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16 February 2011, 5:00 pm 6 Comments

Television Man: What’s With All the Liz Lemon Lesbian Jokes?

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

Welcome to Television Man! It’s Zack’s new biweekly TV column. Be kind to it.

As “gay episodes” of network TV go, the deftest handling I can think comes from the 2007 30 Rock episode “Cougars.” Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon finds herself dating a much younger man and her straight/disgusting colleague Frank Rossitano falls in love with him. It’s rare to see a standard comedy show draw such a clear distinction between the sexual and cultural aspects of being a gay man, but 30 Rock nails it. Frank doesn’t cut his hair, show up to work in a cardigan or begin rocking out to Xtina. He stays the same guy he is — a straight one, for the most part—  who happens to fall for one other guy. At the episode’s end, after getting over his crush, he visits a gay club and decides the whole scene isn’t for him.

All that said, if I was a lesbian I’d be getting just a little annoyed at 30 Rock right now. If I played a drinking game where I took a shot every time someone called Liz Lemon a lesbian I’d already be fishing for mud sharks in heaven with Jon Bonham. Just off the top of my head (and not even including this clip) here are some lez-directed lines that I initally laughed at, but find a little puzzling when they add up:

“Lesbian Mario Brothers!”

“Lesbian Yellow Sour Fruit”

“Lemon…Lesbian…Frankenstein… wants…her…shoes…back.”

“All passengers, including any lip-less middle-aged women in lesbian clown shirts should please take their seat at this time.”

Network-mate Community already treads a thin line with their ambiguous Dean, and Pierce’s constant assertions that Britta is a lesbian and Jeff is gay. But the Dean’s queer identity has taken a sort of arc, moving from insinuations to non-judgemental character trait, and all of Pierce’s mutterings have more to do with his closemindedness. But on 30 Rock the only overarching theme I can see from the show’s point of view, is that lesbians are supposed to be dowdy. Since Liz is dowdy too she must be a lesbian.

From what I understand (not being, you know, a lesbian) Tina Fey has a big following among queer ladies. She’s gorgeous, funny and looks great in glasses. If she was a dude I’d do her. So I wonder if all the lesbian jokes are a nod to that popularity. But if so, couldn’t they do it in a way that didn’t seem to insult lesbians? If all the ladies out there in TNG-ville are cool with it then I am too, but do you ever get just a little annoyed that “lesbian” has become that show’s go-to shortcut for a frumpy, undesirable woman?

It reminds me a little bit of a well-intentioned straight friend I had who could not let a single opportunity pass to point out when I made inadvertent gay innuendos. He supported me and was unafraid to ask questions about my life, but I got tired of cringing everytime words like “ball,” “rod,” “blow,” and “shove” came up in innocuous conversation. I was glad he was comfortable enough with me to joke but the jokes weren’t clever enough to really be worth it.

The problem is that 30 Rock is so genuinely funny. Their surfeit of lesbian jokes are clever and well-written but they never seem to end. Will Arnett’s Devon Banks was 30 Rock‘s most recurring gay male character and they made so many overt, cliched gay jokes at his expense that I was happy when he stopped showing up.

Ladies of TNG: Are you feeling the same way about Liz?

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  • Margaret said:

    If being a lesbian = being like Tina Fey, I’ll take it.

    I think it’s part of this whole “Liz Lemon is so frumpy and dorky and unfunny and ugly” when really, she is, as you say, Tina Fey who is hot and smart and nerdy. So really, if we’re laughing at Liz being called frumpy by being called a lesbian, does this also turn inside-out the idea that lesbians are frumpy?

    One of the first episodes had one of the former ADAs from SVU (Alex Cabot, for those who, like Zack, follow the show) as the lesbian friend of Jack’s with whom he was trying to set up Liz. But it didn’t work because–joke’s on Liz–despite her frumpiness, Liz is straight. But Stephanie March is not frumpy or ugly, and she comes to _30 Rock_ from having played a character on a show that that has a lesbian icon in the person of Mariska Hargita/Olivia Benson. Besides wanting to thank them very much for having cast Alex… er… Stephanie March as a lesbian, this makes me think that they are signalling that they know the lesbians-aren’t-frumpy thing isn’t real, but it’s a belief Jack holds on to dearly. (And, I must say, I would prefer a “lesbians wear frumpy shoes” comment from a straight man than “lesbians are so hot” any day, because they’re not talking about our clothes).

    This is, of course, similar to the casual sexism and racism employed on the show. Sometimes they do it so well, it makes one wonder where the satire begins, exactly.

    Oh, and since we’re here, my favorite article on Liz Lemon and feminism, or, as Doyle calls it, Liz Lemonism: http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/03/24/13-ways-of-looking-at-liz-lemon/

  • James said:

    I LOVE the episode with Alex Cabot! And I think Margaret is right to note that the joke is the other characters’, namely Jack’s, reading of Liz as lesbianesque rather than the joke being that Liz is lesbianesque.

  • Tarryl said:

    I think it’s better to acknowledge something than just do what most other people do — ignore it.

    30 Rock doesn’t just make fun of lesbians, they make fun of all walks of people, including the characters. If you can’t laugh at yourself it has nothing to do with the fact that you’re a lesbian, it has to do with the fact that you’re uptight or have low self esteem.

    I’m glad that 30 Rock has the balls to not ignore gay issues but actually acknowledge them. Plus, it’s a comedy show, so how can you expect them to not make fun of what they acknowledge?

  • Sarah said:

    THANK YOU for bringing this up! I’m a lesbian. I used to LOVE “30 Rock.” But I am lately just BEWILDERED at these gratuitous lesbian jokes in the show. It is hurtful and insulting, and I am OFFENDED. After this last Thursday’s episode, I actually decided to stop watching the show, because I was that upset. It’s also bewildering because these jokes are so unnecessary and only serve to perpetuate this myth that lesbians are ugly and unattractive. Good god, grow up. And until you do, “30 Rock,” you’ve lost a fan in me.

  • Dawn said:

    I completely agree with Margaret and think all the jokes that Lemon is a lesbian turns the insult inside-out. There’s a reason Afterellen.com readers have voted Tina Fey #1 sexiest woman before and consistently in the top ten over the years that such a vote has been taken. She’s one of those types of straight girls who exudes lady love, an appreciation for other women. I don’t watch the show every week, so maybe I’ve missed something but I think it’s great that a smart, funny and unconventionally beautiful lady is perceived that way.

  • Nina said:

    Women in comfortable shoes, right? So a woman who doesn’t bother going to extreme lengths paint and preen herself is automatically a lesbian, right? That is the driving force behind these jokes- the fact that people can’t get it into their heads for a woman to disregard societal pressure other than because she doesn’t want to attract a male (ie lesbian). As with almost all of 30 Rock, there is a lot of thought behind these jokes.

    The jokes are about societal pressure, a gentle rain of judgement and criticism. I’m surprised to see these jokes perceived as those judgements, rather than a satire of them.