Liz Lemon: Feminist Icon (Havin’ it All)

I got to thinking about female television characters after reading Broadsheet’s commentary, “Carrie Bradshaw: Feminist Icon?” I recommend giving it a read whenever you get the chance, but basically: Writer Tracy Clark-Flory debates whether or not the character of Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City (played by Sarah Jessica Parker, of course) can be considered a role model for modern-day women.

And then it occurred to me…Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey, of course) of 30 Rock has to be, truly, one of the best female icons on television right now.

Essentially, Liz Lemon is a lot like Tina Fey (except “more of a loser,” as Fey herself once said.) But they seem to represent the same concepts and ideas, and the similarities are obvious when comparing Lemon and Fey’s careers and histories. (For instance, Fey started out in improv in Chicago, and this is often mentioned on 30 Rock in regards to Lemon’s past.)

There are oh so many reasons why us women looooove Liz Lemon. She strives and struggles to “have it all!” as a creative writer, business woman, single woman on the New York dating scene, and a sometimes “clock-a-tickin'” wannabe mother. While jokes are made about Lemon attempting to “have it all,” she fairs pretty well, while also pointing out to us – comically – the hardships of a successful urban woman having to date, maintain friendships, and be respected as a boss and a professional.

Women say they can relate to Lemon because they “eat like her,” or are “dorky” like she is. Or they get nervous around men like she frequently does. We can relate to her. We see her at home, not made-up, hair a mess and lounging around in un-sexy sweats eating blocks of cheese late in the night. In fact, she’s a welcome relief with her eating habits. Because unlike the Sex and the City women, you’ll never find her ordering a salad. (But instead: a meatball sub.)

Liz Lemon may be what we call an “accidental hero”: She never really set out to become a positive role model for women, but she’s become one anyway. And she’s my personal pick for the feminist icon of the small screen. Hell, maybe even beating out anyone on the big screen at this rate.

She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s independent. She’s not perfect. And she’s like us. What more could you ask for in a fictional feminist icon?


23 thoughts on “Liz Lemon: Feminist Icon (Havin’ it All)

    • Thanks for reading! I’ve already been asked this question and I’ve been thinking, but having a hard time coming up with a male icon…Maybe it’d make for a good poll one day! I’ll keep thinking. (The problem with it is, while all men need good icons in the media as well, there’s so many men dominating the media that it’s hard to pick just one!)

  1. I think Liz is more of a conflicted feminist icon, but not necessarily an outright feminist icon. They always use a lot of Liz’s personal indulgences to comic effect. Like, wanting to eat all of the time, finding pleasure in it, makes her seem as though there is something “wrong” or “off” about her, or that her personal habits are a reason why she is “unhappy” and “alone” (a narrative that underlines most plot arcs concerning Liz’s personal life).

    They are stepping more away from that this season. I think the best example of this was the episode where they were going to begin shooting “Dealbreakers” and Liz changed her hair, got eye surgery, and had something of a breakdown. In so many past seasons, Liz was reluctant to change based on what Jack told her but finally “learned” the error of her ways, and that she’s not always right. This episode in particular was a step away from that, where Liz distrusted her own judgment so completely that it ultimately undermined her show. They hyped up the “Dealbreakers” thing for so long and then all of a sudden it just wasn’t going to happen anymore. It didn’t even matter that Liz eventually got over it because it was too late. It was when truly didn’t assert herself, her power, and her agency that she ultimately was burned.

  2. Interesting. I never really thought about the food thing.

    I’m back and forth on the idea of her as a feminist icon though. (Likewise with Carrie.) I’ve actually been thinking about Liz a lot this season because she seems kind of reduced to even more of a loser than in previous seasons and I just keep asking: Why? She can be a punching bag, but does she have to be a dead horse?

    Part of what I have never understood about the character is she has an amazing job but can’t seem to find any contentment with that. (And this season had the whole “I can’t think of creative gifts even though I come up with sketch comedy for a living!” that just seemed to make her more of an idiot when she’s not.) She does have to “have it all” and that seems like not only a cliche (against women), but also jarring at times. (See: Wanting a baby coming and going like a whim.) She’s also not as “boy crazy” as the women of SatC, but she is in her own way. Her version of the working woman stereotype doesn’t seem to be wholly positive, even if it’s accurate.

    I think the problem of just showing “what is [accurate]” is that sometimes it doesn’t create any productive dialog about what could (/should) be. Part of what I do like about 30 Rock is how it provokes thought with mindless and subversive humor. (Why do “we” think black men are going to act like Tracey? Why is it that we’ve created a business culture that produces men like Jack? How can these people not know how awful ____ is? Etc.) I’m not always convinced it does this effectively with Liz though. With Liz, I wonder if the audiences writes her off as a moron because she’s never given enough credit or any kind of validating reward for who she is with the exception of people falling in line behind her (often through their own stupidity or Jack’s hand, not respect for Liz). She is dopey and unwaveringly awkward. She’s stubborn (“He’ll love me for me!”-attitude) in a way that I think women get stereotyped negatively. She provokes a kind of: “Damnit Liz! Just try!” response with each failed attempt to romance someone and a lot of times her fortune just seems like luck. In the context of the show, it’s true and funny, but it still feels a bit sexist when you think it.

    I think “Iconic female” and “role model” and “accurate representation” and “feminist” all seem to get kind of swirled together. I think of “feminist” as something very progressive and Liz isn’t always that. (Mary Tyler Moore’s “Mary Richards” and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s “Buffy” still taking the cake.) But. I can appreciate the fact the show handles Liz as a “real” woman, which is a kind of feminist act in and of itself. What is progressively feminist about her, I also admire. She is free from glamazon expectations. She is free to be her awkward self (and change or not change and still be the lovable heart of the show). And at times, she does provoke you into wondering why she can’t have it all.

    • Liz Lemon is all the feminist she can be on a comedy series like 30 Rock. If she was always offended and constantly scholarly about her feminist ideas, it wouldn’t fit the humor of the show. Which is why she’s not an “outright” feminist, but rather, a relatable and accessible one. Which is why women seem to love her so much. She fights for women in her own little ways, but she’s not a textbook feminist. Or Buffy.

      • Well… Buffy had comedic elements. But that wasn’t the point of me mentioning her or Mary Richards. They’re both just two examples of how female TV characters can be relatable and progressive simultaneously.

        I don’t expect Liz to lecture, but I do see her more as a vehicle that draws attention to sexism than as something that stands up to it. People may osmotically deduce “Oh why should Liz have to pick between a kid and a work?” but I think there’s a great deal of other experience the character has had that undercuts her as a woman. I think she’s has qualities that accurately represent issues related to feminism and some of those qualities are progressively feminist, while others just run the character through conflict.

        But I guess that just gets into semantics.

        • Well, it’s alllllllll just my opinion. And yes, I’d rather not get into semantics, or keep disputing the validity of Liz Lemon’s feminism because we obviously disagree. It was all just my observation and this post was written to appreciate the character.

          • It’s not that I “don’t” think she has feminist components (which I thought I’d pointed out in my first post) or that I don’t appreciate the character (which I also thought I did pointing out she’s smart and real but undercut). I was just bringing up another side of the character I’ve seen more often as the show progresses.

            • “I was just bringing up another side of the character I’ve seen more often as the show progresses.”

              I understand that. It just seemed like a really roundabout way of getting there to the point where I wasn’t even sure what we were debating anymore, lol.

  3. “They’re both just two examples of how female TV characters can be relatable and progressive simultaneously.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Buffy slay vampires? How does that relate to feminism and the modern woman?

    But it sure is progressive!

    • I think Buffy’s feminism stemmed less from the fact that she slayed vampires and more from the writer’s asserting her character as a powerful and equal human being. Buffy was this blonde, petite cheerleader but she subverted the classic horror film stereotype by also kicking ass. She was not a passive female but a strong and powerful one.

      She also had to fight to be considered equal, and constantly went back and forth about conforming to “traditional” ideas about what it means to be a woman (especially when she dated that douche Riley) and what ultimately makes her happy and gives her a sense of purpose in life.

      The show is very complex, one of the best of all time IMO, but it usually takes people a while to get past the “horror” angle (which is unfortunate because the horror genre, like sci-fi, is almost always a means of addressing contemporary social issues through fantastical worlds), or even the character’s name.

      • I probably could retort better than that, but unlike some people, I didn’t spend my entire day responding to a single blog post.

  4. Colleen, I really love this post. I think it encapsulates a new sort of “Awakening”. (I usually never reference Kate Chopin, but hell, we all need some more eleventh-grade English class, don’t we?) I think what I get out of your post is that art and culture showcasing the “modern” woman is still discussing how women are – well – stuck. It is often about our restrictions, like the inability to “have it all”, whatever that means. I always saw The Awakening as a book about being stuck – and I see it in contemporary works as well (Revolutionary Road being chiefly among them). But 30 Rock has something both of those can’t really do – it has the ability to mold and change. I guess much relies on what happens in Liz Lemon’s life – whether she willingly brings them on, or lets things happen to her.

    And also, I’m glad women watch Liz Lemon. She’s clearly not a role model, but she’s identifiable and relatable, if only in small details.

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