Do you remember when 30 Rock first aired and suddenly everyone was Liz Lemon? We were all Liz Lemon. Every woman you knew was Liz Lemon. We worked on our night cheese! We talked to food about our feelings! We liked sex to be quick and only on the weekends! Oh, it was so fun to be Liz Lemon.
Even Liz’s creator, Tina Fey, couldn’t deny her power.
“I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of women who identified with Liz, and that’s been great,” noted Fey in an interview with TV Guide in 2013.
Of course, we didn’t really identify with anyone else on the show; Who would want to be Jenna? Or Sue? Cerie was purposefully unattainable, and Tracy’s wife, Angie, was one walking stereotype wrapped in other stereotypes. So Liz was really all we had. And we were fine with that.
Why did we love Liz so much? In part, I think, it was because women — that is, career-minded, often-single, mainly white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered women—weren’t used to seeing representation of ourselves on TV. How many women bosses were there on primetime? How many who were as interesting, as talented, or as funny as Liz? Who didn’t also look like they were moonlighting as faces for Covergirl? Who were candid about their issues? Who bought a wedding dress that later turned into a ham napkin?
But Liz is also deeply flawed — and maybe that’s why we liked her.
Because she, like us, struggled to make smart financial decisions (she keeps all of her money in checking, she has no formal savings, and she’s still got loans from her discredited acting college). She met and dated men ranging from “total loser” to “totally decent,” but remained unable to pursue relationships with any of them (seriously, she really kind of fucked it up with Floyd) except the worst of the pack (didn’t we all date a Dennis?). In the end, she didn’t necessarily find the most motivated guy, but Criss with the hotdog dreams was good enough.
We saw ourselves in Liz. Or, more specifically—and maybe this is anecdotal but it does seem to be true — we saw ourselves in the flawed Liz. Liz’s shortcomings were so relatable (ostensibly) that they eventually became the focal points of her character to the detriment of the show.
During the run of 30 Rock, Liz became more flawed, her comedically-bad choices and qualities blown up for laughs. The Liz who bought all the hotdogs just to make a point about righteous waiting was written nearly into oblivion, leaving behind a character who was basically a series of issues, stuck together with used chewing gum and sadness.
Milly Parkhurst described Liz’s decline succinctly:
Don’t get me wrong, she is easy to relate to (if you’re a single white female), and many young (white) women I know appear to feel validated by her lifestyle. She confronts her “unladylike” eating habits, bad luck with men, and geeky inclinations, but after six seasons of the whole “I live alone, want a man, eat my feelings, and stay in on weekends” story line, I’m left wanting. It’s not quirky anymore, and it’s definitely lost my interest.
By doubling down on Liz’s flaws, 30 Rock all but ensured that the identification viewers felt was a kind of self-defeating one. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, in an attempt to defend Liz, even noted that the show “rarely made Liz an empowering role model, although many women certainly identified with her.”
But wasn’t there empowerment there to be found, if only empowerment heaped in pitchforks full of self-deprecating humor? Wasn’t Liz, at some point, a character that we were supposed to relate to?
She’s a manager, she’s been successful in her job, and she even managed to win the respect of a guy like Jack with her wit and skill and work ethic. There are admirable traits there. And yet, they are rarely the ones women identify with.
We don’t see ourselves as Liz when we’re climbing the corporate ladder. We don’t see ourselves as Liz when we have a staff of people underneath us. We don’t see ourselves as Liz when we buy our first condo.
Instead, we see ourselves as Liz when we’re eating a Lean Cuisine on Saturday night, yelling out answers at Jeopardy! reruns. We see ourselves as Liz when we continue to date the same loser and — horror of horrors—even defend him to our friends.
Identifying with Liz means not only embracing our flaws, but investing in them, highlighting them, and touting them as our most memorable, interesting qualities.
Now, compare Liz with another TV heroine, Leslie Knope, who also went through a character reinvention. Whereas Liz slowly became a caricature of flailing white womanhood, Leslie was empowered by the writers, growing into a powerhouse, a politician, and an example of actually having it all.
In a 2012 piece for NPR, Linda Holmes described the opposing paths of Liz and Leslie:
This is, as a friend of mine recently noted, the opposite of what Parks And Recreation did with Leslie Knope. She’s been fleshed out from a cartoonishly goofy boss to a warmly devoted — but still funny and skewed — public servant. Her relationship with Ron Swanson has become more equal, more respectful, with more give-and-take, and that’s all made the show funnier and better.
Whereas Liz was ground down into the particles of the kind of woman we’re told we already are, Leslie was built up to become an emblem of what we should want to be.
Once described as a “female Michael Scott” by essentially every TV critic, the show’s co-creator, Mike Shur, says Leslie was never intended to be portrayed as unintelligent. So the writers corrected it, he said in an interview:
We got some feedback that Leslie came across as “ditzy” sometimes — that surprised us, because we didn’t intend that at all. I think what the writers intended as “takes her job too seriously” read to some people as “oblivious.” So we corrected a little for that this year in the scripts.
Leslie is a character so excellent, she was an investment for the show — a show that’s nearly over. And as we wind toward the final episodes of Parks And Recreation, I can’t help but notice the lack of women who identify — really identify—with Leslie.
Held up as an icon in the feminist community, Leslie does, of course, have her admirers. We use her GIFs to express ourselves. We even needlepoint her sayings onto things. There are Tumblrs like Leslie Knope Is My Life Coach that tout her many strong suits. But the acceptance of Leslie Knope as a reflection of ourselves is simply not as widespread as the identification as Liz Lemon, even years after the pillow (or, really, the marriage) was slowly lowered over the face of 30 Rock.
Why is this? Why are we so much more prone to identify with a character who is defined by her flaws — the kind of flaws that are cute and quirky and uniquely female?
For proof that this is a thing, look for this kind of behavior at large in the presentation of female celebrites.
It’s unclear whether this is life imitating art or the other way around, but the idea of a woman whose only “flaws” are those that don’t actually make them difficult, hard to handle, or otherwise unladylike is a deeply-entrenched one. Jezebel writer Sadie Stein once described this kind of female typecasting as “the skinny glutton:”
“…Like the cliche of the second-act tub of Haagen-Dazs in any rom-com, the aggressive gluttony is a sure indicator to the audience that these women are Single, Quirky and, (because they’re thin, only gently) Sad. It says, ‘I may look glamorous, but I have the mind and soul of a fat person! And this is hilarious!’ Not incidentally, this also plays into that old male fantasy: the un-neurotic guy’s girl who can chow down on a steak and still look like a centerfold.”
The “girl who is super-hot but just wants to eat a burger and fries” is such an old trope that there are entire Instagram accounts that literally just mock photos of models and other conventionally hot women posing with food as if to say “look at me, eating, being one of the guys.”
Speaking the truth in this mixed up world of too many macarons and ice cream cones used as props.
To be likeable as a woman, it seems, you have to ensure that you’re also non-threatening and slightly useless. You have to point loudly to your “flaws,” but not your, you know, actual flaws. Perpetually single? It’s definitely because you sometimes eat too much cheese stew, and not because you have never figured out how to actually be a caring, intimate, ambitious partner.
Heaven forbid you, like Leslie Knope, admit that sometimes you even inspire yourself. Or enjoy waffles covered in whipped cream occasionally, but rarely with the kind of frenetic gusto that Liz Lemon demonstrates while shoving a sandwich into her mouth and cry-whining “I CAN HAVE IT ALL!”
Leslie’s flaws — like that she’s a borderline hoarder and that she sometimes is so passionate about issues that it’s “like arguing with the sun,” as her husband tells her at one point—are less cute. They are real and they are difficult and they are the kind of flaws that women rarely play up. They are the flaws that get women pegged as “bossy” or “bitchy” in the workplace. They are the flaws that we desperately try to distract from as we “complain” that we sometimes (adorably!!!) eat the entire tub of Just One Of The Guys Full Fat Because We’re So Bad Ice Cream in one sitting.
But her positive traits — her unstoppable work ethic, her deep, thoughtful love of her friends, and her nonstop motivation to succeed—are the ones that make her a role model.
Leslie has very clear goals. Leslie often has a plan. Leslie is hyper-organized. And Leslie faces adversity with a much greater strength than Liz.
Instead of becoming a somewhat-simpering child to her authoritative male boss, coworkers, and competition, Leslie calls out sexism when she sees it, and demands to be taken seriously among the boys’ club that is local government. She takes direct action to incite change.
Whereas Liz talks about feminism, Leslie does feminism.
Why would you ever want to be Liz Lemon when Leslie Knope exists?
It also deserves mention that, overall, Parks And Recreation is a more empowering show, generally. Consider another character, Donna Meagle.
A far cry from the thin, white, nearly celibate mannequins that pass as female characters that TV is saturated with, Donna Meagle is plus-sized, Black, and ruthlessly proud of her active sex life. Played by Retta, a comedian so incredible she only needs one name, Donna was initially a bit-character at best, but was turned into a much larger supporting role — a brilliant decision by the powers that be.
Donna is the opposite of Liz. She is ambitious, confident, and great with money. She’s an investor. She is sexually liberated, intelligent, and helpful. She takes care of the people around her, offers smart advice (when it’s needed, though her character mercifully has never been written into the trope of the All-Knowing Sassy Black Woman With Great Advice, Often Accompanied By A Catchphrase And/Or Signature Gesture), and is generally a positive, strong character. She is not a stereotype. She is a character. And she is an admirable one.
For as much comparison as there is between 30 Rock and Parks And Recreation (in part because they were blocked next to each other, in part because they both have white female leads which is still pretty unusual, and in part because Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are friends and cohosts in real life), there’s really no contest.
Of course, modeling your life after a TV character is generally fraught. And the fact that there are so few TV characters for us to model our lives after (someone with a better understanding of Scandal could probably write a piece similar to this one about Olivia Pope, Transparent is still a little too new to tell, and I personally will take a pass on Hannah Horvath from now until eternity) makes it even more difficult to see anything that resembles yourself or the kind of person you’d like to be when you’re flipping through the channels.
But if given the choice between these two often-compared characters, why pick Liz? We, as women and female-identified individuals, are already basically told to aim for the middle. We have to curate our list of acceptable flaws, and, save for those few palatable errs in character, are expected to be, in the parlance of Beyonce, flawless. We are supposed to have woken up like this.
We’re rarely told what I think Liz Lemon needed to hear all along:
Get your shit together.
The main difference between Liz and Leslie is that Leslie has her shit mostly together, and that she is willing to learn, grow, and change. She has evolved.
The problem with accepting too many flaws without any kind of self-awareness is that it doesn’t leave room for growth and change and, in the real world, sets you up for the same downfall that Liz Lemon suffered from in the fictional one.
Can you dig your heels into the stereotypes set out for us by Carrie Bradshaw, the women of Friends, and yes, Liz Lemon? Sure. You can do that. Maybe that makes you feel better. That’s your call.
But if you need a little TV life coaching — and if you want to avoid being dissolved by the traditionally low expectations that have been set for women since the beginning of time — there are few better options than Leslie Fucking Knope.