[Ed. note: In celebration of the series finale of one of our all-time favorite TV comedies on Thursday night, we’re going to be celebrating 30 Rock all week long on Flavorwire. Look for a new feature each day, and be sure to check out all of our previous coverage of the show here.] Liz Lemon isn’t just a character — she’s an archetype, just as Mary Tyler Moore and Roseanne Conner were. And like those predecessors, her personality, career, relationships, and development over seven seasons provides a complex (if narrow and incomplete) portrait of what it’s like to be a woman in the 21st-century workplace, her struggles often embodying the successes, failures, and complications of contemporary feminism. Seemingly more than any other TV protagonist of her time, women relate to her, in ways both positive and negative.
When Tina Fey takes off Liz’s TGS sweatshirt for the last time, Thursday night, she’ll leave a void that will eventually — maybe this fall, maybe five years from now — be filled by the next great female TV protagonist. (Some might argue we already have her in Girls’ Hannah Horvath; I’d counter that the character is too specific to become an archetype, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Leslie Knope and Mindy Lahiri are surely on the shortlist to replace Liz, but both characters are also so clearly inspired by her that neither represents enough of a paradigm shift.) So, what kind of person will the next generation’s Liz Lemon be? My wishlist is below; add to it in the comments.
She won’t be white. With rare exceptions, like The Cosby Show’s Huxtable women, era-defining female characters have tended thus far to be white. In 2013 and beyond, as America continues to grow more racially diverse with each passing year, it’s time to have an everywoman character who’s also a woman of color. Mindy is a step in the right direction, but let’s not forget — Mindy Kaling is also the first non-white woman to create and star in her own show since Wanda Sykes in 2003. She could use some company.
Her romantic problems won’t take center stage. Liz is a superstar at work (although it’s easy to forget it on a show set at a cartoonishly chaotic NBC), but her love life has mostly ranged from pathetic to non-existent. That changed this season, when she donned her Princess Leia costume and married her sweet slacker boyfriend, Criss Chros, in an idiosyncratic ceremony at City Hall. While she got her happy ending — despite her feminist reservations and on what I’d argue were her own terms — for over six seasons, her romantic relationships (and lack thereof) shared space with Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski as the show’s comic relief. Mindy and, for the first few seasons, Leslie follow the same pattern: ultra-competent in the office, unlucky in love. It isn’t that the next great female character should be perfect, but this particular mix of strengths and weaknesses (also familiar in the romantic comedy genre) is getting stale.
She’ll have a female boss. Liz has her mentor, Jack Donaghy; Leslie has the quirky yet wise Ron Swanson; and Mindy has two male partners who often treat her like a little girl. But the next Liz Lemon? Her female boss is going to reflect the increasing number of women in positions of power, and perhaps also break the stereotype that women in the workplace must always be rivals.
She’ll have a social life outside the office. It’s a convention of workplace comedies like 30 Rock that one’s coworkers are one’s primary (and often sole) social circle. This only furthers the impression that characters like Liz (and Leslie and Mindy) don’t have any kind of life outside the office. The other unfortunate side effect of the convention is that we rarely get to see how characters in these sitcoms socialize outside the hierarchies and alliances of the workplace. And that’s a shame — people are complex beings who behave differently in different contexts, and when a character’s personal and professional relationships are basically the same, we’re robbed of that multifaceted representation.
There will be nothing naïve or asexual about her. Liz Lemon famously hates sex. She’d much rather curl up in bed with a block of cheese than a human male. Leslie Knope may have a very physical relationship with her fiancé, Ben Wyatt, but her personality is as squeaky-clean as a Sesame Street character’s. And Mindy Lahiri, sexually active as she may be, still takes her lessons on sex and love from romance novels. How many real (and especially young) women do you know who are as clueless about or averse to sex as these three? The next great female TV protagonist should be savvy and experienced; these characters’ naïveté is funny, but there’s plenty of (non-Sex-and-and-the-City-esque, I hasten to add) potential for humor around characters who aren’t so innocent.