women never show up and become important to Liz. Instead, she’s got hot and cold running boys.
And this, all of this, is related to the third strange thing about Liz Lemon and her men: The fact that we are constantly being told that Liz is ugly.
It doesn’t let up, the message of Liz’s ugliness. The entire conception of her character hinges, to some degree, on it. The show has gone so far as to construct an entire plot arc around it: The one where Liz dated Jon Hamm, and was dazzled by his beauty, and talked constantly about how very out of her league he was, and then learned that he was so out of her league that he had contracted a very specific variety of The Stupid that only affected the world’s most gorgeous people. Cerie was said to have this variety of The Stupid; Jack was said to have recovered from it. It was a really pretty funny and decent plot arc, I have to say.
And yet, here is the problem: The scene in which they broke up, in which Liz talked about how she could not continue to date someone so radically handsome when she was herself not that pretty, was a scene played between two really unusually gorgeous people. Tina Fey is, by any reasonable standard, hotter than fire. And any scene that hinges on a joke about Liz’s ugliness automatically falls flat, because we can look right at Tina Fey and see that it’s not based on accurate observation. This scene, the break-up scene between Liz and Jon Hamm, was just the worst for that, because we were meant to be looking at a couple and seeing a huge gulf, a divide, a dazzlingly beautiful person and a person who is maybe just a little bit cute at best. But instead, we were looking at Jon Hamm and Tina Fey. And they… look good together. They’re matched. They both look better than most of us ever will.
Yes, it’s true that many a lady lulls herself to sleep at night, in potentially vulgar fashion, by thinking about Don Draper. But I have been in New York, and dating, since the premiere of 30 Rock — and, even before then, since the days of Weekend Update — and I have been a shortish, thinnish, smartish brunette woman with fairly stylish glasses for much of that time. And as such, I can guarantee you — guaran-FUCKING-tee, point me to the affidavit and I will sign it — that just as many men lull themselves to sleep with thoughts of Tina Fey. Or, Liz Lemon.
“I thought you made love like an ugly girl! So present; so grateful!”
– Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock
Oh, sure, we can say that Liz is written as a caricature of female insecurities, and of an insecure female. That would be completely true! That is why I like her! But we also need to address that the fact of her imaginary ugliness, the fact that we are constantly told she is all brain and no body, fits into some very specific male fantasies, the sort of fantasies that are summed up in the commonly-used phrase “Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol.”
You can often tell by a man’s record collection or bookshelf which female celebrities he is going to call “hot” — whether he’s a Megan Fox man, or a Maggie Gyllenhaal sort of fellow. The issue is that the Maggie Gyllenhaal crush is often thought to be more sophisticated and evolved, by the man who has it, when the fact is that they are both extremely lovely girls. There’s nothing wrong with liking extremely lovely girls. But the thought that Megan Fox is somehow too obviously hot, too mainstream, the Coldplay of masturbation, is just plain silly. There’s something going on there, and it’s worth looking at, and it has a lot to do with the fact that Tina Fey, Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol, attained her TMSS status by playing a character that we are constantly asked to find awkward, over-brainy, and unattractive.
There is — Julie Klausner addressed this recently, in her book — a persistent fantasy, among a certain variety of dude, that someday they will meet the most beautiful woman in the entire world and no-one else will realize how beautiful she is. Liz Lemon is that, but she’s also something more: the pretty girl who doesn’t think she’s pretty. There’s none of the sexual power or confidence that comes from realizing how pretty you are, in Liz Lemon. She’ll never think that, although she might be lucky to be with you, you might be pretty lucky too. She’ll never realize that, if you don’t treat her right, plenty of other men will be willing to treat her better, because she is a catch and a half. She won’t have that sort of autonomy, that sort of confidence — or so the line of thought would seem to go. When the clothes come off, she’ll make love like an ugly girl. So grateful.
Because if smart women who know how smart they are intimidate men (and they do), and beautiful women who know how beautiful they are intimidate men (and they do), there is, logically, nothing more intimidating than a woman who is fully aware that she is both smart and beautiful. I mean, maybe a room full of tigers with machine guns! That could be scarier! Or, a smart and beautiful lady who makes jokes.
Of course, smart, beautiful, funny women intimidate other women also. Which is why all of this comes back to Cerie, the assistant.
The character of Liz Lemon is played by beautiful, successful, smart, funny, apparently happy person Tina Fey, and is meant to be unattractive, only semi-successful, smart, funny, and unhappy. It’s interesting that “smart” and “funny” get to stay in the picture, as long as the looks, the success, and the happiness are toned down; it tells you something about who you’re allowed to like. Cerie, on the other hand, is beautiful, unsuccessful (and unambitious), not smart, not funny, and very happy. And we simply aren’t meant to like her much.
The character of the “bimbo” isn’t a new one: lots of men, for obvious reasons, like to assume that a beautiful woman is deeply flawed, probably in the brain regions, because it makes her a less threatening figure. But the specific venom with which Cerie is drawn, in the show that self-described feminist Tina Fey runs, is a specifically and disturbingly Lemonist phenomenon. It comes across as something originating in the brain of a woman who is easily intimidated by other women, the sort of woman who does talk about “bimbos.” A hiss through the teeth, a whisper behind your back, a group of women drawing away with unexplained coldness, the phrase “do you really think anyone’s going to take you seriously?” That’s Cerie, the concretization of that anti-feminist, anti-girl mode of girl talk.
The twist of Lemon, basically, makes it possible for the hissing girls to cloak it in something political. Something about “beauty standards,” maybe. Or “raunch culture.”
And, I mean: Liz Lemon was able to bang one out with James Franco, for fuck’s sake. James Franco and his lovely pillow bride. Do you really think a girl can get that under her belt and not realize she’s at least a little awesome?
No. No, she can’t.