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.

Even though more opportunities for women now exist, TV comedy, like TV in general, still remains an unquestionably male-dominated field. Modern Family has been the Emmy-anointed Best Comedy on television for three years running, but only one of the 12 producers credited with last year’s victory is a woman. Fewer than half of the members of the writing staff of The Big Bang Theory are Pennys as opposed to Sheldons. According to IMDB, in the 20-plus years that The Simpsons has been on the air, only seven of its 71 episode-writing credits belong to women. Even the 30 Rock writing staff skews male but, to its credit, just barely: According to NBC, five of its 12 current writers are women.

The story of the show within the 30 Rock show reflects this reality in its usual hyperbolically humorous terms. Just look at Liz Lemon’s arc: She started out running a sketch-comedy series called The Girlie Show, which was defeminized to become TGS with Tracy Jordan and, finally, in a recent act of corporate-sponsored desperation designed to save the show from cancellation, turned into Bro Body Douche Presents the Man Cave, with Liz Lemon’s name in the credits changed to Todd Debeikis. The subtext: Sure, there’s a lot more lady business on TV these days. But ultimately, the place is still Bro-Town.

Which brings us to what may be the most important lesson and legacy of 30 Rock, at least for those looking at it as a guidepost for women in the entertainment field: the relationship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. Much has been said about the fact that Fey and her writers smartly opted to avoid a romance for their two foils, even though there were occasional zaps of sexual energy between them. Others—most notably Linda Holmes at NPR—lamented the degree to which Lemon eventually turned into a completely inept pseudochild who couldn’t function without approval from Daddy Donaghy. That piece and others expressing frustration with the state of Liz Lemonism circa the latter seasons of 30 Rock prompted Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker to leap to the defense of both Lemon and her relationship with her superior. “Liz needed Jack because her life was a mess, but their rapport wasn’t primarily based around gender: it was about the cocky powerful suits versus the smug weakling creatives, although this satire was done (for once) with a woman at the center,” she wrote.

“[Lemon] lost most battles from the start,” Nussbaum added, “because that’s the nature of network TV: compromise, compromise, compromise.”

In other words, their relationship was complicated for reasons that weren’t consistently related to gender. Jack Donaghy wasn’t always supportive of Lemon’s vision—not even close. He’s the guy, after all, responsible for taking the Girlie out of the Show. But he also, in his way, was an advocate for her, someone who forced her to see her own flaws, both personal and professional, and try to push past them, or at least examine them and reach her own conclusions about how to address them.

Many of the shows we look forward to might not be on the air if some influential and smart men hadn’t championed them. Girls, perhaps, wouldn’t exist without the support of co-executive producer Judd Apatow. Mindy Kaling would certainly have a project, but her comedy could not function week-to-week without its showrunner, Matt Warburton. There would be no Enlightened sans Mike White. And Liz Lemon as we know and love her might never have existed without the support of Lorne Michaels. To borrow the most quoted of Liz Lemon catchphrases, we all want to go to there—there being a world in which there are no gender barriers at all. But until we get to there, we have to deal with the here. That’s what Liz Lemon attempted to do for seven seasons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and sometimes in extremely bizarre situations that involved David Schwimmer pretending to be a manic pro-environment mascot named Greenzo.

It may be too early to determine what the lasting legacy of Liz Lemon is, especially since it’s not quite clear, prefinale, how to interpret what appears to be Liz’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom to her newly adopted twins, Terry and Janet (aka Lil Tracy and Lil Jenna)—a decision that will undoubtedly start a whole new round of Lemonalysis in the blogosphere. But these words written by Fey herself in the aforementioned Bossypants sound at least partly right to me:  

My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question:  “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, forget it and move on … don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.

Jen Chaney, formerly the @Celebritology blogger for The @WashingtonPost, is the current Downton Abbey recapper for @Vulture and a professional pop culture junkie. Follow her @ChaneyJ. 

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