1 30 Rock: Ironic Feminism in Show Business

Margaret Murray

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) has made it big. She has her very own variety show on NBC, The Girlie Show. This show is her contribution to feminism – a variety show made “for women, starring women.” There is more to television, however, than meets the eye, and the big man upstairs, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Head of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming, at NBC, calls the shots for Liz’s dream show. Immediately, Jack strips The Girlie Show of all that it stands for, thus creating TGS with Tracy Jordan. This new show maintains only a skeleton of its former intention by including the now meaningless initials TGS. Not only is the name distorted, but the pro-woman meaning behind it has lost all effect through the inclusion of notoriously insensitive and prejudiced Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), a man no less. The Girlie Show is stopped in its tracks and reformed before even being given a chance to succeed.

This is the first instance of women not being taken seriously in show business within this sitcom, a theme that recurs continuously throughout its 138-episode run. Time and again, Tiny Fey, who is also head writer and executive producer of 30 Rock, references struggles as a woman in comedy during her real-life experience as a writer on Saturday Night Live. Through 30 Rock, Fey uses Liz as a parallel to her own trials and experiences in the ruthless world of show business, specifically in comedy, and brings attention to issues of which many people are ignorant, both intentionally and unintentionally, concerning feminism and the ideas that women in the workplace are treated with inferiority, oversexualized, and conditioned for maternity.

Much of the humor in 30 Rock lies in the quick and easily unnoticed one-liner comments within conversations. Many of these comments are derogatory toward women in the context of typical and blatantly incorrect stereotypes. This nonchalant insertion of inferiority is seen in a conversation between Liz and Jack in “The Collection”:

Jack: Lemon, I’m impressed. You’re beginning to think like a businessman.

Liz: Businesswoman.

Jack: I don’t think that’s a word.


Still from 30 Rock, “The Collection” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Still from 30 Rock, “The Collection” (Season 2, Episode 3)

Jack being the aggressively conservative traditional character makes him the greatest perpetrator against women. In “Plan B,” Jack states “TGS with Tracy Jordan without Tracy Jordan is an oxymoron, like ‘liberal government’ or ‘female scientist.’” Even when in reference to people he cares about, Jack is unable to avoid implications of female inferiority. When speaking about his Congresswoman girlfriend in “Secrets and Lies,” Jack comments “I like when a woman has ambition. It’s like seeing a dog wearing clothes.” Over and over Jack suggests that any ideas of women in power is either a silly joke or completely null.

Still from 30 Rock, “Secrets and Lies” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Still from 30 Rock, “Secrets and Lies” (Season 2, Episode 8)

Quips like this that are unnecessary to the plot are easily overlooked, but are, in fact, quite essential to the make-up of the show itself and the societal stance it takes in reference to treatment of women in more commonly masculine industries.

Fey has personally had to overcome many obstacles in her career due to her gender, but she has also done so in a way that has opened doors for other women to enter. Fey was the first female head writer for Saturday Night Live, which was a feat in its own right, but even more so because Saturday Night Live was historically sexist with many cast members and former writers being outspoken in their beliefs that women are not funny (Patterson). In addition, an episode of 30 Rock was dedicated to one of Fey’s firsthand experiences on Saturday Night Live. In “The C-Word,” Liz is in uproar after overhearing one of her inferiors call her the c-word, based on comedian Colin Quinn doing the same during her head writer stint on SNL (Blay). Bringing attention to the backlash and lack of support seen by women in comedy, Fey uses the inferiority forced upon women in a more general sense, as seen in her conversation with Jack about businesswomen, as well as specifically, as seen in her verbatim personal experience.

Inferiority is not only seen verbally, however. Over-sexualization of women and the mediocrity implied by it is a common occurrence in every work place. 30 Rock is no exception and in fact, slaps viewers in the face with its blatancy. The character of Cerie (Katrina Bowden) who is Liz Lemon’s assistant is the perfect example of an under-valued, over-sexualized woman in show business. Time and again, the male writers for TGS only acknowledge Cerie in reference to her body or her scandalous clothing. She is never seen as someone with substance or ability but only as a mere symbol for women’s lack of respect in the workplace.

“You guys want coffee?”
“You guys want coffee?”
“You guys want coffee?” Stills from 30 Rock, “Jack the Writer” (Season 1, Episode 4)
“You guys want coffee?”
Stills from 30 Rock, “Jack the Writer” (Season 1, Episode 4)

In “Jack the Writer,” Liz is forced to talk to Cerie about her clothing choices in the office and tells Cerie “You have to wear a bra to work if you want to be taken seriously in this business.” In the stereotypically idiotic, blonde-woman fashion, Cerie responds by explaining she doesn’t need to be taken seriously because she intends to “marry rich and design handbags.” Later on in the episode, Liz confronts Cerie’s scandalous choices once again: “You need to dress like you have a job. And parents who raised you in some kind of shame-based, American, religious tradition.”

“Liz, I took your advice. I’m wearing a bra!” Still from 30 Rock, “Jack the Writer” (Season 1, Episode 4)
“Liz, I took your advice. I’m wearing a bra!”
Still from 30 Rock, “Jack the Writer” (Season 1, Episode 4)

As Liz casts societal judgement on Cerie for her wardrobe, Fey and the other writers of 30 Rock are simultaneously criticizing the two extremes women can fall into as scandalous or shameful, neither of which is seen positively. Fey herself witnessed this treatment of women as mere sexual tools and not as a function for comedy – or other careers, for that matter – when she was a writer for Saturday Night Live. In her book Bossypants, Fey describes a situation in which her female colleague Amy Poehler was telling a rather vulgar joke when Jimmy Fallon interrupted her “and in a faux-squeamish voice said, ‘Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it’” (Fey 177). There is, however, another place women can fall. Liz Lemon herself is seen in this masculine light as a consequence of third-wave feminism, which grants her the lack of sexualization but simultaneously takes away any femininity at all (Patterson). Fey uses Lemon to showcase the inability for women to find desirable middle ground in terms of treatment and perception.

The most significant overarching theme throughout the entirety of the series is the ticking time bomb of Liz’s childbearing years. The show makes it quite clear that there is a difference between Liz and Jack Donaghy (Liz’s older boss and mentor) beginning with gender. Liz spends almost seven full seasons trying to find a perfect partner with whom she can have kids, at one point even looking into adoption as a single mom to fulfill her maternal desires. On the other hand, Jack’s typical plotline is always business, never fatherhood. Even in the episodes in which he is a father, and even more so in the episodes in which he is a single father, Jack is rarely at home with his daughter and often forgets she exists. In “Plan B,” Jack’s family-centered boss Hank Hooper (Ken Howard) simply asks him how his baby is at a lunch meeting. Jack, being the businessman that he is, responds with “Baby…  Ah, yes! Baby: Black-Asian Bisexual Youths. Those are viewers we want, and TWINKS is gonna bring them in!” Though Hank was clearly talking about Jack’s daughter, Jack always puts business first and family second.

Still from 30 Rock, “Plan B” (Season 5, Episode 18)
Still from 30 Rock, “Plan B” (Season 5, Episode 18)

Similarly, in “When It Rains, It Pours,” Tracy Jordan, the lead male actor for TGS, tries and fails for the third time to be present for the birth of one of his children.

Still from 30 Rock, “When It Rains, It Pours” (Season 5, Episode 2)
Still from 30 Rock, “When It Rains, It Pours” (Season 5, Episode 2)

The clear lack of paternal instinct in the male characters is reinforced by Liz’s excessive desire for motherhood, as seen in “Senor Macho Solo” in which Liz ends up dating a little person she only approached in the first place because she thought he was a child.

Consistently throughout the seven seasons of the show, Liz makes references to “having it all,” which “for Liz, […] means something like enjoying a career, a family, and more- and enjoying these all at once” (Barkman). She is caught in middle ground of having traditionally feminine, familial desires and fighting for the idea that women do not need to sacrifice their careers (Barkman). In “The Moms,” Liz tries to justify herself in being unmarried to the mothers of the characters, to which Jack’s mother responds “Oh for crying out loud, Liz. You see, that’s what feminism does. It makes smart women with nice birthing shapes believe in fairy tales. Stop waiting for your prince, Liz.” Liz’s desperate attempts at “having it all” often lead to rash compromises, as seen in “SeinfeldVision” in which single Liz is talked into buying a wedding dress with the justification of “I’m gonna get the wedding dress, and then I’m gonna have a baby, and then I’m gonna die, and then I’m gonna meet a super-cute guy in Heaven.”

Still from 30 Rock, “SeinfeldVision” (Season 2, Episode 1)
Still from 30 Rock, “SeinfeldVision” (Season 2, Episode 1)

This constant back and forth between work and personal life is indicative of many women in this century. The notion of “having it all” can seem almost impossible, and Liz embodies all of the struggles in that regard.

Industries across America repeatedly infantilize women and doubt their capabilities based solely on gender and sexist assumptions and stereotypes. Tina Fey uses 30 Rock to bring attention to her own experiences with sexist treatment in comedy as a woman. She also proves through her character of Liz Lemon that fighting said sexism can backfire with a complete loss of femininity. It is an all-or-nothing scenario: a woman can either be oversexualized or one of guys. Positions in between those extremes are few and far between. Beyond the sexist mistreatment, there is also the balancing act that most women must learn concerning work and personal lives. The stigma of motherhood in professional settings follows every woman during the traditional childbearing years, whether wanted or otherwise. A philosophy has emerged from 30 Rock; “Liz Lemonism” has been described “as satire speaking to the tension about how feminism can/should be represented in comedy” (Mizejewski). There are infinite struggles that women must learn to cope with in addition to the lingering sexism of the 21st century, but Fey does an admirable job scratching the surface of sexism in addition to third-wave feminism present in current industries.

Margaret Murray is a Junior at Wake Forest University from Birmingham, AL. She is an Economics major and a Psychology and Global Trade & Commerce Studies minor. 

Works Cited

Barkman, Ashley. “And The Followship Award Goes To… Third-Wave Feminism?” 30 Rock and Philosophy: We Want to Go to There. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley, 2010. 89-98. Web. 26 Jun. 2017.

Blay, Zeba. “Liz Lemon’s Feminism, 10 Years Later.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.

Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little Brown, 2013. Print.

Patterson, Eleanor. “Fracturing Tina Fey: A Critical Analysis of Postfeminist Television Comedy Stardom.” Communication Review, 15.3 (2012): 232-251. EBSCOhost. Web. 26 Jun. 2017.

Mizejewski, Linda. “Feminism, Postfeminism, Liz Lemonism: Comedy and Gender Politics on 30 Rock.” Genders1998 – 2013. University of Colorado Boulder, 1 May 2012. Web. 20 July 2017.


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Culture and the Sitcom: Student Essays Copyright © 2017 by Margaret Murray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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