Say the name Tina Fey and you conjure up a barrage of famous cultural images: Mean Girls, 30 Rock, brownie husbands, “I can see Russia from my house”. Something that has always marked Tina Fey’s writing is the ability to tell stories about women that we don’t always hear in popular culture. Fey doesn’t shy away from portraying women not as saints or love interests, but as real people. And occasionally, gross people.
In her recent book Bossy Pants, Tina Fey relates an interesting story about her friend and former SNL cast mate Amy Poehler. In the story, Amy was in the middle of doing a crass bit in the SNL writer’s room when Jimmy Fallon joked in a squeaky voice that he didn’t like the bit because “it wasn’t cute”. According to Fey, Poehler’s eyes went black and she turned on him and said “I don’t f**king care if you like it” before going back to her off-color joke.
The interesting part of this story is not the idea of conflict between Poehler and Fallon, who are actually good friends. What I found interesting about this story was the idea of Poehler fighting back against the idea of needing to be “cute”. It’s an idea that I think informs much of what Fey writes for Liz Lemon, the character she plays on her sitcom 30 Rock.
When it comes to the representation of female characters in modern entertainment and especially comedy, the idea of being cute, or beautiful or well-mannered seems to be the norm. Think of any female character in a modern big-budget comedy. The guys are usually the ones moving the narrative and having fun. The audience is expected to enjoy their lewd behavior, to appreciate that they don't take themselves too seriously. The guys in movies like The Hangover or anything by Judd Apatow are the ones getting the big laughs from the audience. Meanwhile, the ladies in these films are most often left standing on the sidelines, shaking their heads in disapproval of these antics. They are the good girlfriend or the unattainable love interest. Their characters are marked by their physical beauty, their patience or their levelheadedness. Women aren’t allowed to be raunchy or gross. They are present to be wet blankets or to be “cute”.
Liz Lemon breaks those conventions because if there’s one adjective that comes nowhere near describing her, it’s cute. Liz Lemon is a woman that is always nearly on the verge of some sort of breakdown, not the levelheaded mother-figure that shows up increasingly in recent male-centric comedies about men suffering from stunted adolescence. Liz Lemon would never shake her head woefully at a male character’s comedy antics because she’s too busy wearing a broken rape whistle as a necklace or working on her night cheese.
Liz is allowed to be occasionally gross while never being portrayed as “one of the guys” because Fey realizes a female character doesn’t have to be masculine to be funny. Fey isn't afraid to tackle lady topics and always manages to do so in a way that is universally hilarious, whether the viewer can relate or not. For female viewers, this means getting to see fresh, inventive takes on the same stale topics that mark much of the entertainment marketed to women. For instance, Fey takes the romantic comedy standard of the sad single career woman looking for love, embraces it and then subverts it. In an episode that has Liz Lemon going to as many singles events as possible, including a wine and cheese mixer she refers to as "singles fart suppression" she chooses winning at singles dodge ball over getting a date.
In fact, Fey mines a lot of comedy from the idea of gender equality itself. In a season 4 episode, Liz finds out that she was hired due to a gender equality program at NBC. She tries to prove that she doesn’t get special treatment because she’s a woman with hilarious results, including a truly masterful piece of physical comedy where she tries to change the water cooler bottle alone and ends up with most of the water on the floor or her person.
In Liz Lemon, Fey has created a character that subverts pop culture’s definitions of female characters. She is allowed to be over the top, like when she stalks and accidentally drugs an attractive male neighbor, steals a baby or wears a wedding dress while eating a sub.
Like her friend Amy Poehler in her moment of anger, Fey recognizes that society wants women to act a certain way and she refuses. Liz Lemon is the embodiment of a woman that is aware of expectations but does not conform to them. She is hilarious not because she acts like a man but because she acts like a three dimensional female character, something we don’t see often on television and even less in comedy.
What are your favorite Liz Lemon moments that break the stereotype that women should always be cute? Post them in the comments below!
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