Saturday, May 28, 2011

Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope: Post-Modernism and the Future of Feminism

Since “30 Rock” premiered on NBC in 2006, its lead character, Liz Lemon, has been widely regarded as a feminist icon - a working gal who just wants to have it all.  Over the subsequent five seasons, critics are turning a more judicious eye on ol’ Liz Lemon, and decreeing that perhaps she isn’t as much of a feminist character as we’d thought.  At the very least, Liz Lemonism is problematic: Liz has no functional relationships with other women on the show - the ensemble of females is marked with insanity - and Liz herself is often hapless, and falls into parody in terms of her relationships with men, food, exercise, work, management, babies, marriage, and sex.  On top of that, Liz often expresses judgment or disgust towards other women’s behavior.

In 2009, a new kid arrived on the comedy block: “Parks and Recreation,” whose very own Leslie Knope began to attract attention as a potential candidate for Feminist Icon Currently on TV.  Leslie is joyous and giving towards other female characters; she is a woman in charge who is good at her job, and she aspires to be the President of the United States.  Leslie Knope is constructed as an intelligent and capable thirty-something who has the rigor, determination, and good nature of a 12-year-old girl who chases fireflies instead of boys.  Leslie Knope is indeed amazing, and critics who assert that she’s a stronger feminist role model than Liz Lemon are probably correct in their assessment.

However, I find it limiting to place a value judgment on Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope, for a variety of reasons.  It’s no secret to anyone that I’m a fan of both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and both of their characters and TV shows.  I refuse to choose between them, because I frankly don’t feel I have to.  Beyond that, I maintain that Liz Lemonism is not invalid, even with its glitches - there are attenuating circumstances that affect its representation in comparison to Leslie Knope’s sunshine feminism.

Let’s talk philosophy.  In the 20th century, common culture began to embrace the post-modern school of thought.  Post-modernism is essentially constructed on the notion that every human is a product of their context.  We are all embedded in our own environments and timelines; the mood and events of our society shape who we are and how we view the world.  Post-modernism is about the body, not the mind, hearkening to ideas that are very physical and tangible.  It is perhaps a more cynical philosophy than say, that of the Enlightenment.

Post-modernism had been brewing in the late 1800s - Karl Marx penned a manifesto about power and the haves and have-nots, and suddenly everyone began to understand the idea that we are born into a societal context and cannot easily escape it.  Of course, the 20th century gave rise to social revolutions in terms of power - post-modernism coincided with the awareness that discrimination exists as a result of inherent and constructed disadvantages in society’s system.  White, rich, straight men had power and privilege, and those who did not meet all those requirements did not.  As a result, we saw the Civil Rights Movement, and Women’s Liberation, and the push for equal treatment across race, gender, and sexuality lines.

This was the birth of “feminism” - forget Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 1960s and the burning of the bras was where “feminism” became a thing. 

Feminism originated as a reaction.  Post-modernism indicated to us that there was an inherent power structure at work, and the only way to get the ball rolling on equality was to fight against it.  Imagine a game of tug-of-war: if you’re already losing the game, you have to pull twice as hard as your opponent to bring the flag back to middle ground.  And so 20th century social politics were defined by reaction, by pulling twice as hard on the rope to see any sort of change.  Bras were burned, demonstrations were organized, and pride parades assembled, in an effort to simply be heard and taken seriously. 

All of these actions are Big Actions.  They are statements, expressions of voice, material products of their context.  Minorities were driven to stand up and say “I am proud of this thing that denies me power in this society, and I will fight for my right to embrace that.”  20th century social politics involved identifying strongly with your label in an effort to show that you weren’t ashamed of it.  Again: reactionary.  It had to be done simply to get people’s attention.

As the rest of the century wore on, we were given Black History Month, and International Women’s Day, and Gay Day at Disney World, in some measure of placation, because the scales still weren’t balanced.  But the crux is this: in a perfect world, shouldn’t every month be Black History Month, and every day be International Women’s Day, and Gay Day at Disney World?  This is the path that social revolution has taken as we move into the new century.  It is no longer about taking the negative definition of your context and subversing it - it’s about being free from your context entirely.  It’s about rejecting labels, and being individuals and humans, and not letting race, gender, or sexuality define you.  It’s about transcendence.  And it’s here where you’ll find the difference between Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. 

Liz Lemon is a product of post-modern feminism.  She is very much embedded in her context as a feminist who works twice as hard simply to balance the scales.  And she is still misguided about the true goal of feminism today.  She does have bad relationships with men, and she is judgmental about women who sell themselves short, or who define themselves by their male counterparts.  She has a very specific opinion about what women should be and how they should behave - which, by true definition of feminism (and according to its new goals) is actually anti-feminist. 

Leslie Knope, on the other hand, transcends post-modernism.  Leslie Knope represents the shift from reaction to proaction.  Leslie has healthy female friendships, is good at her job, and while she has some struggles in the romance department, they are usually played as a throwaway joke and rarely manifest in storyline.  She is unabashedly in charge, but still compassionate and a good friend.  No one questions her authority, or doubts her emotions, or thinks she’s crazy in a bad way.  On 30 Rock, there is an entire episode devoted to the idea that someone in the workplace calls Liz a cunt.  That simply would not happen on Parks and Recreation.  In the way Leslie Knope is constructed and wielded within the narrative, Leslie is what the future of feminism should be - in that being a woman means no different from being a man.  No one calls Leslie a cunt.  It’s a non-issue.

But you can’t disregard the reactionary beginnings of any social movement with a goal of equality, because without these individuals and their actions, the ball would not be rolling.  Similarly, you can’t disregard Liz Lemon as a feminist character - she’s simply a reactionary feminist character embedded in the issues that still affect feminism today.  The fact of the matter is that women wouldn’t relate so much to Liz Lemon if there weren’t a shared common mentality between the character and these ladies sitting on the couch at home, drinking red wine and working on their night cheese.  Women still do get called cunts in the workplace, unfortunately.  There are still stigmas associated with putting a woman in charge.  And Liz Lemon, in true post-modern fashion, is a product of this shared experience.  Therefore the idea that she is a feminist icon is really a reflection of the viewers watching the show, and not a construct of the show itself.  For example:

30 Rock had an episode this past season called “TGS Hates Women,” in which a new female cast member was hired for the sake of diversity.  Liz initially is on board with this goal, but immediately retracts the enthusiasm when Abby, the woman hired, is a young twenty-something who not only infantilizes herself but sexualizes herself in an effort to get attention.  Liz calls her out on her pigtail-twirling and her “sexy baby voice,” and pleads with her to have some self-respect.  Liz very explicitly wants to “fix” Abby.  But Abby calls Liz out on the idea that she wears glasses to seem smart, and accuses Liz of being judgmental, and a hypocrite.  In the end, it turns out that Abby is indeed intelligent, dowdy, and a brunette, and Liz exposes her true self in an effort to “help” her.  But the plan backfires because it’s revealed that Abby was concealing her identity to escape her insane ex-husband who’s trying to kill her.

The episode got a lot of attention under the lens of feminism, and the nail in the coffin on Liz Lemon being a problematic feminist was hammered in completely.  Her motives for exposing Abby were in an effort to validate her own existence, simply masquerading under the veil of wanting to help her.  However, the storytelling didn’t reward Liz for that folly, and in the end, it was Liz who had egg on her face when it turns out she ruined this girl’s life.  So while you can say that Liz Lemon is not the ideal feminist, I don’t think you can say that her show ever pretends she is.  This carries over into racism as well - Liz is portrayed as a character who tries so hard to prove she’s not racist, but at the end of the day, she’s still embedded in her context, and everyone agrees that yes, Liz is a little bit racist.

In a way, Liz Lemon is a 1970s feminist that is trying to be Leslie Knope - a 21st century feminist - and failing miserably.  And frankly, that’s part of 30 Rock’s comedy - it makes commentary on society’s treatment of race, gender, class, and sexuality through its absurdist storylines.  More often than not, 30 Rock aims to point out that it’s all problematic, and pokes holes in almost every point of view, especially when dealing with the stereotypes that often creep up - because they do.  It’s the reality of the world we live in.  It’s our context. 

Furthermore, as the show has progressed, the representation of Liz has moved away from “sane person surrounded by crazies” to “crazy person surrounded by crazies.”  In later seasons, Liz is no less batty than Jenna or Tracy (or Jack or Pete or Twofer or Frank) on one of their good days.  It seems a very pointed decision by the writers to not glorify Liz’s point of view, and instead ground her in the idea that everyone on this show is insane, Elizabeth Lemon included.  Tina Fey talked about this notion in a recent “Fresh Air” interview with Terry Gross - the idea that 30 Rock is expected to be prescriptive in its treatment of women, and that in reality the show has never actually endeavored to do that.  It’s the millions of women just like Liz Lemon, 1970s feminists thinking they’re Leslie Knopes, that see Liz in their own context, identify with her, and foist her as a feminist icon - not the show itself.

Leslie Knope, however, is specifically constructed, by the writers, to exist above her context.  She is untethered from many of the issues facing women today simply because the show’s goal is to represent an ideal where gender is a non-issue.  Don’t get me wrong; this is 100% the goal.  In a way, Parks and Recreation is prescriptive in its portrayal of gender, and I admire the show for that stance.  We need to see Leslie Knopes on television.  But it doesn’t make Liz Lemon’s existence any less valid. 

And it's this misconception that irks me most concerning the Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope debate: that there can only be one.  Tina Fey has inadvertently become the Spokesperson for Feminism, simply through the exposure she’s received and the measurable amount of success she’s experienced as a result of her decidedly lady-oriented point of view.  The media has made Tina Fey the Face of Feminism, and Liz Lemon is therefore dragged into that as a character that has been birthed from Tina Fey’s brain.  Liz Lemon is expected to be an Outstanding Feminist because Tina Fey is the Face of Feminism, the Lady Voice of all Lady Voices. 

What’s frustrating about this is that it’s actually anti-feminist to make someone the Face of Feminism.  Recently, Amy Poehler spoke at Harvard’s commencement ceremony, and the young man introducing her said, “I would like to thank the class marshalls for allowing me to open for blonde Tina Fey.”

Excuse me, good sir?  You just very succinctly summarized and vocalized what is so wrong with how the media handles women: there can only be one.  Obviously, I don’t know this dude in real life, but introducing Amy Poehler at a Harvard Commencement Ceremony as the “blonde Tina Fey” makes me want to call him a douchebag.  Tina Fey is not the standard for all women in comedy, and the idea that every woman must be related back to her is absurd, sexist, and insulting - especially for Amy Poehler, whose career and success, while similar to Tina’s, is a direct result of her own talents and ambitions. 

Amy, bless her, good-naturedly extended her middle finger in response to this royally insulting comment, and I’m very glad she made it clear she was not going to stand for that shit.

In a related example, Kristen Wiig recently wrote and starred in the female comedy Bridesmaids, which opened to shocking-but-not-really-when-you-think-about-it success at the box office.  And what’s the media saying about Kristen Wiig?  “She’s the next Tina Fey!” 

Words cannot express my distaste for this cultural suggestion that only one woman can represent the “face” of all women in whatever their field.  And somehow, it always gets twisted into the idea of competition - aka, a catfight.  Leslie Knope versus Liz Lemon.  When Amy and Tina were both nominated for Best Actress Emmy in 2010, an interviewer at The Envelope wanted Amy to spill the juicy details about being in competition against her best friend, citing it as a “classic diva clawfest.”  (Again, Amy called this guy out on his bullshit, because she is Amy Fucking Poehler and Will Not Stand For This Sort of Nonsense.)

The idea that it should boil to Liz Lemon vs. Leslie Knope for Leading Feminist of Television is simply a manifestation of sexism - who saw that coming?  The fact of the matter is that Liz Lemon is a product of reactive feminism, and her show makes light of her engendered context, and pokes holes in her points of view.  Leslie Knope is an enlightened, proactive feminism, one that transcends her context and simply dazzles with the idea that feminism is about being yourself, embracing other women, and not judging the decisions other women make because they don’t fit in with your own “feminist” worldview.  There’s no wrong way to be a woman. 

In this light, it’s perhaps the best conclusion to look at Liz Lemon as where we’ve come from and Leslie Knope as where we should be heading.  As we trickle into the 21st century, the post-modern beliefs are being shed, and the social culture seems to be that we are meant to reject our labels, because they do not define us.  Progressive media is no longer about representing what’s in our backyard, but what is on our horizon.  We are not our races, our genders, or our sexualities: we are humans.  The sooner we can move away from the contextual approach to our identities, the better.  The reactionism was a necessary first step in balancing power, embracing minority with pride.  But the goal is equality, and we can’t achieve that without embracing the notion that in a fundamental way, we are all the same.

And perhaps we will always live in a world that is engendered and encumbered with the associations and prejudices against that which is not white, straight, and male.  Perhaps this progress is merely an asymptote, never quite reaching the goal of balance and equality.  But I have to believe as old ways of thought die out, and new generations become aware of the dangers of prejudice and the implications of privilege, that the contextual power inherently granted to some and not others will fade away.  And one day, those who are not blessed with power will not have to pull twice as hard to gain any ground.  Every day will be a pride parade.  Every day will honor Black History.  Every day will celebrate women around the world.

Until then, we need to think critically and honestly about the societal implications of inequality and privilege, and recognize that there is no easy answer, and not lambast those who are struggling to understand the true goal - you can love Liz Lemon, and love Leslie Knope.  It’s probably better if you do.  So don’t accept the bullshit that society is giving you - from either side of the argument.  Politely decline, or just give it the finger.  Balance will happen one day.

Good reads: 1 | 2 | 3


  1. Knope is a typical Mary Sue and she can gtfo.

    Nice read tho.

  2. That made me tear up. Well done.

    And now I'm seriously going to go watch them, though for months I said I would.



  4. Well look at this thing and how perfect it is!

  5. I agree with just about everything you wrote here, just a minor correction. The bra burnings as they're presented in popular culture never happened:

    I'm curious, have Tina Fey or Amy Poehler ever identified themselves as feminists? I don't remember hearing her say that and google doesn't bring up any answers other than Poehler's 'Smart Girls Have More Fun' videos.
    I hope they have. Just asking.

    1. I realize you posted that comment forever ago, but both women identify as feminists. Tina talks a bit about it in her book Bossypants, and there's a fantastic article with Amy Poehler by BUST magazine (online) about female comedians and what people call 'the feminist agenda', and she's so awesome, I can't stand it.

      Here's an excerpt:
      Interviewer( talking about women who go out dressed like porn stars): Well, I've always been super-sex-positive and everything, but sometimes I feel like I want to be a Muslim woman in a burka; I feel like the only way I can get my power back is to peer at the world through a strip. Because I feel like women aren't looking at all anymore--there's no looking left. We're only looked at.

      Amy: It goes back to our conversation about female comedies, too. Ladies have got to support each other. It's like on Survivor. There are always three ladies and two guys left, and those bitches will not form a goddamn alliance. I don't understand it. It's like, Why will you not form this fucking alliance? At the end of the day, we still just hurt each other. We're so hard on each other. We just have to remember that we are being divided and conquered. We really are. It's the same thing with all this shit about who's mad at whom. It's so boring, while the guys are going and actually having careers

  6. J.A. - this is what happens when I skimp on research! Thanks for the correction. :)

    Actually I'm not sure about Amy Poehler, but I seem to recall an interview where Tina Fey has explicitly been asked the question and said yes, she is. (Do I remember what interview? Of course not. Sigh.)

    But yeah, it's upsetting that "feminist" has become kind of a dirty word in some circles. Negative connotations and all. It's mind-boggling to me that some women proudly dissociate from feminism. But, to each his/her own, I guess.

  7. Well written and I agree with a lot of it but my own feminism doesn't go far enough to agree with it all:

    When it comes to the episode of Liz being called a 'cunt' I see it as being the same as a man being called names, not an anti-women thing.

    Also with regards to women being compared to each other, that also happens for men. Would it be wrong to call a man 'the male Tina Fey'? It's a way of bigging them both up and easily explaining their talents.

    Knope is a very particular type of person - very confident, very driven and unfazed by anything. Liz isn't like it. Most people aren't. Knope is the ideal but Liz is as feminist as most people will get. Personally i find Liz the most accurate portrayal of a real woman on tv.

  8. very interesting! i loved reading your post. however, i think you ignore some parts of leslie knope's character that might work to discredit her as ideal. is she really the ideal feminist? she is a crazy herself, and doesn't respect most social boundaries that a normal person would. she works at a job that is largely marginalized and ridiculed on the show itself.
    ...just a thought. great post thought!!!

  9. I took an entire college class on Media in Society, and this essay helped me to better understand Post Modernism than I ever did then. And I got an A. Thanks for that. All in all, this was a great read!

  10. Don't you think that Tina Fey's Liz Lemon is at least partly supposed to be a cautionary tale? Something akin to being caught amongst the trees and not being able to see the forest? As you said, 'trying doubly as hard' just to get back to middle, and then beyond. Look at Tina Fey's real life, it appears that she has very much been successful in our 21st century context. Including her relationships with all manner of people.

  11. First of all, I disagree with the point you're making in the attempts to separate the ideal from the contemporary. You say Liz represents an anachronistic notion of what it means to be a feminist woman, meanwhile Leslie is an ideal to which feminist women today should strive. You say Leslie represents this ideal because she is void of titles and references to herself as woman as though that could be anything lesser than man. I disagree that Leslie is the ideal for this reason. In order to overcome sexism, racism, and the like we have to acknowledge their existence. An attempt to put it aside and not acknowledge the existence of race, or, say, sexism in the workplace would be blindness (colorblindness, eg). This sort of thing is detrimental to any proactive work. Liz's character shouldn't be disregarded as lesser, simply because she acknowledges the faults of our society; and, in my opinion this is step one in progress. To say that we have already done this is optimistic, at best. I think the point of post-modernism is that fundamentally we are NOT all the same within our context (due to deep rooted structural inequality) and we HAVE to acknowledge this to become equals. You may be right, Liz is a bit problematic, but she represents what, especially, middle/upper middle class white women have got to cope with if they can ever be sunny Leslies (and she makes it funny). Leslie is a fascinating character, but I'm afraid that young women watching the show may look to her sunny optimism without the leaps she's hurdled as a feminist. I've been thinking about these two shows and their main characters a lot lately so I was happy to find this read.
    Anyway, I agree that putting Amy and Tina in some sort of competition for better feminist/artist is insanely annoying!
    Also, I think the bra-burning bit was a lil tiny bit uninformed and does nothing but fuel the "feminazi"-type association...just check your facts, especially when they have negative connotations to begin with! Completely different side note--wish these shows (especially P&R) would acknowledge race/racism a little more!

  12. Agreed over the fact that there is no need to pit Lemon and Knope against each other. Also, I completely 100% agree with the last part of the article with the issue that one woman has come to represent the face of all in the field - this is something that hugely upsets me and I was delighted to reach Amy Poehler's reaction to that fucking idiot man!

    However, I would disagree in some respects to the above:

    "She is untethered from many of the issues facing women today simply because the show’s goal is to represent an ideal where gender is a non-issue. Don’t get me wrong; this is 100% the goal. In a way, Parks and Recreation is prescriptive in its portrayal of gender...". Also, your

    Leslie Knope has functioning female friendships which are centered around something other than conversations about men, but this does not mean that she lives in a post-gendered world. Furthermore, gender IS actually an issue that is frequently addressed in PNR, and I do not believe that the goal of the show at all is to portray a world where gender is a non-issue- see episodes 'The Hunting Trip' and 'Woman of the Year' to start, but many episodes make subtle comments about gender roles and expectations - it's the way that Leslie approaches or ignores the issues/obstacles that arise from the narrative that make the show so 'optimistic'. So yes, it's prescriptive in a sense, but it doesn't hide the issue.

  13. I wanted to comment on the article itself, but was too horrified to see someone invoke the name of Our Blessed Lady of Fantasy Self-Insertion Mary Sue as an.... epithet!

    Watch yourself, dopple-anonymous, since her brother Gary Stu is so busy starring in nearly EVERYTHING EVER, I'm sure she has time to put a curse on you.

  14. Leslie Knope is the best female character on TV right know. She is an excellent role model for girls: No obsessing or whining about guys or backstabbing of girlfriends... She is very much aware of her intelligence, takes pride in her work and speaks her mind. We need more ladies like that in the media, because YOU CAN´T BE, WHAT YOU CAN´T SEE!

  15. I've been disenchanted with Liz Lemon for a very long time, and with "30 Rock" in general for its casual jokes about rape and pedophilia. But this article really did make me think. I love Knope. Love, love, love her, and for a while I've championed her as the true feminist and Lemon as a feminist trope. But I can see the point you are making. I'm unsure whether my feelings will change much, though, since I think that the problems with Lemon are too problematic for me to brush past. But I don't think I'll be so quickly separating the two characters from now on. You have definitely helped me see how much more complicated it all is.


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