The best compliment I’ve ever received was paid me while watching 30 Rock with friends. After Liz Lemon said something particularly food-focused, someone turned to me, hooting, “you are Liz Lemon!” I considered myself, in my glasses, cardigan, and big socks, eating cheese and drinking wine from a rocks glass. In that moment, I felt like Liz Lemon, and watched the rest of the show in a daze of bewilderment and pride.
Perhaps it’s just me who relates so strongly, who feels similarly about sandwiches and Star Wars, and thinks she would be friends with a real-life Liz Lemon. I suspect, though, that the process of identification takes place in living rooms across the globe, as women see someone more like them. As female television characters go, Liz Lemon is hardly ordinary. Her life is off-the-wall, she works on a television show, and she has a mustache named Tom Selleck. Yet Liz Lemon, as played by Tina Fey, is an everywoman hiding under a comedic guise.
Lemon is brilliant, funny, pretty, and — despite her many work-related hijinks — successful in ways that, let’s face it, not all of us are. To some degree, she has to be, because she’s on television. The show is a comedy, and thus operates under a heightened sense of reality. For example, the men with whom Lemon has relationships are fascinating, some too much so to be plausible; Dennis Duffy is too outrageous to be quite realistic. While Fey and Alec Baldwin play against each other with great honesty and care, some of the show’s most fantastical humor stems from Lemon’s relationship with Baldwin’s über-alpha male Jack Donaghy. This is a sitcom, the characters can’t be “real.”
Yet this necessary un-realism is tempered by the fact that Lemon has believable foibles. She has personal rules about sex, about snuggling, about feet. She knows she’s distinctive in some of her proclivities, acknowledging, “maybe I’m a little old-fashioned. I’m sorry I’m a real woman and not some over-sexed New York nympho like those sluts on Everybody Loves Raymond” (“Reaganing”). She has outstanding student loans and only uses the word “lovers” between the words “meat” and “pizza.” In the 30 Rock episode “Lee Marvin and Derek Jeter,” Liz Lemon stops dead in the middle of an insipid intramural singles dodgeball game to declare:
I want someone who will be monogamous, and nice to his mother. And I want someone who likes musicals but knows to just shut his mouth when I’m watching Lost. And I want someone who thinks being really into cars is lame and strip clubs are gross. I want someone who will actually empty the dishwasher instead of just taking out forks as needed, like I do. I want someone with clean hands and feet and beefy forearms like a damn Disney prince. And I want him to genuinely like me, even when I’m old. And that’s what I want.
It was perhaps the most relatable thing ever spoken by a female lead in a sitcom.
Most of Lemon’s “kooky” qualities are actually so comfort-based as to be considered ordinary. While they are played for laughs, all her interests tie in to basic needs: Food, clothing, curling up on the couch. Who doesn’t have a little debt, or personal issues related to sex? Who dislikes sandwiches? No one is perfect. Not Liz Lemon, not me, and not to get personal, but probably not you.
How, then, if Liz Lemon is an everywoman, is she so fascinating? It could easily be chalked up to the writing and performance. Fey is a powerhouse of funny, and Lemon is the personification of that talent for humor. If it were only funny, though, we would love her, but perhaps not identify so strongly. In her cover story in the March 2010 issue of Vogue, Fey tries to define her personal allure, saying, “I feel like I represent normalcy in some way. What are your choices today in entertainment? People either represent youth, power, or sexuality. And then there’s me, carrying normalcy – me and Rachel Ray.” It’s fallacious to confuse the actor (or the writer) with the role, but Fey has summed up Liz Lemon’s appeal in describing herself: She’s a bastion of normalcy. She’s not like so many female characters on television today, police officers and doctors who may experience turmoil in their lives, but are designed without recognizable human flaws. Millions of women are beautiful, intelligent, and funny, but are unlikely to see themselves in a televised version of “beautiful, intelligent, funny woman.”
The ability to identify with this character is best expressed, as I find most things are, in the words of Lemon herself: “Can I share with you my worldview? All of humankind has one thing in common: The sandwich. I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.” I raise my hoagie to you, Liz Lemon, and to all the self-identified Lemons in the world.