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Clacking with Julia – Everything I needed to know about feminism I learned from 30 Rock

After last week's episode of '30 Rock,' a lot of people were left wondering - is Liz Lemon really a feminist superhero? And I still say yes, yes she is.

I generally describe myself, to people who don’t know me, as something a lot like Liz Lemon. Maybe the product of a one-night stand between, like, Liz Lemon and Abed from Community. And, as I have mentioned before, like, a couple billion times, Liz Lemon is my feminist superhero. But after the latest episode of 30 Rock there’s been a lot of discussion and linking to articles old and new — is Liz Lemon actually a feminist? (And here’s another.) Does Liz Lemon/Tina Fey hate women (or at least, certain women)?

My answer to all of the following is this: Yes, Liz Lemon is still my feminist superhero. For exactly the reasons I’ve described before. And this episode did nothing to change that.

Let’s examine Liz’s storyline in the last episode — She’s enraged when (described as “this really cool feminist website where women talk about how far we’ve come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies”) says her show TGS hates women, so she hires an up-and-coming comic Abby Flynn, becomes frustrated with her overly-sexualized image, exposes her for being, at one point, normal, and then learns that Abby put on the entire facade to hide from an abusive ex-husband, and, in her effort to expose Abby, ruins her life and makes it easier for her husband to find her. And, as Abby flees, she declares, “Liz Lemon is a Judas to all women!”

But is she? Really?

I’m a staunch feminist. This isn’t news to anyone, especially if you’ve read any of my articles. I read feminist blogs, my mom got me feminist trading cards for my birthday once (true story!), and I engage in discussion about feminism with my friends all the time. Last night I was having exactly such a discussion with my friend Louise (another feminist) about feeling uncomfortable with women who dress provocatively, or overtly sexualize themselves, and if that made us bad feminists or not.

“It’s not that I’m angry with them, or think they shouldn’t be allowed to do it,” I explained to Louise. “But I can’t help but wonder why. I mean, we’d have those anti-harassment talks in school and these girls who dressed in nearly nothing would complain about how they didn’t want to be objectified and should be free to wear what they wanted to wear, and it was like, well, okay, but why are you wearing that it, then? Because I don’t think it’s because it’s comfortable or keeps you warm.”

Does that make me a bad feminist?

Actually, sometimes I’m not sure if I should call myself a feminist, or if “feminist” is a term that means anything. There’s a famous quote by Cheris Kramarae, a professor a the University of Oregon: “Feminism,” she says, “is the radical notion that women are people.” And that, to me, summarizes how I view feminism. Women are people — we’re not less than men, we’re not more than men, we’re not just horribly flawed or just perfect. Sometimes we’re good and sometimes we’re bad. I, as a woman, want to be treated the way I am treated based on who I am, not based on the number of X chromosomes I have.

A lot of feminism and feminist discussion,  especially about this episode of 30 Rock, seemed to be based around the idea of other people judging exactly how “good” a feminist you are. Many feminists believe that no women can ever be criticized for their choices. We are all sisters fighting against the patriarchy, after all, and need to stick together. There’s a constant one-upsmanship when it comes to feminism that I see play out all the time, specifically whenever I visit the comments at Jezebel. “This isn’t a feminist blog!” One person will say, “You’re blogging about fashion and celebrity gossip!” and then someone else will say, “It’s anti-feminist of you to assume that all feminists aren’t interested in this!” and so on and so forth. God forbid you dislike another woman or judge her choices. No woman should be judged for her choices! Clearly if you do that or are offended by another woman’s choices, you are playing right into the hands of the patriarchy, who strive to pit us against each other! Kumbaya! Et cetera!

I don’t consider anyone who does that to be a feminist. In fact, I don’t consider them to be any better than people who are sexist and inherent injustice they’re railing against. As far as I’m concerned, women should be allowed to do whatever they want, make good choices or bad choices, and they should be judged based on what they do, the same as they would be if they were men. If I don’t like some men, I’m allowed to not like some women. If I think men are being offensive, I should be allowed to think women are offensive. As Liz Lemon once so wisely asked in regards to racism (though it is equally applicable in this context): “I truly don’t like you as a person. Can’t one human being not like another human being? Can’t we all just not get along?”

As a woman, I want the right to be a Liz Lemon. I want the right to have my values and not be told that they’re too much this way or not enough that way. I want the right to judge people and I want the right to be wrong. I want the right to be imperfect, and I want to be respected for who I am, and not looked down upon because I don’t live up to one movement’s ideals. I want to be considered as a person. And that’s why Liz Lemon is my feminist hero. Heck, that’s why she’s my hero, period — she’s multi-dimensional and more than any trope any movement tries to impose on her.  And I think Tina Fey writes her to constantly be turning labels the way she does on purpose. Because I think, maybe, Tina Fey agrees with me that a good feminist character is so much more than any one label — they’re a human being. Maybe it’s a radical notion that Tina (if I may be so bold as to call her “Tina” and assume that’s her intention) and I have, and maybe we’re not in line with traditional feminism, but I don’t think we’re wrong.

And even if we are, we are, after all, just people.

Photo Credit: NBC

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Categories: | 30 Rock | Clacking with Julia | Columns | General | TV Shows |

20 Responses to “Clacking with Julia – Everything I needed to know about feminism I learned from 30 Rock”

March 7, 2011 at 2:18 PM

Love it! Liz lemon is my feminist superhero too! It’s why I named my Roller Derby alter ego after her!

March 7, 2011 at 2:26 PM

I couldn’t agree with you more. I love Liz Lemon, and she’s one of the few characters on tv that I can really identify with (the Mom on ‘The Middle’ being the other.

The key to Liz Lemon is that she interacts with and judges everyone by their actions and the content of their character, rather than by any stereotype or label. She can shoot the bull with the corporate suit, share a moment with the Bible belt hick, and give advice to the inner city black man turned mega star with equal aplomb and no hint of hypocrisy. She is the natural evolution of the ‘Sesame Street Generation’ and I wish that the media and politicians could understand her, because I believe she is the ‘every-woman’, and quite possibly the ‘every-American’. You go, Liz Lemon!

March 7, 2011 at 2:38 PM

The notion that women are people isn’t radical. It’s long-settled, at least in Western society. What feminism is today is the radical notion that one half the human race is at perpetual war with the other half. That’s why so many women under 40 don’t define themselves as feminists. (But if one of those feminists who define feminism as a type of class struggle comes up to you, here are two magic words: Sarah Palin. It’s also fun to watch these women immediately absolve themselves of their feminist responsibility to support other women. They almost invariably define Sarah Palin as a non-woman.)

Anyway, I love Liz Lemon, but as far as the racism quote, I think Hank Hill had her beat. Peggy warned Hank that he couldn’t fight with their Cambodian neighbor. Hank: “What kind of a country is this where I can only hate a man if he’s white?!”

March 8, 2011 at 5:05 AM

Women are no more responsible for Sarah Palin than men are for heinous males. I fail to see how you successfully use Sarah Palin’s existence to trump feminist arguments. Feminism does not require all women to support the actions of all other women. As to the reasons why so many women under 40 don’t identify with feminism; is your assertion based on research of some kind? Feminism is not a unified theory; it is a catch-all term, much like ‘Christianity’, that started with a fairly simple goal and has evolved and changed massively over the years. Undoubtedly there are some feminists who’s ideas and beliefs have not been carefully thought through, but that is no basis for denigrating feminism as a whole. At its core, feminism is about fighting to rectify the ways in which women suffer through inequality, whether it be through violence and sex crimes, or inequalities in pay and opportunities. Moroeover, much of feminist theory is concerned with the ways that men suffer from the prevailing ideas about gender in society, and is therefore about promoting equality for women AND men. I don’t understand your motivation to try to catch women out and make them justify themselves, nor do I understand why so many people feel the need to condemn feminism. If you are inclined to change how other people think, perhaps you could channel that energy more positively.

March 7, 2011 at 2:45 PM


Let’s talk later this week about how you can submit this to a journal.

March 7, 2011 at 3:02 PM

I rarely leave comments on articles I read, but I actually enjoyed yours so much I wanted to leave some kudos. You said a lot of what I was thinking, or how I think about feminism. Feminist are usually painted in such a ‘man hater’ light that I never was interested in being a part of the discussion. (in my experiences) This article has changed my thinking and I’m more interested now in feminism. I bookmarked your site and will be back in the future. Thanks to the 30rock fan page for linking!

March 7, 2011 at 3:29 PM

Those are the best and truest words I’ve read in a long time!! It is so true, and so awesome.


March 7, 2011 at 4:08 PM

I have only seen a few episodes of 30 Rock, and I enjoyed every moment. Your post makes me want take a closer look at the show. I really appreciate your honesty in this article, brilliant. Looking forward to reading more from you :)

March 7, 2011 at 4:19 PM

This is a great text! And a very interesting and level-headed one. It speaks to a question that I have been very confused about for some time. Namely: What is feminism?

If Feminism is the believe that women are people just like men, than why do we need a word for it? Surely, in this day and age, most people agree that women are people. Are there really women who do NOT believe that women are people? Of course not.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that women disagree on what feminism is. This seems strange to me, since so many women spend their time discussing feminism with other women, you would think that a cohesive definition would have emerged.

I have always feared that the real meaning of feminism is that women are superior to men, and not equals. This scares me, because as Martin Luthor King Jr. put it: “Because black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy.”

If women believe that they are superior to men, what hope is there for gender equality? And if feminism means equality, why do so many women not consider themselves feminist?

Signed: A confused and curious married man with kids.
p.s. feel free to email if you want to flame or explain. It’s the same as my name, at

March 7, 2011 at 4:47 PM

This is why feminism has failed. You are a “staunch feminist” yet don’t know if feminism is a term that “means anything”.
‘Do whatever you want’ is feminism now? This is why men don’t understand feminism and women will spend another 50 years fighting themselves for things they could have now (but don’t really want).
And yes, 30 Rock is 17 kinds of awesome, but if you want to be Tina Fey you have to stop stealing her jokes and make your own.

March 7, 2011 at 6:03 PM

Policing a woman’s appearance (which is what you are doing, even if you don’t think their behaviour should be disallowed) sure isn’t good feminism.

Part of feminism – not all, but part – was women demanding to express their sexuality how they chose. To throw off the idea that women are either the Madonna or the Whore. Part of that means that some women will be overtly sexual in their presentation and behaviour. They may do that to attract the opposite sex, but that doesn’t mean that they should accept some casual sexual harassment. Women are not responsible for poor treatment from men. That line of thinking is not far off from victim blaming.

Liz Lemon is not my feminist hero and I absolutely hated that episode of 30 Rock. I really love Liz, but that episode was all about what I can’t stand aboout her – her steadfast refusal to be wrong when it comes to social justice e.g. claiming she is a feminist or isn’t racist, despite some pretty anti-feminist and racist behaviour.

Lots of people are guilty of that, so I guess it’s good characterisation. But if you want to be a good feminist, you have to try harder. It’s not a level you achieve (Feminism Unlocked!), it’s a constant learning process. So you have “the right to be wrong”, so long as when someone tells you you are wrong, you accept it and learn from it.

March 7, 2011 at 9:31 PM


Your post doesn’t take into account men. The other 50%. As a woman, if I see a guy wearing nothing but abs and a spiky ‘do, I’m going to call him like he is – a meathead, jerk, or worse. And if I see a woman wearing nothing but a thong, I’m going to call her out, probably with the word whore or something equally offensive. This has absolutely nothing to do with feminism – and right now, I think it’s really about age.

My take is that you’re 40 or older. Perhaps I’m wrong; if so, please correct me. But I’m going to write this as though I’m right. Pre-90’s women do seem to view feminism as a black-or-white, all-or-nothing affair. You’re either with “us,” or you’re against “us.” Women in their 30’s and younger (I am 29) grew up in a different era, an era in which we don’t feel that we have to fight for equality. We don’t have to support women who suck just because we’re “on the same team.” People are people, and this moment is what the feminist movement was striving for – the point where it’s just not an issue what gender you are. There are good people and there are bad people, there are smart people and dumb people, and it doesn’t matter your race or sex. The only thing we should be trying harder to be is a good person.

Like Liz Lemon!

March 7, 2011 at 10:52 PM

I agree with a lot of what you say. Specifically, that we are all people, and we should all spend our energy trying to be better people. But I am confused by your angry, almost visceral reaction to scantily-dressed people. Why is a guy wearing shorts with abs and hair a jerk? I don’t even know what a meathead is, but why is a women who wears a swimsuit (since women don’t really walk around without their tops on) automatically a whore? Isn’t being judgmentally mean towards someone based on their lack of clothing the same thing as calling a woman “icy” or a “lesbian” because she dresses conservatively?

March 9, 2011 at 4:17 AM

There is a massive difference between thinking ‘He doesn’t look like the kind of person I’d like’ (meathead/jerk) and ‘She is used for sex’ (whore). Despite thinking negatively about both, you are still framing the man as a the Subject and the woman as the Object. That’s patriarchy in action. That’s why it’s not good feminism.

It’s about age? I am 24 years old. (But well done on being totally patronising to women over 40.)

“this moment is what the feminist movement was striving for – the point where it’s just not an issue what gender you are”

Right. Pay inequity is for life – women earn less than men, even in the same jobs; women are more likely to take jobs that earn less (caring roles, like nursing and teaching, are valued less); and women are more likely to remove themselves from the workforce for extended periods to raise children. Women still experience shocking rates of domestic and sexual violence. Women are more likely to be blamed for the domestic and sexual violence they experience. These are just a few issues that affect my privileged life; if I were also gay/trans/a woman of colour/had a disability, I’d have a lot more to worry about.

You want to explain to me exactly how gender is no longer an issue?

March 8, 2011 at 3:14 AM

“Women are people — we’re not less than men, we’re not more than men, we’re not just horribly flawed or just perfect. Sometimes we’re good and sometimes we’re bad. ” — *applause*

March 8, 2011 at 11:15 AM

I don’t get it!! And as a WOMAN… I REALLY DON”T GET IT!! You are comparing yourself, many others and an entire gender to a fictional character that is written as a means for entertainment and income alone. I for one don’t want and won’t be pigeon holed as a “feminist” just so my voice can be heard. No! I will be heard because I am a strong, independent PERSON who has the rights and liberties of every other citizen in this free country we live in. If you don’t like my opinion, fine thank you for your input. I don’t feel judged just because I am a woman! If you don’t like the decisions I make, fine, thank you very much now move along. I don’t live under a patriarchy and will bow down to no man (or woman). The only opinions that count are the ones I allow to count. If someone who’s opinion doesn’t matter tells you you are wrong – SCREW THEM! What do you care?! You don’t have to be a feminist to stand up for yourself. This whole judgment thing… if someone is judging you – SCREW THEM! We all judge, man woman or child. I am extremely thankful that I am allowed the freedom of speech and will not go around whining about a patriarchy and rights that so many people (not just women) don’t truly have. This is the problem with people today they all want to blame someone else for the issues in our lives. I say own it, live your life the way you want, dress how you want and if the patriarchy, feminists, judgmental people of the world don’t like it – SCREW THEM!!

March 9, 2011 at 9:11 AM

I don’t understand the point of this article. It has good setup, but then you never really define feminism or explain why Liz Lemon is feminist, except that she’s a woman and you say she’s feminist so there. But not everything a woman does is feminist. It’s not anti-feminist to acknowledge that “feminist” is a word that has meaning.

Do I think feminists can be judgmental of other women? Definitely. Do I think Liz Lemon is a feminist? My views on 30 Rock and feminism are too complicated to explain in a blog comment, but I think it means well. I’m not offended by this episode because I feel that the “moral” was the same thing you discuss in the article about feminists not judging women.

But this is a weak article. It doesn’t explain anything or provide insight into anything, and I’m disappointed. Maybe you should try to figure out what feminism means before trying to categorize things as “feminist” or “anti-feminist”.

March 9, 2011 at 6:00 PM

feminists suck