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Must-See Ladies

2010 December 5

Feminists can be a contrarian bunch, but there’s one point most of them would agree on: it’s not a good time to be one. The media narrative about feminism has been “backlash, rejection, irrelevance, and backlash again” since the relative progress of Sex and the City gave way to the dark days of Joe Francis’s Girls Gone Wild empire in the early aughts. There is, however, a woman hiding in plain sight on one of the major networks, in prime time, offering a rare mainstream alternative to the usual TV-via-male-gaze. That woman is Tina Fey. Not only does she provide a glimmer of relief to viewers who are sick of half-written female characters, her influence can be felt on the other shows on NBC’s Thursday comedy lineup.

Fey plays Liz Lemon, the protagonist of 30 Rock.  Lemon is a funhouse version of Fey, who navigated the ultra-male-dominated world of comedy writers’ rooms with aplomb in real life. (She spent nine years writing for Saturday Night Live before cashing in her chips to create 30 Rock.) Lemon is the head writer and general “fixer” on the staff of a live comedy show, as well. One of Lemon’s recurring conflicts is balancing her desire to be liked with her need to command respect from her employees. Like most women, she’s been socialized to be agreeable and passive, but her position requires frequent hard-nosedness. (Her boss and mentor on the show, played by Alec Baldwin, does not hesitate to assert his authority.)

Liz Lemon is a realized, relatable character because she’s a subject, not an object. She asks herself questions about marrying and having kids, but her first priority is self-actualization through achievement (again, like Carrie Bradshaw). 30 Rock‘s perspective is uniquely female — unique for a show on network TV, anyway. It’s no coincidence that Fey is the show’s head writer, executive producer, and star, giving her near-complete creative control. (Sarah Jessica Parker also worked her way up to an executive producer credit by the time Sex and the City went off the air.)

Ordinarily, the principal plotline of a show like 30 Rock would be a will they/won’t they love story between Lemon and Jack Donaghy, Baldwin’s character. Instead, the show sends up that cliche, with Liz and Jack joking time and again about the absurdity of any romantic feelings between them; she refers to him as her “work husband.” The relationship between the two is one of mutual respect. Thankfully, the engineers of the show seem to realize that romantic tension between the two leads would be a) age-inappropriate and b) reductive.

The simple fact that 30 Rock is about a woman who wants more than a man makes it an unusually feminist show, but there is still much about it that fits into the old patriarchal paradigm. Many episodes probably wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test, because the most of the characters around Liz are men. Originally, Fey’s friend and SNL colleague Rachel Dratch had a major role on the show, but she was replaced by Jane Krakowski, setting off countless rumors that she’d been canned because of her looks. That question, never really addressed by Fey, suggests another issue feminists may have with the show. Everyone seemed to realize it simultaneously, right around the time Mean Girls came out: Tina Fey is kind of a hottie.

Of course, that’s not her fault; the nerd took off her glasses and there happened to be a pretty face underneath. Nevertheless, that face and petite figure may make her ambition, and her foibles, more palatable to a mass audience. The most subversive thing about Tina Fey’s appearance is the fact that she hasn’t had collagen. The other characters crack wise about her thin lips, but there isn’t much else to pick on.  She is thin and white, with pretty features, and only just left her thirties behind (in life as on the show). Her facial scar, which had been difficult to hide from SNL’s live cameras, is barely perceptible on 30 Rock.  Her style of dress is supposed to be frumpy, but everything she wears is fitted.

For the sake of comparison, here I will introduce another female character from a different corner of the Thursday comedy block: Community. (Yes, it’s funny, and you should all be watching.)  Community is an ensemble show, but Joel McHale’s character, Jeff, is most essential to the premise (he plays a disbarred lawyer who goes back to college). Gillian Jacobs plays his love interest, Britta Perry.

In terms of appearance, Jacobs can be described as a straight-up manifestation of what the male viewer might like to see. She’s tall, thin, blonde, and almost absurdly doe-eyed. Like Liz Lemon, Britta’s wardrobe signifies her status as outsider, but within “reasonable” feminine limits.  (Liz wears cute cardigans and non-stiletto-but-still-cute shoes to signify nerdiness. Britta wears fitted flannel shirts and high-heeled boots because she is supposed to be “alternative.”)

Britta is an object, not a subject. The show basically revolves around whether and when she and Jeff will get together. However, she’s an interesting object, a little more flawed and strident than your average girl-love-interest. There is something inflammatory about her beauty: the fact that she does not seem to like it.

[Britta] questions whether the things women do to construct their femininity get in the way of real intimacy; where else do you hear that question on the big four networks? The line between soul-sapping objectification and healthy, even vital attraction can be very fine. Who else is having that discussion on a pop-culture scale?

I was impressed when, in Community‘s first season, Britta told another character that she had an enduring fear of being nothing more than a “blow-up doll.” She conforms to feminine norms in her dress, makeup, and hairstyling, but feels an inner dissonance about it. A cynical observer might say this is NBC’s way of having its cake and eating it too. They get a semi-feminist character, but she looks as good as the cheerleaders. However, I am happy just to see these sorts of feelings explored before a broad audience. The show’s creator, Dan Harmon, writes Britta as a woman ill at ease with “mainstream feminine stuff.” When she tells her friends she’s taking a dance class, they all crack up. Her rants about how women distort their appearance are often played for laughs, but we sympathize with her discomfort. She is vaguely offended by Jeff’s attraction to her, because she fears it means he doesn’t like her as a person. She questions whether the things women do to construct their femininity get in the way of real intimacy; where else do you hear that question on the big four networks? The line between soul-sapping objectification and healthy, even vital attraction can be very fine. Who else is having that discussion on a pop-culture scale?

It’s Britta’s insecurities that set her apart from the TV-girlfriend pack. Often, female characters that are meant to appeal to female audiences fall into a ‘perfectionist/workaholic’ type. (That includes Liz Lemon, as well as the female leads of pretty much every romantic comedy in the past 20 years.) Britta is cut from a different cloth. She is directionless — a slacker, a dropout, a casual drug user. Paradoxically, I find this characterization very freeing. Male characters are usually the ones who have the luxury of wrestling with identity crises. Their female adjuncts are either brisk, professional women who make them get it together, or free spirits (like Manic Pixie Dream Girls) who help them on their journey. Britta is neither an undemanding sexpot nor a hyper-organized mom figure. She’s a very recognizable, contradictory person who often works against her own best interest. Encountering a female TV character who has problems outside the usual acceptable two (not being appealing enough to get a man/spending too much time at work to keep a man) is a relief.

Still, I can’t fault Tina Fey for writing a character who is confident and happy. After all, Liz Lemon has found what Britta hasn’t yet: meaningful work. She has her flaws as well, although she seems more amused by them than depressed, and she has her own little rebellion against the forces of feminization going on. One of the most radical things about Liz Lemon is not her body itself, which, as discussed, fits well within normative beauty standards, but rather what she’ll admit about it. Fey blew my mind a little when, last season, her character unveiled “my friend Tom”: her moustache.

Body hair is one of many ‘third rails’ in the murky landscape of gender politics. If you’re talking about body hair, you’re talking about feminism. (Your man may not mind if you have a career and opinions, but try asking him how he’d feel if you stopped shaving your armpits for a while.) On television, where the only un-groomed bodies belong to drunks and homeless people, you will never-but-never see stubble or lip hair on a woman — not even on commercials for women’s shaving and bleaching products. The taboo is stronger than that against general sloppiness of appearance. An anthropologist, thinking structurally, might describe the distinction as ‘messy’ versus ‘dirty.’ A man’s stubbly face is messy — cluttered. Messy isn’t so bad; it can be cleared up with a few swipes. Messy can even be sexy on a rakish sort of fellow. To the contrary, a woman’s stubbly legs are evidence that she’s a dirty hippie, or at the least slovenly and unfeminine; there’s no way she’s making that look good. ‘Dirty’ goes deeper than ‘messy,’ suggesting a basic social-animal inadequacy. Yet, Tina Fey goes there, announcing again, on a more recent episode, that she had found her first gray toe-knuckle hair.

When Parks and Recreation returns in January, NBC’s Thursday comedy block will be “must-see” for a reason other than humor: it will feature three shows that consider the paradoxes of femininity worth discussing. (Let’s ignore Outsourced for now, which, in addition to being a place where comedy goes to die, features two of the emptiest, most objectified female love interests you’ll find anywhere on television.) It is women like Fey and Amy Poehler (now a producer on Parks), who work their way up to positions of power behind the scenes, who bring those sorts of questions to the light.  Perhaps someday, we’ll be willing to address them even when they’re asked by someone who isn’t a wispy little white babe.

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