For those of you that don’t know, Liz Lemon is the main character of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Set in New York City, the show follows the various misadventures of Liz Lemon, a fortysomething writer for a comedy sketch show who is stuck in a continuous mid-life crisis. Despite being nominated for over a hundred awards, the show was not quite the mass hit it was hoped to be, although it received high praise from the critics. 30 Rock has gone on to become one of Tina Fey’s most successful shows, and Liz Lemon – who she plays – is one of her most well-known characters (as well as the source of an endless stream of quotes).
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Most of the time, Liz is reacting to the actions of other characters. The problems she has to solve usually aren’t of her own making – when she’s faced with a dilemma, more often than not it’s the result of her boss’s meddling, her staff’s laziness or the ridiculous demands of her actors. She comes up with the solutions on her own, but the problems are usually not her fault.
That said, while Liz definitely isn’t in control of the problems she has to face on an episodic basis, she is definitely in control of her story arc as a larger whole. She may come up against a lot of petty problems that aren’t of her own making, but ultimately she’s exactly where she wants to be. She actively sets out to achieve her goals, whether that’s pursuing her lifelong dream of maintaining a career as a TV writer, getting a nicer apartment, finding a good relationship and adopting children. When something in her life isn’t going as well as she wants it to, she tries her best to change it. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
A huge part of Liz’s storyline is that she doesn’t really have enough time to have a social life – most of her time is taken up with work. That said, we know that she loves Star Wars, junk food, and watching as much TV as possible. Her goals are much more clearly defined. She wants to adopt children, to find a nice boyfriend, to have a nice apartment, and – a childhood dream of hers – to write for a network comedy show. Her beliefs are also pretty clear – she doesn’t really believe in the idea of marriage, is a committed feminist, is politically liberal, and doesn’t really set much store by typically feminine behaviours.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Liz is a very consistent character. She’s awkward, intelligent, hard-working, determined, can be very defensive and insensitive to people’s feelings, and is also something of a stress eater. As far as her skills go, we know that she speaks pretty good German, is a talented writer and has become pretty good at ‘managing’ all the difficult actors she has to work with. Equally, her lack of skills are just as consistent – she’s shown to have poor social skills and has severe trouble expressing her feelings.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A hard-working, socially awkward TV writer decides to take control of her personal life.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Liz’s love life is a pretty substantial part of the series, but it definitely isn’t the main focus. Of course, Liz does make some decisions about who she’s going to date, but ultimately the bulk of her motivations and decisions are to do with her career. The audience is left in no doubt that pursuing her dream is what really makes Liz happy – which is actually really unusual for a female character.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Liz does develop over the course of 30 Rock. Aside from generally getting her life together – by which I mean sorting out a nice apartment, trying to be more responsible and starting a family – one of her most significant character developments is her learning to express her emotions and talk about sex and relationships. She goes from being quite an awkward and somewhat emotionally stunted character to one who learns to express her feelings sincerely and honestly – although that requires a bit of prompting. We also see her develop sexually: she discovers how she likes to have sex and becomes a bit more adventurous – although the less said about that, the better.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Liz has plenty of weaknesses. She’s judgemental, she’s socially awkward, she has trouble expressing her feelings, she doesn’t know how to relax, she tries to control everything, she often puts her foot in her mouth (particularly when trying to talk about racial issues), she can be incredibly insensitive and often has trouble recognising other people’s boundaries. These are all weaknesses that actively hold her back throughout the show – some of which she works on, some of which she doesn’t – so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Liz drives the plot forward at every turn. While she might not always cause the problems she has to solve – although she does sometimes have to step up and fix her own mistakes – her efforts to try and keep her show on the air form the bedrock of the series. She’s at the very centre of almost every episode and her decisions and actions have a real impact on the plot.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Liz actually relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way, and most of the time this is played for laughs. On the one hand, she ticks a few fairly traditional boxes: despite her successful career, the fact that she hasn’t started a family is treated as a mark of failure, and she starts getting broody very quickly when one of her co-workers brings their baby to work. On the other hand, she’s also quite unconventional: she’s emotionally stunted, is something of a geek, values her career over anything else, and doesn’t really care about her appearance – all traits that are more traditionally associated with men.
What’s so great about Liz as a character is that she’s allowed to meet these conflicting demands on her own terms, which is part of why this mix of conventional and unconventional works so well. She wants to start a family, but she doesn’t care about getting married or carrying the baby herself, and is perfectly prepared to adopt as a single parent. She gets broody, and while she does go a little bit crazy it doesn’t completely overwhelm her character. She wants to settle down and find a nice relationship, but this is more about companionship and support than bowing to societal pressure. This is reflected in her relationship with her boss, Jack Donaghy – everyone expected them to end up falling for each other, but despite accidentally getting married, the two have a strictly platonic relationship.
Long story short, Liz is a character who manages to mix stereotypically feminine and masculine things and deal with both of them on her own terms – which is something that fictional characters should really do more often.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Liz has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She’s best friends with her actress, Jenna Maroney, and the two have a very complicated relationship involving jealousy on both sides, difficulty communicating with each other, and a certain amount of catering to Jenna’s drama queen demands. She’s constantly trying to become friends with Angie, the wife of one of her actors, but she fails at this quite regularly because she’s often racially insensitive when she tries to do this. She has a number of female co-workers who she works with, a number of women she looks up to, and a complicated relationship with her mother, who tries to support her but doesn’t agree with everything she does. That’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of different women, so she passes this round.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Congratulations, Tina Fey! Liz is a well-rounded character with a range of goals, beliefs and interests, contends against various weaknesses and develops over the course of her own story. She’s a driving force on the plot, relates to gender stereotypes in her own unique way, and doesn’t put her love life at the centre of every decision she makes. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at one of the classics. Catherine Earnshaw, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.