I’ve been struggling with getting things written the last week or two (my brain, she is broken) but this article by Slate’s Jonah Weiner on 30 Rock got me all fired up. Major thanks to Sister SarahMC for bringing it to my attention and helping me rev up the grey matter.
Weiner’s thesis is that 30 Rock, while purportedly being at least liberally inclined (I suppose because of Fey’s personal politics and performance choices?), is actually conservative and in fact anti-feminist.
As Liz Lemon might say: What the what?
As an academic who really enjoys attending/presenting at popular culture conferences, I’m perfectly ready to tease out the threads of meaning that make up the fabric of any cultural product, but I wouldn’t buy Weiner’s argument for a wooden nickel. Moreover, I’m not sure really what the larger point is. 30 Rock isn’t as funnny as we think? Women are their own worst enemies? The librul media is a myth? Whatever his intention, he makes a good case–albeit unintentionally–for why we need more female/feminist critics.
Weiner seems to base his argument primarily on the fact that Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is flawed. She’s in her 30s, usually single, baby-hungry, hungry-hungry (apparently, even female characters shouldn’t like food too much), self-deprecating, and TV-ugly (which is to say: brunette and bespectacled). OH NOES!!! I would have thought we’d moved past the point where a female (or black, or queer, or X) character had to be either an impeccable example or a ridiculous caricature of Otherness, but I guess Weiner hasn’t, and his critique is strongly gendered: Liz is a tomboy, Liz is emotionally stunted, Liz is “scared of sex” and “incapable of…using her sexuality to get ahead.” Color me unsurprised. Somehow, he fails to note that Liz is smart, funny, quite successful at her pretty rad job, with a great apartment on the UWS (dare to dream, y’all), friends, and a supportive–if mostly off-screen–family. She can also be patient and impatient, kind and unkind, and happy and unhappy. It’s like…she’s a multi-dimensional whaddaycallit… person, or something. And never mind that Liz is possibly the least screwy of the cast; Weiner feels that Liz is inappropriately adolescent, and that “her liberal-feminist instincts” are part of her arrested development. (Oh look, another smart-funny-underrated show that features a lot of screwed up people that the central character has to manage/survive! Tell me, Jonah, what that says about feminism.)
If anything, I see the 30 Rock as demonstrating, albeit in an inflated, fun-house-mirror fashion, the hazards and compromises that a liberal feminist woman (who are far more common than the crazy radicals that populate this site) encounters. Cheap jokes about her looks, cocky bosses who use her as a substitute mother/girlfriend/Girl Friday (although the Liz-Jack relationship is far more complicated; I’ll be covering that topic in Chapter 23 of my forthcoming book), deranged, narcissistic co-workers who either challenge her authority (the writers), or shanghai her into managing their emotional lives (Jenna and Tracy).
The rest of Weiner’s argument (which is rather meandering and ultimately equivocating) is based on 1) the impression that Liz repeatedly loses out to her boss Jack’s perspective; and 2) that the overt political commentary that marked the first two seasons has dissipated in the third.
My brief responses, as this is already eye-crossingly dorkulated, are as follows:
1) if Liz frequently “comes around to Jack’s way of seeing things,” that might also be a reflection of the world we live in (that would be Patriarchy, for those of you just joining us). Liz is hopeful and somewhat naive, and the series repeatedly covers her awakening to the ridiculous/depressing realities of working for a corporate monster like GE/NBC/TGS/Sheinhardt Wig Company. (Remember, “TGS with Tracy Jordan” was originally “The Girlie Show”?) I’m not sure why she would need to “win” every battle in order for the series to be liberal or feminist. Prob’ly for the same reason the fictional Liz can’t eat meatball subs without scorn.
2) I’m willing to concede that there are fewer political gags than before, but there might some really obvious reasons for that, like the fact that TV shows are filmed weeks–even months–in advance, and writers might not have known who or what to skewer or lampoon. And even if they did, Obama is just now only 100 or so days into his term and so far, it’s pretty hard to mock the dude. (That’s what happens when you elect someone who isn’t smugly, willfully ignorant and mean.) And wait: how does NOT mocking liberals make the show stealthily conservative?
I could go on, but I’ll spare you all. (For now. Arguments in comments welcome!) So, to sum up: Jonah Weiner, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Thanks for waking up my brain (such as it is), but don’t mess with my Tina.