How Did Tina Fey Change Television?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 30 2013 5:44 AM

The Liz Lemon Effect

Did Tina Fey change anything for women on TV?

Actress Tina Fey attends the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Tina Fey at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 27, 2013, in Los Angeles

Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

As the final episode of 30 Rock approaches and America prepares to bid its harried, comedy-star-herding heroine a last blerg-bye, Liz Lemon is already being celebrated by the media as one of the more memorable female characters in the history of television. Tributes are being paid. Lists of her memorable quotes have been assembled. Her image recently appeared in the supporting Lois Lane role on the cover of Rolling Stone, prompting outraged blog posts because—hello?—Liz Lemon, not Jack Donaghy, is our Superman.

None of this is surprising. While the audience for 30 Rock was never massive, among many, affection for the show and Liz Lemon has always run deep. From the moment Lemon first appeared in the 2006 30 Rock pilot, bought every hot dog from a street vendor’s stand to shut up a rude New York businessman, then gave away those wieners to the tune of a song reminiscent of the theme from That Girl, we have expected Liz Lemon and Tina Fey, the show’s creator and Lemon’s real-life alter ego, to usher in a fresh, fruitful era for funny ladies on television.

By “we,” yes, I refer to the rabble of professional writers who get paid to fill the Internet’s tubes with insightful commentary about pop culture and/or women’s issues, a group that has cranked out a lot of think pieces about Liz Lemon and Tina Fey over the years. But I also mean ladies more generally, particularly those most likely to view Fey as their official nerd and savior: sarcastic Gen Xers, third-wave feminist alumni of Ivy Leagueish universities, and anyone who considers consuming night cheese while wearing a Slanket the makings of a rock-solid Saturday evening.

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If our Tina—first female head writer for Saturday Night Live and the stinging satirist behind the movie Mean Girls—could be put in charge of her own show about a woman who’s also in charge of her own show, then surely this would lead to a TV landscape in which, to borrow the title of Fey’s book, a lot of ladies would soon be walking across our LED screens wearing bossypants. At least that was the hope. Now, with all 138 30 Rock episodes in the can and just that one final send-off left to air, this seems like a good time to ask: Did the existence of Liz Lemon actually change anything for women on television?

Fey’s 30 Rock success—and let’s define success here by the show’s longevity, quality, and accolades, not its often pitiful ratings—just so happened to occur on the front end of what has been a very encouraging time for women working in the industry. More high-profile comedies—from Girls to The Big C to Enlightened to The New Girl and The Mindy Project, which serve as anchors for Fox’s Tuesday night comedy block—are being created or co-created by women and placing dynamic, dysfunctional, and funny female characters at the center of their narratives. Shows that weren’t necessarily invented by women—Parks and Recreation and Veep—also have generated buzz while casting woman as central figures in powerful positions. Are Tina Fey and/or Liz Lemon responsible for this? Maybe not directly. But many of the women riding this wave, like Kaling and Fey’s friend and partner in Golden Globes-hosting genius Amy Poehler, would likely cite Fey’s simultaneously self-deprecating and cutting sensibility—both on 30 Rock and in her previous work—as an inspiration for their own.

In fact, during a 2012 Television Critics Association panel, Eileen Heisler, one of the two female showrunners of ABC’s The Middle and a former producer for Murphy Brown, attributed TV’s lady renaissance in part to Fey. “I think Tina Fey—and us—poked a little hole that allowed for this [proliferation of women in television],” she said, according to Deadline. As we all learned during this year’s Golden Globes, it was watching Tina Fey, among others, that helped a young Lena Dunham make it through middle school. That has to count for something.

But if we learned anything from 30 Rock—aside from the fact that it’s possible to get away with putting both Jane Krakowski and Jon Hamm in black face when done in the proper comedic context—it’s that the TV business is liberally peppered with “dummies,” as Lemon would call them. Some are actual dummies, while others may be legitimately intelligent individuals, like Jack Donaghy, who nevertheless fill their network’s programming lineup with shows that cater to dummies (MILF Island). What is great and smart does not always survive, and with every flicker of progress for TV gender equality comes a setback, like the recent cancellations of Fox’s Ben and Kate and ABC’s Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, both of which were created by women.

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