I think I’m going to break up with 30 Rock. It may be putting the “fey” in “Tina Fey” to me-a (however feminist) male-to devote a blog entry to lecturing the writer/actor/comic about feminism, but the show’s increasingly inelegant reliance on Tina Fey’s “frowsy feminist” character is making me want to get a divorce and marry someone younger, like all us males do.
I am most fed up with Fey’s obsession with mining her own “unattractiveness” for humor. She goes out of her way to find humor in mismatched nipples, mustaches, bad eating habits, and not showering. At first, this desire to bring a less polished female into the mainstream was funny, refreshing, and needed. But it should not be three out of every five punchlines.
The underlying weakness in this joke is that Mrs. Fey is a trim and attractive woman by almost all standards. What are we really laughing at when she puts her un-photoshopped but still beautiful lack of perfections up for mockery? What does that say to other mothers who–at forty–do not have her figure? Her desire to flaunt less than perfect bodies in a mainstream medium is an admirable angle, but the focus on her body is still a negative one, and after the thousandth feigned look of disgust from her fellow actors (see episode 13 of season , “¡Que Sorpresa!”) when they see a slight tummy and an unsexy bra, I find her “OMG-im-so-ugly” to be more of an eye-roller.
It is a problem of dosage: there is confidence in the occasional joke about body hair, but too many of these jokes betrays an hypercritical insecurity about the female body that is only a slight variation on the high school girl saying how fat she is so that others can assure her otherwise. It is a questioning of what defines “attractiveness” or female worth that-while cleverly done-is premised on a negative view of the body.
I hold Tina Fey to a higher standard too, because of how she has approached her career and 30 Rock on the whole. She has done great things in emphasizing and mocking sexism and traditional gender roles within the sublimely self-conscious T.V. and film industry. The writing of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghey and Tina Fey’s friendship, especially Liz Lemon’s ability to shrug off and ignore Donaghey’s own focus on being the super-male to maintain there friendship, is redeemingly sweet. Tina Fey is someone who thinks very hard about exploring the role of the female in this world, and seems to consider discussing and complicating gender roles as a core part of her work. For this reason, I single her out for criticism.
30 Rock is now five seasons in, and like any sitcom, may be nearing the point of “jumping the shark”, or dare I say, “putting too much make up on the feminist”. The approach of the show to Fey’s looks and her role, once original, is now quite tired.
The latest episode, “TGS Hates women”, puts up two weak options for women. Cristin Milioti guest stars as a hyper-sexed female writer hired by the Girly Show to quash an accusation by a feminist blog that “The Girly Show” hates women (presumably for too many period cramp jokes). This Abby Flynn minces through the episode with a baby talk voice and an outfit right out of a horny anime fan’s fevered daydreams. Liz Lemon, being the frowsy feminist she is, seeks a way to get her new writer to tone down the careful catering to cheap male fantasy. The episode ends when Liz finds a clip of Abby Flynn before she was Abby Flynn and posts it online, leading to the final punchline that the only reason Abby Flynn was acting that way is to disguise herself from a murderous ex-husband and to keep males around her at all times for safety.
The episode has a few honest moments in exploring the question of whether or not feminism can legitimately encompass being an empowered sex object a la Abby Flynn. At one point, Liz Lemon points out that Abby is representing both Lemon’s gender and Lemon herself. This is probably the sharpest point in the show, belying a frustration that women constantly have to be on guard and carefully diplomatic in their role as women ambassadors to a male-dominated world.
In the end, however, 22 minutes proves too short a time for a full exploration of this conflict between two very different versions of feminisms fighting for a small but much-coveted spot representing their gender. Abby Flynn’s character conclusion is decidedly anti-feminist–she is a victim acting this way only to keep male protection around her. Liz Lemon’s character is fulfilling a role as a self-destructive feminist who spends her time tearing down other women. It is implying that she is a silly reactionary for being so defensive of her position representing women, and mocks the fact that she feels conflicted about the role.
Within the world of the show, Lemon was not wrong in disliking Abby Flynn’s self-infantilization, and Fey should not be so quick to mock her character’s defensiveness. She has a right to hold forth on what feminism is and demand that other women think consciously about gender roles. Feminism in the United States-given how successful women have been in recent years-is a complicated issue. It is not as black-and-white as the two options provided in this week’s episode, there is a wide, confusing range between “sex-crazed minx desperately seeks male protection, and ugly feminist hates other women”.
Of course, Tina Fey also has a right to mock feminism, and often does so with a appreciatedly sharp but respectful wit. I still think Fey has done great things for muddling the lines of gender roles and feminism throughout her career. At the same time, I think 30 Rock‘s heavy trading on the currency of Tina Fey’s “frowsy feminist” character is getting old. It is no longer original, and to make it funny, the writers have to reach further and further, living in an alternate reality where Tina Fey is a hideous, hyper-sensitive harpy. Feminism, like most movements seeking to empower those who got the short end of the societal stick, is a complicated movement, and it is growing increasingly frustrating to see the writers of 30 Rock cash in on cheap, feminist jokes.