It’s an old story: British TV show comes to America and all of its characters are played by much hotter actors. But American television’s terror of putting normal-looking people on screen is most troubling in “30 Rock.” The biggest failing of that show is that they didn’t have the nerve to cast an actually frumpy actress in Liz Lemon’s role. About half the jokes focus on Lemon’s looks, and they’re all undercut when the camera focuses on the slim, beautiful Tina Fey. It’s not quite as offensive as casting a tan white guy in Tracy Morgan’s role but still having lots of black jokes, but it’s similarly jarring.
Chloe Angyal at Feministing:
One of the running themes of Glee is that Rachel, played by Lea Michele, is talented, but annoying, badly dressed and physically unattractive. In other words, they Liz Lemon her. Yeah, I just made that a verb – and it needs to be one, because there’s a lot of Liz Lemoning going on these days.
For those of you who don’t spend an embarrassing amount of your time watching sitcoms on Hulu, Liz Lemonning originates with NBC’s 30 Rock. The most frustrating thing about 30 Rock, an otherwise excellent show, are the constant references to the fact that Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon is ugly. The thing is, Tina Fey fits conventional standards of female beauty almost to a T. Liz Lemon, like Rachel, is a flawed character, but the constant references to her ugliness are just absurd. And while beauty is of course subjective, these two women absolutely meet our culture’s standard of female beauty: they’re young, white, slim, cis-gendered, well-proportioned and able-bodied, with long shiny hair and smooth skin. They may not be Victoria’s Secret models, and they may have brown hair and glasses, but they certainly still meet society’s standards of female beauty.
I’ve never seen it this way though. In fact, I’ve really liked that everyone calls Liz Lemon ugly on 30 Rock because she’s so clearly not ugly. For me, the real humor in those insults was not from Liz Lemon but rather the blindness of the people calling her ugly. What kind of mutant do you have to be to not see the beauty that’s so clearly there?
But from the reactions of other people, I think I missed the joke —which I’m happy about. I always took the insults to be more of a critique of the ridiculous perceptions of beauty in contemporary society. If you think someone who looks like that is ugly, there’s something wrong with you.
Hortense at Jezebel:
Discussions surrounding Fey’s looks are always a bit weird, which I suppose speaks to the fact that, as Irin noted, Fey is often presented as a “relatable sex goddess.” Tina Fey seems to be the type of woman who can admit that her transformation is a bit of a Hollywood Cinderella story while simultaneously calling bullshit on Cinderella stories in general.
But this “relatability” factor causes a weird defense that seems to spring up whenever anyone points out that Fey actually fits into conventional beauty standards: she’s thin, white, glossy hair, always looks glamorous at events, and so on and so forth. People rush to point out that Fey used to be heavier, or that she has a scar, or that she wasn’t always as glamorous as she has appeared over the past six or seven years. It’s almost as if people feel the need to justify the fact that Tina Fey is actually quite traditionally beautiful in the Hollywood sense by attempting to point out the days when she wasn’t.
I’m not exactly sure I agree with Chloe’s post, in that I think Liz Lemon is a character whose self-deprecation speaks more to her internal state than her external one, though I do think the idea of trying to pretend some women are “ugly” simply because other characters on a television show tell them so is a bit tired and played out. Liz Lemon is actually a bit of a step in the right direction, in that her truly “ugly” moments come from poor decision making and selfishness and have very little to do with her looks whatsoever.
It’s the narrative that surrounds Fey off-screen that’s a bit more puzzling: she’s not your typical starlet, sure, but she’s not Marla Hooch, needing “a lot of night games,” either. Fey made fun of herself (allegedly) in a press release wherein she described her Vogue shoot as what it “would be like if Vogue gave your 40-year-old sister-in-law a makeover.” But the makeover happened years ago, and it’s probably time we all just stop acting surprised whenever Fey shows up looking absolutely gorgeous. That should really be the territory of every dumb magazine that can’t get over the fact that yes, women can be smart, funny, and pretty. I know, right? Madness.
Obviously, on some level I’m not surprised that professional actors are better-looking than ordinary people. But Hollywood’s reluctance to allow any real range of physical appearance, especially for female characters, seems a bit oddly crippling to me. After all, the fact that some people are better-looking than others is a really important fact of social life. And in principle, it’s something a visual medium like television should be really good at conveying. In a novel, the only way to convey the fact that a character is good-looking is to write that she’s good-looking. On television, in principle, you could convey that information simply by casting someone who’s good-looking and have that be part of the background as the scene unfolds.
But in practice you can’t. You need to be explicitly instructed that “Liz Lemon is ugly” is one of the conceits of the show—this certainly isn’t information you would obtain simply by looking at Tina Fey. Similarly, the fact that Dr Chase is really attractive was a plot-point in a recent House episode. And of course Jesse Spencer has always been a good-looking dude. But given the conventions of television casting that mere fact is insufficient to establish that the Chase character is supposed to be that hot, until it’s explicitly stated in dialogue.
What’s more, the fact that this phenomenon disproportionate affects women winds up having deleterious knock-on consequences. Most of all it means that the path of least resistance to doing compelling drama is to frame a topic in a way that guarantees an overwhelmingly male cast. Do something focused on cops and violent criminals like The Sopranos or The Wire and you can build a world that features a facsimile of human diversity.
In NBC’s defense, Tina Fey is the creator, head writer, and executive producer for 30 Rock, a show she based on her own experience as the head writer for Saturday Night Live. And I’ve never gathered that Lemon is supposed to be ugly so much as a rather ridiculously socially awkward nerd.
The same premise was used for the Sandra Bullock vehicle Miss Congeniality, in which Gracie Hart’s colleagues were simply shocked that, with a little bit of makeup and some attention to her eyebrows, she could be a plausible beauty pageant contestant. (The fact that Bullock was 35, about a dozen years too old, is another story left cleverly unexplored.) Also, to a lesser extent, in The Princess Diaries, in which it turns out that Anne Hathaway isn’t particularly bad looking.