a few ideas about women, comedy and aspirational figures

By Jane Harrison

Is this funny?
In the middle of 30 Rock's first season, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) ends up on a fluke date with a handsome stranger nicknamed "The Hair." He seems perfect, but even then, he's too normal, good looking and nice for her. She'd rather just "go home and watch that show about midgets and eat a block of cheese," not because she doesn't want to date this guy, but because she thinks she's the kind of person who doesn't get to date a guy like that, or anyone even remotely like that. Also, it turns out he's her cousin, but that's beside the point. Lemon believes that she's the “head” or the "brunette" or the best friend who never gets the guy and by the logic of TV sitcoms is destined to stay single. And 30 Rock isn't going to strip her of that belief, but take advantage of it, humiliate her for it and get eight seasons of outrageous laughs because of it. It's part of 30 Rock’s genius that Lemon is the main character, but has all the attributes and self-loathing of a sidekick. In a world populated by physically perfect leading ladies, this inversion of character was incredibly progressive in 2006, but now, seven years later, Lemon is showing a good deal of dramatic strain. Are we still laughing? It’s hard to tell, but certainly in a different way than when the show first started out. One might even claim in the end that 30 Rock and Fey’s smart reworking of the standard leading lady is proving to be almost as limited as what it was initially rebelling against.

It’s not that the producers of 30 Rock weren’t aware of these issues from the start. The show continually let us see how limited Lemon’s role actually is and forces us to celebrate and denigrate her position as both lead and sidekick. It is a disjunction that leads to Lemon's many humiliations and a lot of amazing comedy. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), her good friend and boss, runs through a gambit of movie star girlfriends that are used as a yardstick for how stunted Lemon is in her emotional development. Nancy, as played by knockout redhead Julianne Moore, acts as a mother figure to Liz and offers her advice on ways to meet guys and overcome her childish negativity. Equally beautiful movie star Selma Hayek, playing an ordinary nurse Elisa, feels free to chastise Lemon in her own apartment, telling her to “go fill her slanket with farts” while the real grown ups, Elisa and Jack, discuss their upcoming nuptials in an honest and heart-felt way. For Lemon, any conversation about sex or relationships is met with eye-rolls and "blergh" faces. In a classic display of how much Lemon values her material crutches over social interaction, she states "the word 'lovers' bums me out, unless it's between meat and pizza." It's constantly implied that Lemon is not reaching the benchmarks set for a grown, non-brain damaged woman of her age, that her inadequacies are some kind of outlier in a world of developed people.

The polarizing relationship between Lemon's internal ineptitude and the outside world's cartoonish sophistication can be directly traced to Seinfeld. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created the template for absurdly flawed characters dealing with an absurdly sober world. In the Seinfeld universe, everyone is equally ridiculous, from the major quartet of characters (Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer) to the memorably minor ones (Newman, Tim Whatley, Puddy, J. Peterman and all the way to the Soup Nazi). The difference between the show’s leading protagonists and its supporting antagonists is not that the major characters see themselves as ridiculous, they don’t, but that they understand how self-defeating they are. It is a complex and tricky way of developing comic archetypes and both Seinfeld and 30 Rock do it beautifully.

George Costanza (Jason Alexander) is a perfect example of this method of characterization. He hates most things about himself, but can't help pursuing, even to his own detriment, what he finds most valuable in life—food, women and comfortable bathroom facilities. Lemon and George share many traits that paint them as lovingly uncouth, including their value of food over both love and social conventions. In "The Gymnast" George eats a éclair that sits on a trashcan and Jerry accuses him of crossing the line between man and bum. In 30 Rock’s "Sandwich Day," Lemon heroically devours an entire sandwich in under a minute in order to reach an ex-boyfriend at the airport, a decision that is not made lightly. She almost chooses to just have the sandwich. The direct line from George to Lemon is clear, and it's interesting that he is a classic sidekick. The relatable schmuck has rarely been a woman, and rarely one as confident, intelligent and good at her job as Lemon. Yet, and this is a big yet, she's never as put together as the lady movie stars that land guest spots on the arm of the omnipotent and happy Donaghy.

Food is good
You can't look at the divisions within Lemon without looking at the divisions within Fey herself. They are both dedicated comedy writers, have to deal with male (and idiot) dominated workplaces, struggle to balance work and personal life and were unhappy virgins into their twenties—twenty-four to be exact. Most importantly, both Lemon and Fey tout themselves as homely goofs, where many would argue that their looks suggest otherwise. Fey is a beautiful woman, if not by Angela Jolie standards, at least when put up against a line-up of MUNI bus riders. How could a woman that beautiful ask us to go along with the premise that she's a haggard troll who can't "give it away"? As frustrating as this clearly male perspective is, it highlights one of the best and most progressively feminist aspects of Lemon. Any woman, no matter how attractive, can also be hideous and that existential fear of potential ugliness is a terror that 30 Rock blithely and wonderfully captures.

Hardly an ugly woman?
Perhaps if Lemon just bumbled through life with her mouth shut and batted her big brown eyes at every man she met, her love life wouldn't be so dismal. But then, she wouldn't be Lemon or much of a character. Fey undermines the two extremes of female comic characters—the unfuckable schlub and the adorable and uptight klutzy babe—by combining them in one person. Lemon's power as a cultural icon lies in one, showing us that the pretty girl is, in her heart of hearts, still a sidekick; and that two, even pretty girls have a difficult time being themselves. The beauty of the Seinfeld model is that it understood that people are essentially in conflict with themselves and that, sadly, we are always not ourselves.

In the last ten years there has been an explosion of female comic voices that have worked their way into the mainstream. It’s not just one iconic female voice either, but a multiplicity of voices and styles that have emerged. Comics like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers started in the 1950s with acts based around crazed man hunting and bored husbands, really two sides of the same coin. Soon, Mary Tyler Moore took on the spunky every-girl and later Rosanne took on the put upon, blue-collar mom. These foremothers had their work cut out for them in breaking into a comedy world written, directed, cast, produced and starring men. Despite their successes, they were still stuck in traditional female roles. Employed as the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live in 1999, Fey started writing for an increasingly strong female cast, including Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Ana Gastayer and eventually Kristen Wiig. Fey and the female cast members of SNL started creating some of the strongest sketches that the show had seen in its last twenty years and opened up doors for a diversity of female comic types. After Fey left SNL, she set about creating the first female version of George Costanza, only as the star.

He loves wood
Fey’s success and the female comedy boom laid the groundwork for the arrival of the very young and insanely talented Lena Dunham. By any conventional standards Dunham is not leading woman material and her character, Hannah Horvath, isn’t a conventional lead character. But following 30 Rock’s template, she has extended Fey’s extension of the best friend lead. Horvath possess some of the infantile tendencies Lemon has, however, her limitations are secondary to the events in her life. She still dates, she still has friends, but her failures are played up just as much for drama as they are for laughs. They’re treated as real obstacles to Horvath’s development, instead of endearing quirks that add color to a broad characterization.

I would argue that Dunham's interpretation of a single woman, as awkward but experienced, is progressive, but not inspiring. Her humiliations are truer and more incendiary than Lemon's ever were, to the point where you cover your face every time she opens up about her feelings. However, there's not much to learn from these interactions, other than a kind of self-flagellation of reinforcing how people, and most glaringly people in their early 20s, can be equally well intentioned, self-absorbed and emotionally defective. Horvath is the end game of the dysfunctional female lead taken to it’s most extreme, but there are no aspirational characteristics to a woman who can’t keep a hook-up, a friend or a job.
Not a normal lead, which is good
That we model ourselves on fictional characters is undeniable, especially when it comes to women on television. It’s common knowledge that body image, male and female, is shaped by unrealistic images in the media and Dunham, in her portrayal of Horvath, offers some positive modeling by constantly and unabashedly being naked on camera with a body type that is far from perfect. Her casual and unapologetic comfort with her common form (it’s gross even writing that) makes way for conversations about how we talk about women’s bodies, while making any detractors seem old-fashioned and bigoted. However, Horvath is little more than the personification of dysfunction, and while Dunham and her character have stirred up a whirlwind of cultural controversy, neither creator nor character is a particularly aspirational or transcendent figure. Horvath is merely the logical conclusion of the women as slob character and offers of nothing more than the slob. This is what makes Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) stand out so much. She is a character and not a type.

Parks and Recreation is a show that stands out against the cynical worldview of Girls (even though it proceeds it), where few characters have truly nefarious goals or even debilitating faults. Even the stubborn Libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who does so much to antagonize and stifle Knope in the first season, slowly turns into a principled, sobering and begrudging advocate for her during the next four. In Parks and Recreation, people’s differences are not the DNA of character development and so conflict is not static. Arguments don’t reinforce who a character is, but allow what seems like real people to work through their differences in a humane way. This mode of character development is essential to understanding the progressive nature, both in character and effect, of Knope and why she represents such a sea change in how we see the female comic lead.

The New Model of Laughs

In Amy Poehler’s fantastically nuanced performance Knope is a bulldozer of optimism. She is as ambitious as Lemon, but not as cynical. She has some of the self-centeredness of Horvath, but usually works her way to seeing the views of her friends and colleagues. Her growth as a character is tied to the structure of the sitcom, where conflicts are built up and resolved in neat thirty-minute chunks. Only here, these rather artificial conventions take on the qualities of a morality play and allow for a fully rounded female character who is deeply flawed, extremely capable and respected by her friends and colleagues for those conflicting attributes.

In the 30 Rock universe, Lemon is capable of doing her job, but is constantly antagonized for being authoritative and ambitious. She is infantilized by her surroundings, even though she plays a mothering role to most of the people around her. The direct parallels to her roles of mothering and chastising her crew are laid out clearly in the series finale, where her adopted children are exact replicas of her underlings Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Jenna (Jane Krakowski). Even though Lemon’s role is the boss, she ends up in the encompassing arc of the show in the role of the mother. Knope has no such defining destiny. Her role as determined Deputy Parks Director is respected and valued. She is childish and naïve at times, but in the world of the show, she is never patronized for her faults.

Total Respect
It is obviously freeing for women to look at characters like Lemon and Horvath and say, here is a female character that I can relate to. A woman who’s awkward, a nerd, sometimes undesirable and comfortable with how “weird” her body is. But how does that reflection help us, other than provide comfort that there are others like us? That we’re not all Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston? Representation is not enough. Just pure comfort can breed complete acceptance of our shortcomings, turning us into a generation of infantile women to match the generation of man-children modeling themselves on anti-heroes like Bill Murray and the Dude. There must be ideals provided to show us a way to embrace being both defective and functional.

Knope shows the way out. A strange woman with strange quirks, she doesn’t wallow in the limitations of her personality, but embraces them in order to strengthen her ambitions. Her flaws and quirks are supports to her moral center and make her better at doing what she loves to do—work in government. Perhaps it’s time that women started embracing their defects as strengths, instead of hiding from the world, wrapped up alone, in a slanket, with a block of cheese.

Here she is
©CCA Arts Review and Jane Harrison

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