Liz Lemon, and her alter ego, Tina Fey, do not have spotless records, not even on the level of comedic genius. Later seasons of 30 Rock have dragged. The knowing cynicism of the show is starting to feel rote, and I have yet to meet anyone who finds her marriage to her weird boyfriend particularly plausible even within the show’s own absurdist tone. I have the feeling the ratings she sees tonight for her curtain call will be her highest in years—from a height of about 8 million viewers, only about 3 million now watch her show religiously. That’s still three times the ratings of certain cable shows, but low for a network series. 30 Rock has always been a different kind of hit.
The popular read on this is that 30 Rock helped women storm the barricades of pop culture. There’s a lot of chatter now about the proliferation of women on television, as well as the numbers that don’t really back that up. But it’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s a matter of talk, of recognition and of respect. In the era of Dan Quayle, that talk wasn’t always welcome, because it was endless idiotic appeals for women to be proper “role models” for the presumed automatons in their audiences. But mercifully, we seem to be getting away from that in favour of a new, more interesting cultural cycle, one which 30 Rock was the first to handle with aplomb.
The cycle has three distinct phases.
Phase One is the Embrace. Early on we began hearing that Liz, and Tina Fey by association, represented a model career woman. And yes, a subsection of the cubicle-dwelling women of America, raised on Sassy and weaned on Jezebel, couldn’t help but relate. Their work might have been less fulfilling than the running of a sketch comedy show in New York. But Liz’s affection for fake cheese snacks, dating losers and dressing indifferently were recognizable.
At that, she wasn’t revolutionary, not exactly. Liz owed a ton to Maude and Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore, just for starters. But she opened up the possibilities for some of us. Not only were we now free to sacrifice a lot for our jobs, we were free to do so in comfortable footwear and air-dried hair. A thousand op-eds launched in approval.
Phase Two is the Backlash. Some noticed early on that Liz’s vision of liberation was narrowly tailored. Sady Doyle wrote a long and much circulated essay, which pointed out that Liz “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).”
Indeed, Liz was not a radical. Her alter ego, Tina Fey, never really was either. Just check out the time that Fey picked on the tattooed mistress of Sandra Bullock’s husband, effectively calling her a “whore” on Saturday Night Live. (As people pointed out at the time, she should have been reminded of her Mean Girls edict to “stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.") The subtext was briefly text. After all, in her own bumbling, loser way Liz Lemon was every bit as judgmental as a glamazon Queen Bee. Her eyerolls at her blond co-workers, Jenna and Cerie, were marks of her belief in her superior intelligence. And yes, she was more intelligent, in her way. But she could have been less lordly about it.
And then we hit Phase Three…well, I don’t know what quite to call it. One word might be Self-Criticism, except less like Maoism than like a particularly raucous comments section. As all the women-friendly cultural critics began to mount defenses, Fey herself chose to be less direct about it. Over the years, Fey—and Liz herself—winked at the audience, quite a bit. The subtle self-consciousness of it came across as the response of someone who didn’t know quite what she felt, and wasn’t willing to come out in full-throated defense.
Even where she addressed the debate quite directly, she was subtle about it. In one episode she pointed to Jezebel’s occasional (and sometimes legitimate) attacks on television shows for sexism. Some saw that episode as an outright dismissal of the criticism. The smarter reads saw it as something else again. Throughout the episode Liz tried to prove that she did not “hate women,” and found this a steeper prospect than she expected. It turned out she did have real conflicts with other women on these issues; it turned out her show did employ a lot of period jokes. It turned out that conflicts among women were real things that no amount of “You Go, Girl!” could overcome.
And somehow, the honesty about that was kind of refreshing, particularly because we live in an era when feminist institutions—such as they still exist—fret over their irrelevancy. They blame a lack of internal solidarity. And yet it turns out that much as in Mean Girls, the depiction of low-level intrafeminine warfare has a feminist value in and of itself. Feminists often presume solidarity rather than recognize it as a process, and one riddled with a lot of mistakes. Funny that, of all people, Tina Fey, who works in an industry where women are not just not allies, but often actively competitive with each other, would understand that best. Or, perhaps, not.
Lena Dunham's feminism: also complicated. Read Michelle Dean's take on Girls.