Tina Fey's superfunnysmart feminism: Take that, Christopher Hitchens!

Tina Fey's brilliant career illustrates a women-in-comedy paradox: Even the funniest will get judged on their looks

Published March 30, 2014 3:30PM (EDT)

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on "30 Rock"      (NBC)
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon on "30 Rock" (NBC)

Excerpted from "Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics"

Feminist critics often point out that despite Liz Lemon’s supposedly frumpy feminist looks, 30 Rock does little to disguise Tina Fey’s attractiveness. Liz may wear old-lady cardigans, but she also wears low-cut necklines that remind viewers of Fey’s cover-girl images. As this argument suggests, critiques of 30 Rock often conflate Fey with Lemon. In a frequently quoted criticism, blogger Sady Doyle in 2010 complained that Liz Lemon typifies the so-called feminist whose most active concern is “‘body image’ . . . without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis [conventionally gendered] person she conforms to the ‘beauty standard’” herself. Doyle describes Liz Lemon’s politics as a white, “privileged semi-feminism” utterly detached from issues of race, queerness, and disability. Doyle admits that her anger about the 30 Rock character is actually her anger at the larger phenomenon of popular, watered-down versions of feminism. The political interests of this would-be feminist, she says, are limited to “certain issues only as they pertain to her own personal life.”

Newsweek blogger Kate Dailey quoted Doyle on this phenomenon and named it “Liz Lemonism,” going on to compare its limitations to the more emphatic, straightforward feminism found in Amy Poehler’s NBC series Parks and Recreation (2009–). Doyle’s complaint overlaps with the concerns of Morreale, whose primary argument is that Liz Lemon ends up confirming rather than challenging the status quo. Yet a very different reading of Liz Lemonism has been posited in Salon by Rebecca Traister, responding to the online feminist critics of 30 Rock and specifically to Doyle’s disappointment in Fey’s character. Traister argues that Liz Lemonism, far from being a flawed, tepid version of feminism, is 30 Rock’s satire of that very phenomenon—the privileged, would-be feminist. The limitations of Lemon as “a gutless, self-interested semi-feminist,” says Traister, are jokes that appear in the series almost every week (“Tina Fey Backlash”).

Doyle’s protest of Liz Lemonism as politically reprehensible and Traister’s recognition of Liz Lemonism as satire speak to the tension about how feminism can or should be represented in comedy. The portrayal of the 30 Rock heroine as a gutless, self-interested semi-feminist makes feminist fans uncomfortable, Traister says, because it evokes the problem of feminism and comedy about women—where to draw the line about female targets of ridicule or satire. Traister further contends that Fey herself has drawn controversy because she is “a professional comic . . . not a professional feminist,” and the anger about Fey’s work on 30 Rock demonstrates “the intensity of longing for a perfect feminist idol.” Certainly the mixed signals around Fey—the longing for and nervousness about feminism in popular culture—are demonstrated in the high stakes of the looks of this perfect feminist idol, given multiple cultural pressures to picture her as nonthreatening, mainstream, and even glamourous.

As Fey’s most developed and sustained comedy about gender, 30 Rock functions not as a feminist text but as a slippery text about contemporary feminism, lampooning girl-culture popular postfeminism and politically correct feminism that is blind to its own privileged status. Liz Lemonism, I would argue, satirizes both feminist hypocrisy and postfeminist bourgeois angst. Yet Doyle is right to suspect a privileged, middle-class politics looming under the surface of 30 Rock’s comedy as its perimeter in imagining social change. This dynamic can be glimpsed in the season 5 episode “Brooklyn without Limits,” when Liz buys jeans from an independently owned boutique and is smugly proud that she’s not patronizing a big corporation and is supporting an American company: the label on the jeans says “Hand Made in USA.” She finds out the label is misleading; it actually means the jeans are made by the “Hand” people, Vietnamese slaves owned by Halliburton on the island of “Usa.” Liz agonizes because these are the only jeans that have ever made her look good, and she’s bought multiple pairs. She is at first adamant that the nasty socioeconomic story behind the jeans is irrelevant, but her political conscience gets the best of her, and in the end, she takes them all back. In the final scene, she is wearing her beat-up overall-style jeans that balloon her backside into two basketball-size globes—a visual joke that could well have been labeled “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.”

The episode mocks and valorizes political correctness, and the payoff is a joke about how hideous political correctness looks on Liz’s body. However, the darker joke is the absurdity of how global capitalism is masked in everyday transactions, and the episode positions the audience to sympathize with Liz’s political conviction rather than the indifference of Jack Donaghy, who sees nothing wrong with Halliburton making a buck where it can. Yet what the episode—and generally the trajectory of 30 Rock—does not acknowledge are the limitations of Liz’s liberalism. She doesn’t stage a protest, write letters to Halliburton, or do an expos. of hideous labor practices, any of which a traditional social-change feminism might entail. Instead she makes a personal choice about her looks, money, and commodities— on the one hand, a traditional feminist axiom that the personal is the political, and on the other hand, a far less ambitious political move that accepts personal power as the only viable kind of agency, so that social issues become personal ones, spun on the axes of appearance and consumerism. This is the Liz Lemonism that slips under the radar of fans like Traister who appreciate the satire, and its implications are more unsettling than the bad images of Liz repairing her bra with Scotch tape or eating entire blocks of cheese as a late-night snack.

“TGS Hates Women”

I conclude with a detailed analysis of the season 5 episode “TGS Hates Women” because it alludes to the controversies around Fey’s feminist reputation and focuses on the feminism versus femininity issue—specifically, sexy women comics who are accused by feminists of exploiting their attractiveness to get media attention. While “Rosemary’s Baby” portrayed Liz as the ever-compromising postfeminist in relation to the older, traditional feminist, “TGS Hates Women” cleverly flips the generation gap in the other direction. In the latter episode, Liz is the older feminist up against the sexy young writer and performer Abby Flynn (Cristin Milioti), who is being hailed by young postfeminists as “the freshest female voice in comedy.” The episode successfully lampoons both sides of the issue but backs away from a closure, demonstrating 30 Rock’s willingness to explore controversies of feminism and representation without attempting to resolve them. However, the awkwardness of the closure, protested by reviewers as bad writing or a cop-out, suggests a larger unease about how or whether feminism works as a viable critique of popular culture.

Bloggers quickly noted that the episode seems to have been a response to online feminist criticisms of Fey and her series. The plot begins with Liz stunned that a well-known feminist website, JoanofSnark.com, has accused TGS of hating women. “It’s this cool feminist website,” Liz says, “where women talk about how far we’ve come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies—Ruth Bader Ginsberg!” The website, shown in a cutaway, is a parody of the real-life Jezebel.com, which advertises itself as “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing” and immediately acknowledged the reference: “thrilled and honored to be parodied by 30 Rock” (Hartmann, “Joan of Snark”). Jezebel perhaps typifies the semifeminism or Liz Lemonism decried by Sady Doyle, given its coverage of traditional women’s magazine topics as well as protests against airbrushing and sexism in media. As part of 30 Rock’s parody, a later cutaway shows JoanofSnark.com links that include “She-mail: Free email for feminists” and “Fashion & Beauty: Because you’re a goddess,” clearly a jab at glamourous versions of postfeminism. Because the cutaway is brief, the details are impossible to see without pausing the image, showing a distinct expectation for viewers who are invested in these issues of feminism and representation and showing 30 Rock itself invested in this elaborate joke about how, exactly, contemporary feminism is being defined and practiced.

That question is picked up and fine-tuned into the question of what feminist comedy entails, although the first scenes give obvious answers by satirizing sexist comedy cliches. Liz is disturbed by the accusation that TGS hates women because, she says, the previous few shows were entirely focused on its female star, Jenna. The scene then cuts to two of Jenna’s skits showing her as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane and Hillary Clinton deciding to nuke England, both disasters happening because these women suddenly got their periods. Realizing these are sexist jokes, Liz quickly explains that they are “ironic reappropriation,” but she stumbles and admits she’s “not sure anymore.” She goes on to say that TGS “started as a show for women starring women. At the least, we should be elevating the way women are perceived in society.” At that moment, Liz gets her period, goes crazy, and fires everyone in the room. Typical of the metacomedy on 30 Rock, these jokes target misogynist humor and the problem with ironic reappropriation as a rationale for circulating sexist images. At the same time, they deploy irony by positioning Liz—and certainly Tina Fey—as responsible for keeping the misogyny in circulation. This opening also refers to the set of expectations that followed Tina Fey to 30 Rock—that it would be a show “for women” and even a show “elevating the way women are perceived in society”—the piousness of the latter statement marking it as a satirical take on the gender representation on both TGS and 30 Rock.

The satire of sexism continues in the following scene with Jack. When Liz asks him if he thinks she hates women, his reply is a lecture on how women are “genetically predisposed” to compete with each other for “strong, powerful men like myself,” a parody of certain supposedly scientific explanations of female behavior. Jack pompously explains that if you breed this competitiveness out of women, you end up with “a lesbian with hip dysplasia.” In the same scene Jack ruminates on the proper life goals for an ambitious young woman: “a doctor’s nurse, or a lawyer’s mistress, or the president of the United States’ shopping assistant.” Not surprisingly, he refuses Liz’s request to hire Abby Flynn as a guest writer until he sees a photo of the blond, buxom comedian that prompts him to agree immediately. As this scene demonstrates, egotistical masculinity is an easy target for feminist comedy.

Liz exclaims that hiring Abby will be a “fem-o-lution,” but the earnest feminist sisterhood collapses when Abby arrives at the studio flaunting her miniskirt and pigtails. To Liz’s horror, Abby uses a cutesy baby voice to flirt with the writing staff and bounces her ample cleavage by jumping up and down on a trampoline, where she’s joined by an enthralled Jack. The baby voice and pigtails allude to Sarah Silverman, known for her cover-girl good looks, and Milioti is made up to resemble Silverman as well. However, the trampoline confirms the Abby Flynn story as a reference to the 2010 feminist quarrels around comic Olivia Munn, a former Playboy model who appeared in a bikini on the January 2010 cover of Maxim and in a photo shoot that included suggestive poses on a trampoline. Munn was hired by The Daily Show in 2010 after Jezebel criticized it for being an old-boys club despite its liberal politics (Carmon). But feminist forums (Itzkoff, Williams) protested that Munn is not as funny as other available women comics, and Munn received even more salacious attention when she appeared on the January 2011 Maxim cover wearing a small T-shirt and transparent underpants (Hartmann, “Olivia Munn’s Groin”). The debate about Munn’s looks versus her talent generally overlooked the image and persona that launched her to fame: between 2006 and 2010 she co-hosted Attack of the Show! on the G4 network in which she represented the girl geek as articulate and techno-savvy, updating viewers on video game news, reviewing new games, and confidently situating herself in a notoriously all-boy milieu. So her hire on The Daily Show taps this previous persona of the brainy computer whiz even if it was overshadowed by her career on men’s magazine covers.

Tina Fey has acknowledged Munn as the subtext of the “TGS Hates Women” episode and admitted the controversy was about her looks. In a radio interview Fey remarked that if Munn “were kind of an aggressive, heavier girl with a LeTigre mustache posing in her underpants, people would be like, ‘That’s amazing. Good for you.’ But because she is very beautiful, people are like, ‘You’re using that.’ It’s just a mess! We can’t figure it out” (Fey, “Tina Fey Reveals All”). The mess Fey decries is the way the pretty/funny binary has evolved into market demand for women comics who are drop-dead gorgeous and the feminist suspicion about how good looks trump comic talent in casting decisions. The mess is also the feminist critique of Fey herself, who is suspiciously good-looking to play a Liz Lemon character who is supposedly drab and unattractive. In fact, defending her ubiquitous bikini images, Munn has invoked Fey as a comparison: “Hey, Tina Fey has been on the cover of Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly, and she always looks like a bombshell. . . . It is possible in this world to be pretty and funny and successful all at the same time” (in Spitznagel, “Daily Show’s Olivia Munn”). Still, “TGS Hates Women” loads the question by making it clear Abby’s good looks are her only power. Her jokes are terrible: “You know what sucked about my last lesbian orgy? Right in the middle of it, one of us had to get up to go use the bathroom, and then we all had to go,” she says to the fascinated TGS male writers, who chuckle at her supposed wittiness while Liz fumes.

The looks controversy is played out in a brilliant scene that pits Liz’s feminist moralizing against what she calls Abby’s “baby hooker” act. Deciding to educate Abby, Liz meets her in Central Park in front of the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, “champion of the rights of women and the lid on my high school lunchbox,” she proclaims. In what follows, Liz’s self-righteous pitch is grounded in standard feminist discourse about sexiness as a construction rather than a natural behavior: Liz implores Abby to talk in her “real voice” and to drop the “sexy baby” act, the gross jokes, and the pigtails. In response, Abby insists she really is a sexy baby and that she can’t help it if men are attracted to her, as illustrated by a homeless man who is watching her and playing with himself. More cunningly, Abby poses a question that makes an indirect reference to Tina Fey’s own star image and its sexualization: “What’s the difference between me using my sexuality and you using those glasses to look smart?” The line cleverly cites Fey’s star history in which the glasses have not simply made her look smart but have been central in her “specs appeal” glamour. Even if her images are not as sexualized as those of Olivia Munn/Abby Flynn, they conform to mainstream standards of attractive femininity embraced by popular postfeminism.

Unlike earlier scenes that satirized sexist comedy in a recognizably feminist dynamic, the park scene complicates the question of feminism and comedy by characterizing Liz’s feminism as judgmental moralism but also a valid perspective. When Abby protests that her image is her own career and none of Liz’s business, Liz replies, “Except it is, because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.” This is a fairly straightforward assertion that representation matters and affects more than the individual artist or performer. Far from undermining this perspective, the script follows up with a demonstration of how embarrassing Abby’s performances can be. The homeless man yells “Kiss!” and Abby, after reiterating her position on sexiness, says, “Shall we give the gentleman what he wants?”—leaning toward Liz with her tongue outstretched.

Unfortunately, after setting up the topic of feminism and representation so richly, a preposterous plot turn dismisses it altogether. As it turns out, Liz Lemon is proven correct in her feminist conviction that Abby Flynn’s sexiness is a performance. On the Internet she finds footage of the “real” Abby Flynn, who is actually Abby Grossman, a far funnier and less glamourous comic. Liz triumphantly posts the footage on JoanofSnark.com, but her strategy backfires with terrible consequences. Abby furiously confesses that she had taken up the blond baby hooker persona to disguise herself from her abusive ex-husband, who is trying to kill her. Liz’s posting has already alerted him about Abby’s location at the TGS studios, so Abby must flee for her life. Liz Lemon’s feminist intervention is a disaster, and even though abusive male power, the horrible ex-husband, is actually at fault, the end result is that it looks like Liz and TGS both hate women.

In the NPR interview in which she discusses “TGS Hates Women” and the Olivia Munn controversy (“Tina Fey Reveals All”), Fey admits the episode “confused and sort of delighted the Internet in a way.” The reference here is to the episode’s mixed online reviews and outrage about the ending, which was perceived by many as a cop-out. “That story is so loaded and complex that I was really glad that we did it . . . because it sort of opens up more questions than it answers,” Fey continues. For her part, she thought Liz was “in the wrong” to criticize the young comic’s use of her sexuality, but she also thought it was a “tangled-up issue . . . and we didn’t go much further saying anything about it other than to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a complicated issue and we’re all kind of figuring it out as we go.’” The raw process of figuring it out demonstrates the tendency of 30 Rock to make tentative explorations of gender issues rather than to take a feminist stand about them. My argument here has been that the dynamic of 30 Rock is not in fact feminism but the contesting and disputing of popular ideas and versions of feminism—quite literally “figuring it out as we go.”

A good example of this dynamic is the way “TGS Hates Women” represents the contradictory ways that power circulates in gender relations and in popular culture. Traister, who praises the episode for “slicing and dicing nearly every angle of the arguments that crop up any time anyone tries to talk about gender, popularity and perception,” pinpoints a line that she characterizes as a “truth” about gender. When Jenna wants to destroy Abby Flynn out of pure jealousy, Liz says, “No, Jenna, that’s exactly the problem: men infantilize women and women tear each other down.” Traister notes approvingly that there’s “no contradictory punch line here. Liz spoke the truth!” (“‘30 Rock’”). Traister is accurate in characterizing the seriousness of Liz’s comment on how women lose power. Yet conflicting concepts of women and power are central to this episode’s thematic. Liz does not have the power to hire Abby until Jack sees a photo of Abby’s cleavage, and when Abby comes on board, her sexuality is powerful. Liz believes she is helping Abby Grossman restore her power as a “strong, smart, beautiful woman,” she tells Jenna, but even though Abby Grossman’s comedy was funnier, she clearly had no media power until she became the baby hooker Abby Flynn.

These intriguing contradictions are shut down when they are trumped by the power of the abusive ex-husband, and tellingly, the comic energy of the episode shuts down at this point, too. Traister’s exclamation about Liz speaking the truth about women and power is a reminder that the best and wittiest comedy in this episode is in the sharp barbs at all sides of the issue—Liz’s moralism, Abby’s sexy-baby pose, and Jack’s sexism. In contrast, the weakest scene is the final one, when Liz is flummoxed by the dramatic revelation of the death threats from the maniacal ex-husband. “I thought it was, like, pressure from society,” she says feebly. The episode ends with Liz meekly getting the writers back to work: “We were on page six where Wonder Woman gets her period.” That is, the episode circles back to its opening joke as if the entire question of the sexy woman comic had not been raised, indicating an inability to articulate what is true about feminist critique of sexualized representation.

In the episode’s exploration of feminism and comedy, a subtle detail tips a hat to the political comedy of the Rosemary Howard character from the earlier “Rosemary’s Baby” episode, who—though last seen as impoverished and possibly psychotic—turns out to be successful after all. The first cutaway to JoanofSnark.com shows that the website is advertising Rosemary Howard’s play: “I’m Only Laughing Because It’s Funny—Now on Broadway.” When Rosemary (Carrie Fisher) was introduced in “Rosemary’s Baby” she had just published a book with that title. This follow-up reference also alludes to Fisher, whose 2008 memoir Wishful Drinking was adapted as a one-woman Broadway play in 2009 and was still on tour when “TGS Hates Women” appeared the following year. By acknowledging the success of Rosemary (and Carrie Fisher), the allusion confirms the value of the Second Wave feminist as a successful comic—even as the ad appears on the website praising Abby Flynn as “the freshest female voice in comedy.” After all, “TGS Hates Women” undermines the funniness of Abby Flynn’s comedy but not its marketability. Likewise, the episode successfully takes some witty swipes at sexism, although satire of sexism is much easier than the questions of what feminist comedy entails, the impacts of progressive as well as sexist representations on television, the gender politics of sex-as-power postfeminism, and the moral authority—or audacity—of feminism in criticizing that stance. This ambitious set of questions exemplifies the complicated gender politics that I see operating in 30 Rock, which never settles on a definitive answer for what feminism or the feminist looks like.

In her memoir, Bossypants, Fey represents herself as neither a feminist nor a postfeminist; however, there is a good deal of critical thinking about gender in her story of being a geeky girl making her way through the ridiculously macho worlds of Second City and Saturday Night Live and then surviving 30 Rock stardom while breastfeeding and throwing birthday parties for toddlers. And certainly her sardonic takes on glamour, having it all, and even baby panic satirize postfeminist cliches. In her closing chapter she reveals her gender politics most blatantly in her passion about the need to change the climate for women in show business. In the sexism of that world, Fey says, even if a woman isn’t using her feminine wiles to get ahead, she’s being “sexually adjudicated” by network executives who “really do say things like ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to fuck anybody on this show’.”  The only answer, she says, “is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others." Meanwhile, at the age of forty, Fey sees herself slipping into the category of the “crazy” lady in comedy. “I have a suspicion,” she says, “that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” This is a version of a line from the Rosemary Howard episode of 30 Rock, and Rosemary Howard is, of course, the crazy lady with a social conscience.

Excerpted from "Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics" by Linda Mizejewski. Published by the University of Texas Press. Copyright 2014 by Linda Mizejewski. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Linda Mizejewski

Linda Mizejewski is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the Ohio State University. She is the author of "Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle and the Makings of Sally Bowles," "Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema" and "Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture."

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