Vale, 30 Rock.
I was given the season 1 dvd set of 30 Rock for my 21st birthday and now, 4-ish years later, I find myself tearing up on the train while watching its double-length swansong, “Hogcock/Last Lunch”.
It’s not every day that a consistently smart and funny comedy comes on air and captures the public imagination (as its 7 seasons to Grosse Pointe‘s* 1 can attest). It’s even rarer for such a comedy, or indeed any critically-acclaimed series, to have an unapologetically feminist woman in the leading role.
Honestly, there’s very little anyone could say to make me dislike Tina Fey. She wrote the teen movie of my generation (Mean Girls), she was the head writer on one of my (other) favourite programmes (Saturday Night Live) and she does a kick-ass Sarah Palin impression. So it was a surprise to me when I read, a few years ago now, that someone thought that she might not have written the most feminist thing out there.
If you end up reading that piece, you might, as I did, find that you do agree with Jonah Weiner on some points. But his article was written in 2009. In the years that have followed, and particularly in the past season, I believe that 30 Rock thoroughly throws off Weiner’s criticism, and can happily stand in the pantheon of amazingly feminist television (alongside, uh, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Murphy Brown, I guess?).
Women can “have it all”
Liz Lemon (Tina Fey herself) once declares as much while she is stuffing her face with a delicious sandwich so she can get on a plane and chase after an ex-boyfriend (Floyd, played by Jason Sudeikis, whom I love). During the series though, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show was not so optimistic about feminists’ prospects of having the complete work/life combo: Carrie Fisher’s washed-up second wave feminist chose her job while her “junk went bad”; Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) wife Avery (Elizabeth Banks) gets her daughter, a successful newsreading career and a divorce; Liz Lemon herself has a string of failed relationships while her dream job dominates her life with petty, unnecessary distractions and prevents her from having the children she wants so desperately.
At least, we might get that impression until season 6, when we meet Criss (James Marsden). He’s younger than Liz and has no career aspirations beyond running a hot dog stand. He’s not afraid of her breadwinning status, her age or her desire to have children, like, yesterday. Eventually, they get married (on their own, Princess Leia-adorned terms) and successfully adopt their Tracey and Jenna doppelganger twins, all while Liz continues to develop her television career. It’s a lovely way to cap off the series, and an endorsement of Liz’s feminist politics to boot.
Losing the shame
What is also great is Liz Lemon’s delightfully uncomplicated relationships with food and sex, two issues that traditionally shame and stifle women. Tina Fey obviously looks great (I believe she uses Weight Watchers in real life), yet Liz is unfazed by snacking on ham, cheese, or corn chips with questionable additives. She never mentions that she is “fat”, and when Jenna gains a little while performing in “Mystic Pizza, the Musical”, Liz takes the opportunity to “dare America to change their own attitudes about body image” instead of berating her star.
We first glimpse Liz’s attitude to sex when she gets back together with Dennis for the first time. She declares the sex with him to be “fast, and only on Saturdays” – this is a good thing! Liz is clearly comfortable with her low libido, as is her partner (do yourself a favour and google image search “CrissPoints”. Here’s one I prepared earlier.) but she does not let that inform her views of other women’s sexual expression. She’s not concerned by NBC page Hazel Wassername’s (Kristen Schaal) overt sexuality so much as her apparent desire to wear Liz’s skin as a suit, and a whole episode (“TGS Hates Women”) is premised on the idea that Sarah Silverman-style sexualised comedy is an equally valid form of feminist performance.
Friendship and ‘followship’
Finally, one can not help but love the portrayal of Liz Lemon’s platonic friendships (something that is very underrepresented in mainstream television). Her relationship with Jenna (Jane Krakowski), at first, doesn’t seem to make much sense beyond the fact that they are both women, but ultimately, we understand that they helped each other grow their careers and that they complement each other in oddly specific ways (who would have thought that absolute self-absorption would be a desirable quality in a best friend?!).
This positive portrayal of female friendship goes some way towards dispelling the feminist criticism of 30 Rock but umbrage is more often taken with the Jack/Liz mentor/mentee relationship. She is his subordinate at work, and he reluctantly takes her under his wing in order to develop her career and general Donaghyness. In the second season he presents her with a “Followship” award to demonstrate how quickly she has given up her ideals, and it is true that she frequently defers to her position. Again, this is reversed in the final seasons – a valuable warning against analysing something mid-stream (hmm). Their showdown in the finale reveals that they have actually mutually changed each other, and that Jack isn’t happy with his life, while the feminist Lemon has finally achieved all she wanted. This, in combination with the mutual respect that they have always shown each other (while Jack does belittle her constantly, this comes more from a place of love than actual derision) is yet another victory for women on television, and a wonderful send-off for the character of Liz personally.
If you stopped watching 30 Rock around season 3, you might be disappointed with the show from a feminist perspective. I highly recommend you go back and stick it out to the end – and hopefully you’ll be as excited for the mighty Fey’s next project as I am.
Please pass the tissues.
RESULT: Time to take a DVD trip down Memory Lane. Lemon out.
Up next: Songs I Listen to While Running #1: ‘Baby Got Back’, Sir Mix-a-Lot
P.S. This week I contributed a piece on feminism and weight loss over at lip mag. You should check it out!
P.P.S. Make sure you like can be bitter on Facebook! Not only do I link to each post as I publish them but I also sometimes put up cool feminist/Rebel Wilson things I find around the ‘net or what I’m listening to while I tap this out.
*Am I the only person who saw that?