Unfortunate Female Characters: Liz Lemon

NPR’s Linda Holmes recently deconstructed Liz Lemon’s chronic regression from a woman who takes charge to a naive, co-dependent female character riddled with clichés. I only just started watching 30 Rock as Comedy Central began showing reruns during dinnertime, so I am by no means a dedicated fan of the show. After watching a variety of episodes from the earlier and more recent seasons, I have to say it: Liz Lemon does not impress me.

One of my biggest issues with Liz Lemon is her constant need for approval from her boss, Jack. Linda Holmes argues that over time, Liz and Jack’s relationship dynamic changed from one centered around mentoring to one centered around parenting. As Holmes put it,

Jack has been fully transformed into a condescending, all-knowing daddy, and Liz has been fully transformed into a needy little girl who is eternally terrified of displeasing him.

I think this dynamic existed in some form from Season One. Their relationship reeks of her desperation to please him, particularly when it comes to her personal life. Freud would have a field day with their twisted, father-daughter relationship (especially with the awkward will-they-or-won’t-they tension that arises sometimes). It’s true that in earlier seasons, Liz seemed to be more in control of her life (both personally and professionally) than she is in more recent seasons. But although Liz maintained the majority of her autonomy from Jack, she definitely leaned on him for more than just professional mentoring. Briefly in past seasons, it seemed like Jack became genuinely interested in seeing Liz happy and successful (again, both personally and professionally).

Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy talking
Liz & Jack

However, this interest was transformed when Liz did practically anything Jack advised her to do. Jack eventually realized he could basically control Liz, and even mess with her a little along the way. It’s as though Jack took it upon himself to teach that silly, misguided Liz a lesson every time she came to him with an issue.

Liz Lemon has become more one-dimensional over time. Don’t get me wrong, she is easy to relate to (if you’re a single white female), and many young (white) women I know appear to feel validated by her lifestyle. She confronts her “unladylike” eating habits, bad luck with men, and geeky inclinations, but after six seasons of the whole “I live alone, want a man, eat my feelings, and stay in on weekends” story line, I’m left wanting. It’s not quirky anymore, and it’s definitely lost my interest.

I also hate Liz’s relationship with her writers. Here, she’s characterized as a hapless woman thrown into a boys’ club. I’m certain that this industry is largely a “boys’ club,” but I’m disappointed by how she has to act like a bitch in order to get them to listen to her. They spend most of their time messing around, and when she wants to get serious, she cops shit. I’m aware that this dynamic between boss-and-underlings exists in real life, but she never seems to earn their respect unless she sacrifices her dignity in some way. Liz is never cool enough, despite her desperate attempts to appeal to her coworkers.

I get it. Without all of this, there wouldn’t be much of a show. Although, that’s where I think the problem stands. I wonder if Tina Fey isn’t giving 30 Rock fans much credit–instead of showcasing positive personal and professional growth from season to season, she’s slowly killing off Liz Lemon’s autonomy and by extension, her likability.

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milly parkhurst

i would love to have a pet lamb.

23 thoughts on “Unfortunate Female Characters: Liz Lemon”

  1. I like(d?) early 30 rock, which I watched in a feverish haze last winter (I am again in a feverish haze and watching Kids in the Hall religiously). But I will definitely agree that the treatment of Liz is pretty reprehensible, and her character is deeply deeply flawed from a feminist POV.

    I will say that I adore the ladies of Doctor Who and I like the ladies of Parks and Recreation (Donna/Retta deserves her own freaking show, NBC GODS WORK ON THIS)… I’ve pretty much been converted to Brit-coms as of late as well.

    I love Spaced and Black Books and I think the humor and dynamic between male/female characters works well.  I started watching Pulling which is a sit-com based around female leads! (I need to watch more). I love Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia and the different hipster/liberal types parodied on that show. I also think Shameless (US) does a pretty good job of balancing drama and comedy while having really well-written female characters (I love Debs) as well as showing the working poor.

  2. I have seen maybe two, three episodes of this show? I’m not sure. Maybe I haven’t even seen a full episode yet. Every damn character annoyed the crap out of me. It just wasn’t funny. I like good simple humor, classic jokes or slapstick (god, I love slapstick) but so many jokes seemed to be made at the expense of others or at the cost of putting someone down. It just makes me angry. Even now I can’t shake the angry brow face.

    The one thing I could relate to? Love of sandwiches. That is a universal truth.

    You know what’s really funny? Tim Curry saying “I feel like I’ve been incarcerated by a BLUE BERRY!” God, comic gold. Good job, Psych.

    1. I had the same experience with 30 Rock. That blond lady’s character and Tracy Morgan’s character annoyed me especially, and everyone seemed mean.

      I’m only a recent convert to Parks and Rec (I generally prefer standard geek fare), and I think the reason I love it is it has this really generous spirit. All of the characters are a little quirky in their own way, I kind of love them all, and they seem to care about each other, too. I think it’s harder to write a funny show like that, and it’s impressive.

      I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here, but I looove Leslie Knope’s character. She can be very bossy. She can be a total dope. And she works really hard and is an optimist and does great things for people. She’s very flawed and funny and so admirable at the same time.

  3. I can’t watch this show.  I can’t watch people humiliate themselves.  And that’s all I’ve seen Liz Lemon do.  I get embarrassed for people and it makes me so uncomfortable I don’t enjoy the show.  Also, it leads me to believe there are a lot of people just outright laughing AT her.  Which makes me feel worse.

    I don’t think we need more of that.

    1. not only do people just humiliate themselves, but the characters are all mean to each other.  i dig sarcasm, especially when it’s done well…but the dialog  in this show goes beyond good, sarcastic humor. it becomes a cast of people shitting on each other every episode.

  4. I was always more confused by Liz’s relationship with Jenna. That she’s her only female friend, but they don’t seem to have any ‘friendship’ to speak of. I’m glad the show finally addressed and explained their relationship dynamics in a recent episode, because their friendship made so little sense before that I would find it distracting.

    The most obnoxious part of the show is definitely the casual racism, though. When did the joke stop being on the ignorant white woman and her racial insensitivity and just start being Slumdog Millionaire references directed at Jack’s Indian assistant?

  5. I personally love this show. I can see the points made, and I do agree that they’ve been falling back on using the same plot lines (ex. Liz’s, like, three ex-boyfriends pop up SO many times in the series); but all of the intricate humour and the small jokes and word play is what I love about it. Plus, especially in the first few seasons, it was just such a strange show with weird, quirky humour that I really enjoyed. And much of the show is in fact feminist leaning, though it probably doesn’t rectify its faults for those who don’t enjoy the show so much.

  6. I think any main-character-ridiculing comedy which puts a woman in the driving seat is going to find it really difficult to be a pro-active feminist show. By that I mean the whole Family Guy/Simpsons/Office stratum of comedies in which the protagonist is supposed to be ridiculous/laughable, and where the majority of that humour derives from finding said protagonist stupid. To be blunt, I think a lot of comedies miss the great centre of those kinds of shows; the profound sympathy you can have with a character who means well. I think it’s something Parks and Rec did really well (but less so recently imho) with Leslie, and it’s something the Simpsons used to hit on quite a bit with the whole family (who are all blinkered and imperfect in their own ways). I also see it in a lot of British comedy; Miranda, 2point4children (oldie, classic) and Vicar of Dibley come to mind. With all of those shows, the comedy derives from the quirks of the protagonist, but that protagonist doesn’t need to be belittled for that to happen.

    I actually think that happens with SOUTH PARK of all shows as well; as much as the show is all about getting a laugh at the expense of everyone, and as much as the main characters are insulted and disparaged, you’re always kept squarely rooting for them (including, bizarrely, when Cartman is doing something reprehensible). But uniquely and irritatingly, it seems that female protagonists are ripe for complete humiliation; take the attitude of Pam towards Michael on US Office; even though she thinks he’s ridiculous and incompetent, she’s always willing to help cheer him up and be there for him. Liz Lemon is laughed at and dismissed, routinely, and more than that – she’s patronised.

    I have to say, it’s something I notice a lot in US comedy – idealistic, politically active or intellectual characters, especially women, are always brought crashing down or humiliated or made to look stupid, regardless of whether they’re actually right or not. I’m reminded of Penny, from the Big Bang Theory, who was the bad guy for voicing (albeit harshly) her discomfort at Howard’s constant sexually explicit come-ons. Me and my sister, who normally love BBT, stared open-mouthed throughout that whole episode, shouting “BUT SHE’S RIGHT WTF” at the screen.

    I’d contrast that with the Donna Nobles (most important woman in the Universe, as well as very often providing a massive jot of common sense to the proceedings) , the Kellys (from Misfits, SHE’S A FOOKIN ROCKET SCIENTIST), the Martha Jones’ (badass bamf doctor ANYWAY who rejects the Doctor because he doesn’t value her and then goes off and is bamf by herself without his help), the entire hilarious female cast of Green Wing…the list just goes on and on. I don’t like to make sweeping statements about media, but I will say this; I see a lot more examples of female characters who exist on their own terms as strong, independent and valued characters in British TV than I do in American TV.

    And I have to ask…do any of you get a slightly sick feeling in your stomach when yet another intelligent female character is brought low for no reason?


      1. I adore Kelly. My friends all think I’m mad but I think Lauren Socha is beautiful, especially when she’s in motion. There’s something about her features which is just amazing, I can never work out what – it’s in the way she uses her mouth when she speaks, the way she acts/moves. It’s part of why I love Kelly.

          1. Am I the only one who wasn’t really bothered when Nathan left? I was like “I like Nathan, but the other characters are totally strong enough to carry it”. I love the sex-swapping power, the episode where he properly understands life from a woman’s perspective is such a simple way of expressing feminist ideas. I just loved it.


    1. The Miranda comparison has really got my brain juices going, actually, because it’s a very interesting one (I totally love Miranda and I don’t care if it’s not cool or postmodern – it’s old school hilarious and Miranda is such a sympathetic protagonist). I disagree with you slightly in the sense that I think Miranda’s comedy is totally based on humiliation through physical comedy – the necklace stuck in the sushi conveyor, the dress pulled off by the taxi, singing in the job interview, countless pratfalls, etc – but there’s something much more good-hearted about it for some reason. Something about the way her character is presented suggests that when Miranda stays home to draw faces on fruit it’s because she genuinely gets a kick out of it and is having an awesome time by herself, not because she’s sad and lonely.

      I also *love* the way the romantic stuff is done on Miranda with her friend – Gary, is it? I’m going to say Gary. Anyhoo, apparently the show got some flack for suggesting that there could be legitimate romantic tension between Miranda and Gary because he’s so conventionally attractive. Her response was that there are so many sitcoms in which we’re expected to believe that gorgeous women are attracted to shlubby guys, so why is it so unrealistic to pair the adorable but not Hollywood-sexy Miranda with a really attractive dude? I thought that was just fantastic.

      1. I’d draw parallels with South Park for that, really; you can humiliate a main character without tearing them down. I think in some sense it’s quite difficult to analyse, but you can just tell when the intent isn’t to make Miranda seem “wrong”; she’s always firmly sympathetic and she’s always like an old friend. Whereas Liz Lemon is supposed to be wrong and she’s stupid and you’re laughing at her.

        I suppose with Miranda and South Park, you’re laughing with them, whereas Liz Lemon you’re supposed to laugh at. And that’s fundamentally what bothers me.

        Also, fuck yes on the romance. I love that she gets to have real romance with Gary. It’s lovely. Have you ever seen 2point4 children? It’s basically the progenitor for a lot of modern sitcoms, with a hilarious female protagonist. The show seems cliche now, but it was actually the first to do a lot of the “cliches” that were later copied.

  7. My problem with Liz Lemon — as someone who watched most/all of season one? I think? — was that to watching her get mocked and tormented and berated made me feel complicit in her misery. And abetting cruelty toward someone you sympathize with is not a pleasant way to spend an evening on the couch.

  8. “I get it. Without all of this, there wouldn’t be much of a show. Although, that’s where I think the problem stands.”  Well that’s exactly right, isn’t it? It really isn’t much of a show. I tried to get into this show, but I never could. Other than the page, (Kevin? I think?) none of the characters are actually likeable, and Liz is the worst of them.  I’m sure many will disagree with me, given the popularity of the show. But it just doesn’t seem to give its audience any credit.

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