Liz Lemon: A Stereotype Done Right

| October 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

As a lover of TV comedy, I have intensely mixed feelings about stereotypes. Stereotypes, especially when applied to race or gender, can be incredibly damaging and used to justify terrible discrimination. At the same time, however, they have a well-worn place in the comedy world. This has certainly not always been a proud place; history has given us some truly awful portrayals of minorities and women. In spite of this, I still believe that there is a way to do stereotypes on television right.

Recently, I have been re-watching 30 Rock on Netflix. There are few TV characters I love more than Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character on the show. Liz Lemon is so stereotypical, and at the same time so…not. The more I watch, the more I realize that Liz is a perfect example of the right way to use a stereotype.

Liz is an unmarried woman of around 40, and in many ways she possesses the stereotypes typically applied to a person like her. She talks all the time about “having it all.” She is the creator and head writer of her own show, which keeps her too busy to sustain a relationship or have children. She still, however, desperately wants kids, thus the concern with “having it all.” She is also decidedly unladylike. She is unafraid to tell her team she’s the boss, and is often regarded as shrewish and simply no fun by them. She loves food and Star Wars, has some sort of terrible foot affliction that is never specified, can’t flirt, and hates talking about sex. She is generally pessimistic and judgmental, and on the rare occasions she goes out, she can always be found in a Barnes and Noble bathroom.

All of this makes her sound like the classic old maid, the unmarried shrew who is only unmarried because she is undatable. As you watch, however, Tina Fey’s portrayal of Liz takes back the power of these stereotypes. Liz wants children, yes, but it is because she wants them, not because as a woman she feels unfulfilled without a family. In fact, she doesn’t care much at all about the family part. She likes her life and genuinely does not care if she ever gets married. In addition, while her mostly male staff and coworkers are annoyed by her seriousness and refusal to cede control, they ultimately respect her for it. Liz never gives in in order to appear more feminine or less bossy. In her friendship with Jack Donaghy, she constantly holds her own against her rich white male boss, no matter how many times he makes fun of her shoes.

The most significant thing Liz does, however, is subtly reclaim her femininity throughout the series. If Liz possessed all of these positive qualities but still remained firmly unfeminine and unattractive, the use of stereotypes in her character would still be pretty typical.  It is important to note that Liz is single because she prioritizes her career above dating and has had bad taste in men in the past, not because she is unfeminine or undateable. When Liz meets someone she genuinely connects with, she opens up to the possibility of a serious relationship, and the feelings are reciprocated by the men. She owns her femininity and attractiveness in her own right. While she is not about to wear heels every day or stop eating cheese at midnight, men are attracted to her sense of humor and intelligence. Above all else, the men in Liz’s life accept and love her personality, stereotypes and all. They never ask her to change to become more traditionally feminine. What becomes important is not that the audience finds Liz attractive, but that Liz and Liz’s boyfriend find Liz attractive.

I suppose all of this is really just a roundabout way of saying that Tina Fey is my idol. Her use of stereotypes in writing Liz Lemon is a feat that all established and aspiring writers, including me, can learn from. People like Tina who write characters like Liz are the reason I believe there is a right way to use stereotypes in comedy without outright contradicting them in a way the audience could find preachy.  I aspire to write characters one day that meet the standard she has set with Liz.


Featured Image Credit: Daniel P. Fleming “Tina Fey” via photopin (license)

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Samantha Troll

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