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SEXIST BEATDOWN: Don’t Bring My Best Friend TV Into It Edition

Hey! You know what people care a lot about, apparently? It is the television!

Yes, television. It makes us laugh! It brings us joy! It distracts us from the fact that we are OMG totally alone in this apartment and have been for like SO MANY HOURS IN A ROW we just need to hear A HUMAN VOICE at this point, my goodness. But do you know what else television does, my friends? It gives us material for our various blog posts! And quite surprisingly heated and complex comment threads thereon.

Because, like, that Liz Lemon. She takes up a lot of space in the cultural imagination, that one! It is a complicated space! Because like ladies love her and dudes love her and then occasionally ladies (read: Me) HAAAATE her, but for so many complicated reasons that tend to vary between the genders. I think that’s worthy of one more sophisticated Socratic dialogue/blog post narcissistically and frivolously tossed up on the Internet on the very week healthcare is all over the news and such a big deal. Don’t you?

Well, TOO BAD. Because the lovely Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I, we agree on this thing! Behold, as we current-eventsily discuss the matter at hand, covering topics such as: Why is 30 Rock so great at funny feminist rape jokes, except for when it is terrible? We all know there are measurable differences between “funny joke about racism” and “racist joke,” but does 30 Rock do both of them? Maybe! And: What the fuck happened to Jenna? And: Why do people “love” Tracy Morgan’s acting but keep imagining that he is not actually an actor? And: Does anyone like Dot Com more than I do? NO! I will fight you for it! And: Which of the only two actresses to whom we are allowed to compare white female bloggers are YOU? You will find an easy visual guide below!

-6julie07rvt3_161702gm-bILLUSTRATION: The Two Faces of Amanda Hess. The lobster, of course, symbolizes Patriarchal Norms and Values.

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.

AMANDA: Yeah.

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 Tracey, 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 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.

AMANDA: HAHA.

SADY: And Frank being their super.

21 Comments

  1. Heather wrote:

    Is it just me, or is Liz Lemon a new incarnation of Elaine on Seinfeld? Shortish, skinnyish brunette with trendy glasses, klutzy, token woman among the funny guys, gorgeous but dresses dorky/frumpy so that her character can be “funny not sexy”? Even her earnest fast-talking delivery, uptilted chin, and cute little squint are the same.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Jess A wrote:

    I really like this follow-up! Thanks, ladies!

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  3. M wrote:

    I actually had a problem with this week’s Floyd storyline…for a recovering alcoholic, (who gets his anonymity broken to Liz’s coworkers all the time – not cool!) to accidentally ingest enough alcohol in a sauce to get drunk is a Big Deal, and not funny. When I was watching it last night I actually got kind of upset about it, though today when I look back I recognize that Liz wasn’t trying to get him /drunk/, and Sudeikis actually did play DrunkFloyd as mean, but I still felt like they were playing for laughs what is a very real fear for lots of folks in recovery.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  4. philosoraptor wrote:

    “But the way plots are structured around [Tracy Jordan], as a crazy irresponsible childlike black man who these white people have to look after and keep on track…”

    Stop stealing my trademarked phrase! (And then mangling it!)

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  5. Sady wrote:

    @Philosoraptor: I did not mean to steal! Did you leave it in a comment? My apologies, I’m happy to put in a cite if you’ll show me where. Often in these chats I do end up referencing things I’ve read elsewhere in an off-the-top-of-the-head fashion — and this isn’t an uncommon criticism of the TJ character — but if I ended up janking your business because you phrased it really well and that was stuck in my head, I’m happy to fix that with a link.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  6. philosoraptor wrote:

    It was in my comment on the previous posting, where I marked it as “off topic”.

    Also, of course I did not trademark it. As you noted, there’s any number of people way ahead of me.

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  7. Farore wrote:

    Heather, I was under the impression that part of the whole POINT of Elaine is that she WAS sexy and she knew it? Like, she is practically beating away the suitors with sticks throughout most of the series, and she is very ’90s hot’ as my Seinfeld-obsessed boyfriend-in-law says. In fact, there are jokes about how not-frumpy she dresses! And how she knows she is hot and demands to know why so-and-so just Is Not That Into Her because dammit, she is funny and interesting and pretty arararar!

    So, uhm, yes, have not watched 30 Rock at all but am now considering starting to (yay, Hulu and such! Yay, working at home in front of a TV! I can catch up to where you lot are within a week!) but from Sady & co’s description of Liz, I do not think she is even a little bit like Elaine. More like a female George, perhaps, except instead of being very conventionally unattractive but still having many bedroom friends, she’s conventionally attractive but is presented as undesirable?

    Friday, March 26, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Brad V wrote:

    Also, what’s with all the transphobic jokes that pop up every season? It’s not completely saturated, but there’s at least one in every opening episode of a new season, and every time it’s so dehumanizing.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  9. Chelsea wrote:

    Amanda! I agree about Cerie. I’m glad I’m not the only one. I’ve only watched seasons 1-3, but I always kinda felt we were seeing Cerie through other people’s eyes: the episodes focused more on the way Liz saw her/the way the guys saw her, rather than who she actually was. Which could be a statement (but really might not be) about the way some people can see a women for Five Minutes and already make up their minds about what Kind of Person she is.

    These discussions have really articulated why I feel the way I do about the show: why, specifically, I feel I’m supposed to like it, yet when I’m watching it I feel so damn uncomfortable. Thanks for posting this!

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Ann wrote:

    OK, I know this is just a typo, but I can’t resist: “they had beef when MAXIM wrote about her not being pretty or funny or something.”

    I have a wonderful picture in my head of Tina Fey and the entire staff of Maxim sitting down to a nice brisket.

    Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  11. Jamie wrote:

    Between your original post on Lemonism and this follow-up, it’s unclear to me to what extent you get that the Liz Lemon character is intended to be a satirical skewering of the exact type of lame, narcissistic diletante feminism that you hate.

    I mean, it’s unlikely that Fey ever “unpacked” the character as academically as you have, but it’s quite clear that she created the Lemon character to indulge in the Jungian exercise of hating something she partly identifies with. (Would that make it Freudian?)

    After reading the later post, it seems to me like you do, in fact, get the joke, so I guess where I remain confused is why, then, the hostility toward the show, and, particularly, toward Fey?

    Oh, and on a related topic — there’s actually a fairly straight-forward real-world reason why the character Jenna, and her relationship to Liz, has changed. In the original, unaired pilot, the Jenna character was played by Fey’s real-life friend + SNL colleague, Rachel Dratch. Also, the audience saw much more of the show-within-a-show. The studio wanted to move away from that, and wanted a more traditional sitcom actress in the role.

    While it was probably a good move to not show many, if any, TGS sketches in 30Rock, the casting of Jenna Malone was problematic as it forced Fey to gradually write her more towards Malone’s strengths, and, more disastrously, the two women have no screen chemistry together. Test audiences never bought their friendship, but loved Fey and Baldwin’s. When the show was really struggling for ratings, they had no choice but to try to give audiences what they want.

    All sitcoms go through a reshaping process to some degree or another. (The most egregious example is probably the complete and total Urkelization of Family Matters.) I think with 30Rock, it’s been a little rougher of a transition, as the show was much more of one auteur’s lovechild than just about any other sitcom I can think of.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Freddie wrote:

    You know how black men tended and still tend to be portrayed as dignified sexless saints, out of discomfort with presenting them in any way that echoes racist tropes? For example, in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the black male character is literally mute. Like that?

    Yeah. Dot Com.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  13. Brimstone wrote:

    “Is it just me, or is Liz Lemon a new incarnation of Elaine on Seinfeld? Shortish, skinnyish brunette with trendy glasses, klutzy, token woman among the funny guys, gorgeous but dresses dorky/frumpy so that her character can be “funny not sexy”? Even her earnest fast-talking delivery, uptilted chin, and cute little squint are the same.”

    Elaine always seemed alot more confident and together then Liz. Partly, I think, to balance out George and Kramer’s general loserness/weirdness.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  14. Mr.Sam wrote:

    Slightly off topic, Sady, I asked Amanda to ask you this (I saw this post on The Sexist), but did you get the “THERE!ARE!FOUR!LIGHTS!” quote where I think you got it? If so, you are one of the awesomest women alive.

    Monday, March 29, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  15. CJP wrote:

    The thing about Cerie, I’ve known people like her, down to the voice and the mannerisms, and she is only somewhat a parody – she is a parody based in reality of a certain kind of conventionally beautiful young woman the way that Jack is a parody based in reality of ambitious corporate executives. I think that she is quite an interesting character in a way that epitomizes the show’s ambivalence about the dominant definitions of, and means to, success in American culture.

    Sady, in your earlier post on this show you commented that the jokes about Cerie are all about how sexy and/or stupid she is, but I see it a little differently. I think that the jokes are about differing normative worlds. Like, as in the jokes that revolve around the difference between Liz’s middle-class ethical expectations and Jack’s upper-class ethics.

    Let me build a somewhat elaborate analogy. Jack isn’t simply unethical; he has a different ethics because he lives in a different world, one closer to the top of the economic hierarchy, and so he isn’t subject to the same sociopolitical constraints that middle-class people are and which they rationalize as ethical (making virtue out of necessity).

    In a similar way, because Cerie can perform “sexy” in such a superlative way, she plays by different rules than people of more average sexiness. In essence, she belongs to an elite subculture that has different social norms than the rest of us live by. So the jokes about Cerie tend to revolve around Liz expecting Cerie to behave one way and being confounded because she behaves another way – and vice versa! Cerie isn’t stupid, she is oblivious to the norms of Liz’s world, in just the same way that Liz is oblivious to the norms of her world.

    It seems to me that 30 Rock often revolves around the ambivalence of a nominally progressive middle-class person who both resents and desires the privileges of the super-elite, and hence is torn between the strategy of moralizing about the evils of privilege and trying to “beat them at their own game” – and on rare occasions, joining them (as when Liz briefly became an executive and dumped all her old progressive airs).

    The show is about someone who isn’t willing to take a genuinely oppositional stance but also isn’t willing or able to simply conform to hegemonic values. It’s a very tense, ambivalent situation, which is fertile ground for humour, and it’s also a very relatable one for many people.

    But it’s not a very progressive show. For one thing, there are many bad jokes about class, in which poverty (especially rural poverty) is just supposed to be funny and risible.

    And remember the episode with Carrie Fisher as the old feminist TV writer from the 70s, who becomes simply a crazy lady and figure of fun? Painful. Also 30 Rock doesn’t push the envelope in the way that shows like Soap and Golden Girls and Designing Women did back in their day, alas.

    Ack. Sorry for the long post. I had many thoughts.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  16. CJP wrote:

    BTW, the “alas” mean “alas for the limitations of 30 Rock” NOT “alas for the envelope-pushing of Susan Harris”.

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  17. Samantha b. wrote:

    In a similar way, because Cerie can perform “sex” in such a superlative way, she plays by different rules than people of more average sexiness. In essence, she belongs to an elite subculture that has different social norms than the rest of us live by.”
    Um, what? Yet more conventionally pretty woman-bashing? Putative feminists really seem to want to establish a dichotomy between conventionally pretty and “people (read: women) of more average sexiness” in these threads. I’m not at all sure why we’re willing to let the patriarchy play divide and conquer here, or why we’re willing to let arbitrary standards define “sexiness,” but you really must not know any conventionally beautiful women well if you’re able to convince yourself they inhabit some special la la land. This is a failure of empathy on your part, an utter unawareness of the anxieties that affect us all universally, and yet you’d like to implicitly suggest that this is a failure of those women in an “elite subculture” to comprehend your own anxieties.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  18. sarah wrote:

    I am a long time reader and fan, but it is only now that i feel compelled to come out and tell you how much I love you. THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS

    Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  19. CJP wrote:

    @Samantha B

    I think you’ve misunderstood me, but I apologize if I’ve come across as insensitive. And let me say that I do also know women who are conventionally beautiful but do not feel at all comfortable with the normative expectations that are imposed on them, and suffer great anxiety as a result of the constant unwanted attention, harassment, stereotypes, and the specific forms of misogyny that apply to ‘beautiful’ women. And I’m not trying to express my approval of the aribtrary and elitist patriarchal norms that divide ‘beautiful’ women from supposedly ‘average’ women. I’m very much opposed to that. But I am trying to describe it.

    If you go to most mainstream dance clubs, for instance, there are plenty of people there who just want to dance and have a good time, and there are some people who are very consciously oriented to a particular social hierarchy based on looks, dress, and comportment. It’s very ruthless and very matter-of-fact for the people who participate in it. And the women who embrace and let themselves be defined by that hierarchy know that they can trade on their looks and their sexuality for money, gifts, jobs, and other perks. I have one friend who has travelled around the world – India, Africa, China, Dubai, all kinds of places – by hooking up with “ordinary-looking” but wealthy men, in relationships that have strong overtones of a business transaction (she will say things like, “he knows he has to take me to Paris if he’s going to get any action”). She has breast implants and other surgery and is quite open and determined about trading her “looks” (and other aspects of her sexuality) for non-sexual goods, and she has a network of friends who do similar things, if in less marked ways.

    (It’s not too surprising to me; in my Mom’s generation, it was pretty common for (non-feminist) women to rate a man’s attractiveness in terms of the money he could provide. To this day she finds it very strange to be dating a man who makes less money than her; we’ve had long conversations about how it’s really OK to date a man who doesn’t have any money if he makes her happy. Needless to say, my mom is pretty conservative.)

    I’m saying that the character of Cerie makes sense in terms of what Pierre Bourdieu might call “sexual capital”, a performance of sexuality that is so thoroughly objectified that if operates very much like a material commodity, and can be exchanged for material commodities.

    Many women find the very existence of an economy of sexual capital to be oppressive (and, thankfully, so do at least a few men). Others resent that economy but also wish they could join it on more favourable terms than are available to them (just as some people resent the rich while wishing they could themselves be rich). Others embrace it and play by its rules wholeheartedly.

    In the show, Liz’s complaints about the commodification of beauty are often shallow and obviously tinged with resentment. In some of the interviews I’ve read, Tina Fey takes a position that is more mature but not much more sophisticated (e.g. some of her comments on sex workers).

    I think the show touches a nerve of deep ambivalence than many people feel about the inequalities of social class and status in contemporary American society.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  20. Samantha b. wrote:

    CJP, thanks for your thoroughly explicated and, I think, insightful reply.

    Friday, April 2, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  21. CJP wrote:

    :)

    Friday, April 2, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink