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Guest Post: Whither the Feminist Comedy Fan? by Emilie Spiegel

by Melissa Silverstein
March 1, 2011 5:05 AM
4 Comments
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Last week’s 30 Rock raised a lot of questions about the messy and complicated relationship between feminism and comedy. As Rebecca Traister at Salon notes, it’s laudable to see a major network show even take on this issue—and Traister does a thorough job of wading through some of the recent sticking points in a debate that I’m sure has existed on some level since before Lucille Ball.

I’m not too interested in framing this critique in light of the recent Daily Show-Jezebel-Olivia Munn morass, (not least of which because I think Munn is at least as funny as some less problemmatic female comedians--Aubrey Plaza, Ellie Kempner—both of whom are also hot.) Rather, I’d like to look really closely for a moment at Liz Lemon as an avatar of “second-wave” feminism, and examine some ways in which it seems like Tina Fey embraces and distances her character from the prototypical feminist within the same broad (pun-intended) strokes.

Fey’s portrayal of Liz Lemon as the archetypal “abject single woman” seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Fey goes to far comic extremes in order to make us believe a woman as attractive and witty as Liz would have such trouble meeting a viable man; she pushes the archetype beyond its Bridget Jones’ limits and creates a truly comedic exaggeration of the single 40-something. Employing such gross exaggeration like Liz eating dinner in front of the mirror to stave off loneliness and menstruating for 61 straight days, could underscore the ubiquity of the abject single woman in the public’s imagination, and in doing so, hopefully force a de-naturalization of the idea that a woman without a man is stuck in a sad state of arrested development.

The flip side (and indeed, the dangerous potential) of Fey’s farce is that it might be taken at face value. Are we laughing at Liz Lemon because we know it’s absurd that a successful, educated woman would be so demoralized? Or are we laughing because sad, lonely women have become funny to us?

Though I suspect Fey’s intentions skew towards the former, she must realize even her best intentions in authorship can’t control the messaging upon the audience receives—and therefore has got to be attendant to those who are laughing at Liz, rather than at the absurd social forces that inform her singlehood. I think last week’s episode can be read as evidence of Fey’s own struggle to establish a position within this debate. She positions Liz as the moralizing second-wave feminist who seeks to “correct” the misbegotten agency that comic Abby Flynn finds in making herself into a blonde, infantilized sex object. Forcing Abby to confront her true identity as a smart, wry, (brunette!) standup, Liz’s inadvertently reveals Abby’s whereabouts to her psychotic ex, putting Abby’s safety in danger and prompting Abby’s exit line “Liz Lemon hates women!”

Pitting Liz’s more PC-feminism against Abby’s hyper-sexualized post-feminism raises many good questions, I only wish the writers could have found a more graceful means of resolving the episode’s arch without obscuring its message of feminist inquiry. As the Liz-Abby storyline closes, Liz turns out to be in the wrong, and the plot’s moral logic posits Abby’s adoption of the sex kitten persona as an empowering choice for her own safety.

So those are our options? Be a shrill busybody who ends up alienating her fellow women, or play into male sexual fantasies, but do it on your terms? Bleak.

Cultural theorist, Angela McRobbie writes about the schism she observes between old-guard feminists and young women who are interested in conversations about gender equality, yet “vehemently” denounce the feminist label. It’s somehow no longer “cool” to be a feminist—a girl’s got to prove she’s in on the boys’ joke in order to preserve her social capital, because “feminist” has become, in some circles, synonymous with sanctimonious and self-serious. In last week’s episode, Liz Lemon fell squarely (pun-intended) on the misguidedly earnest feminist side—she had to in order to provide a comic counterpoint to Abby Flynn’s exaggerated embrace of male-pleasing humor. I know that as women we can be thoughtful without being preachy and funny without kowtowing to “ironic” sexism. I believe we can’t let the word “feminist” get taken away from us and turned into something we have to answer for. The word should always exist to empower women, not force them onto the defensive.
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Emilie Spiegel is a grad student, studying the effects of Media Cultures on young women. She lives in Brooklyn.

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4 Comments

  • James | March 2, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    This is a really great piece on feminist conundrums that come up when evaluating Liz Lemon's character:

    http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/03/24/13-ways-of-looking-at-liz-lemon/

  • Susan | March 1, 2011 7:08 AMReply

    There's a difference between sexy girls delivering jokes and dead-on comic timing by someone sexy. Gracie Allen could make you laugh with "Oh." Having run Broad Humor, a film festival of comedic films by women for over 5 years now, I can say that as a culture we are all missing out when so few women have a platform for their humorous take on life.

    Let us use this salvo by Tina Fey to keep talking about this issue and make some progress here. I say more about this in my blog: broadhumor.blogspot.com.

  • Maxwell Tremblay | March 1, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    The assumption that one could ever give a "full" account of the meaningfulness of a text is PRECISELY what most gender and media theory is meant to undermine. Indeed, this ambivalence – our inability to ever give an exhaustive account of the meaning of a text – forms one of the fundamental operating principles of Ms. Spiegel's argument. To sigh about the (imaginary) pretensions of the "humanities" seems, to these ears, to treat the core feminist point of the piece a bit too dismissively.

  • frank simbal | March 1, 2011 6:01 AMReply

    Thank you for a very insightful criticism of this episode.

    I am worried however about the seemingly taken-at-face-value assumption so prevalent in gender and media studies that we can fully, meaningfully examine the relationship between images of lifestyles, role models and gender identity and their "effects." If we watch a female character, just what do we (the viewership) actually take away from it? We can, as shown in this article, provide a very insightful and critical evaluation of a plot or character, but we will never know how meaningful this evaluation is. Ah, humanities.

    Sorry, this is taking the debate a bit too far away from this specific show or episode. My bad.

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