The Feminism of Liz Lemon: A History in Screen-caps


[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.] In the pilot of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon is sent by her new boss Jack Donaghy to find Tracy Jordan and convince him to join their NBC sketch comedy, The Girlie Show. While chasing the manic Tracy from diner to strip club, Liz learns that Jack has fired her primary writing partner – an alarming realization that sends her back to the office. “I want to tell Donaghy to his face that I quit,” she tells Tracy outside a strip joint, “and I want to do it in front of the whole crew so that they know he didn’t fired me.” Tracy Jordan’s response: “I wanna see that.” And so did I.

Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon has been with us for seven seasons of 30 Rock, which will air its finale tomorrow. This ending, and its timing, is neither premature nor belated, but that doesn’t mean we won’t still miss the show sorely. In 2006, when the pilot aired, there weren’t that many female characters on network television like Liz Lemon, though that has changed somewhat rapidly since, and certainly thanks to Fey’s creation (just this past week, Hannah Horvath made a comment about wanting to get married, which Lemon actually did this season). I remain grateful for this gift, and am even embarrassed by my sometimes over-identification with Lemon as a woman, a feminist, a worker and eater, and a speaker of German, with nerd rage to boot.

30 Rock is a comedy by way of being parodic of other media (mostly television) genres, so any single screen-cap from it isn’t going to make as much sense, or be so hilarious, out of context. Is Lemon shotgunning a pizza? What is she doing here in a Snuggie with a cheese plate? But, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his recent moving homage to 30 Rock, the show “is uniquely skilled at eating its cake and having it, too, while crowing ‘Isn’t cake ridiculous?’ and making you crave cake.” It can be maddening at times, but this also means that 30 Rock – and its heroine – is never one thing, moving instead in various and multiple zany directions. If one begins to critique the show for being unwittingly unfeminist, 30 Rock has already made a dozen clever (often meta-) critiques anticipating such an argument. What’s more, the show knows how to forgive its well-meaning characters for falling, again and again, into the plot holes of ideology. In watching the show, and Lemon especially, viewers have learned to be simultaneously more aware of how these plots work and more understanding toward the characters stuck inside them.

So, just to get us extra nostalgic before the finale (and, really, what has 30 Rock done better than play with the emotional trigger that is nostalgia?), I want to review some of Lemon’s most emblematic moments from the show, through the lens of what she’s meant for women and, in particular, feminists.

Through Liz Lemon, 30 Rock gave women a language, and appropriately it was one of desire. This moment is in reference to a $50 gift certificate to Outback Steakhouse, but the line is certainly not exclusive to such objects.

If 30 Rock did nothing else, it has done enough in making its relentless central question that of how a woman strikes a work-life balance.

I love moments of Liz at her desk. Sometimes she’s eating, sometimes she’s simply flipping out, sometimes she’s wearing a pink tracksuit with a fanny pack attached. But moments at her desk are also when Liz reveals how absolutely engrossed she can get by work. Have you ever forgotten your birthday? Lemon has.

“What are the true milestones of a life?” This is a question that television – and 30 Rock especially – loves to ask. Since shows work on a seasonal rotation, it’s actually a question that is almost impossible not to ask. One’s own birthday might not be as significant as that of, say, one’s television. I agree with Lemon on this one, too – our televisions come eerily close to loving us back. Let’s show them some love in turn.

Considering how much Liz works at the office, I think this resolution is wonderfully novel and healthy.

Remember when Liz used her sexuality to get ahead, and it got her temporarily suspended from work? This episode showed Liz spending her newfound free time with women she would likely not befriend otherwise, which leads to a glimpse of an alternate lifestyle where Liz is very put together (read: classically “hot.”) There’s more to these women than meets the eye, of course, as 30 Rock twist endings often reveal.

Finally, a heroine who doesn’t find herself through sex, and who gets nearer than any sitcom lead to the realm of asexuality. Do you know how difficult it is to find such a model? Utterly frustrating.

Liz tells it like it is until it backfires: This might be the plotline of almost all 30 Rock episodes. She means so well each time (this might be her most unrealistic quality), but the way the show has been able to pull its viewers along with Liz’s feminist perspective and then, later, illustrate its biases, has been its most glorious aspect. I’m suddenly craving cake.

Thank goodness for Lorne Michaels’ empire, or else I’d be left missing the glut of slapstick 30 Rock offers. Of course women can be funny – even (especially?) the nerds, if you’ll just give them a chance.

To watch 30 Rock is to experience physical comedy and body humor in a way that allows us to identify with our heroine without shame. Porn without diarrhea! Underwear outside pants! Whose fly is undone? This moi. Or, more gently, simultaneously sneezing and farting.

There are many ways to wear a bra, and Liz made it a point to let the public in on this secret.

Lemon might find sex a chore, but it also doesn’t disqualify her from dating. Hello! 30 Rock has portrayed Liz in a handful of romantic relationships, from office hook-ups to that time when Wesley Snipes, played by Martin Sheen, tried to convince her to settle for him.

Remember when 30 Rock made fun of Lemon’s third wave liberal white feminism? She thinks the TGS studio is a “safe” enough space for Abby to drop the baby act, until she becomes the reason Abby needs to go into hiding from her abusive ex again. “Does TGS hate women?” the show leaves everyone asking.

Other times, Lemon simply speaks truth. Like when, in response to Jack’s judgment of her office hook-up, she replies: “Women are allowed to get angrier than men about double standards.” Zing.

Who says Liz doesn’t exercise? Sometimes she drinks while walking on the treadmill, other times she’s eating pudding. In this rare occasion of Liz Lemon being good to her body, she’s powerwalking to Meredith Brooks.

Our committed Liz Lemon loves musicals. Enough said. (And have we all heard rumors of the possibility of a Fey-headed Mean Girls musical in the works?)

I’d be into it, because Fey, like her character Liz, has big dreams and a bigger imagination.

Liz is committed to her pop culture. Her love of Star Wars grew so palpable that, when she told Criss she loved him and he responded with “I know,” WE ALL CRIED.

I could go on with moments of Liz Lemon identification, like when she tried to fit Emily-Dickinson-the-cat’s whole head into her mouth (GREAT cat name), or when she high-fived herself, or suggested that she might even marry herself (I love you and I love myself too, LL). Or, when a sandwich was significant enough to prompt dreams of having it all (all the while signaling, through her struggle to find it and eat it, that no one can have it all). If last week – when Liz met her adopted children (eerily resembling Tracy and Jenna) at the airport – made us cry, I can’t imagine what the finale will do to us. As Liz told us in the pilot, “It’s not HBO – it’s TV,” and oh, the things TV can do to us. Get ready, nerds.