Tuning In: Liz Lemon's ringtone
Last month, NBC aired 30 Rock's "Future Husband" episode, wherein TGS creator/head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) tracks down the man she labeled her spouse-to-be on her iPhone. It was a follow-up to the Valentine's Day-themed "Anna Howard Shaw Day," which found the show's heroine spending the most romantic day of the year at the dentist, haunted by hallucinations of ex-boyfriends as the painkillers took hold. Apparently while doped up, Lemon met a British man named Wesley Snipes (Michael Sheen). When they exchanged phone numbers, both parties were looking to settle. "Future Husband" focuses on them not wanting to acknowledge that society thinks their age and relationship status thinks that they should. For those who'd like to watch the episode in full, go here.
As I was anticipating this blog series at the time of my viewing, imagine my good fortune when I realized that Lemon changed her ringtone from Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (i.e., Elmer Fudd's "Kill the Wabbit") to Peaches's "Fuck the Pain Away."
I've long been a fan of 30 Rock. As a feminist media scholar, there's so much to latch onto. Apart from being smart and funny, there's an ongoing critique around working in network television, which has long been integrated into the business strategies of multi-national corporations. The show is also laced with a myriad of knowing winks to pop culture, product placement, and the cast's star personae. At the center of it all is "one very, very special white lady" who reminds its viewers that sexism continues to permeate office culture and heterosexual relationships, just as white guilt and misogyny can distort the aims of feminism. Every day is a power negotiation.
I'll admit that since mid-way through season three, I feel the show has gotten louder, weirder, plagued by too many guest stars, and less focused on the sitcom's backstage world of live sketch comedy and its minor characters. And as Sady Doyle has astutely pointed out on her own and in dialogue with Amanda Hess, the show has become progressively meaner toward its protagonist's looks, her self-esteem, her deteriorating friendship with TGS star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and her relationships with other women.
But I'm still a fan. I'm proud that creator Fey has become so well-regarded and successful. She's winning Emmys, garnering starring roles in movies, and continuing to put Sarah Palin in her place. I also feel like some of the show's uglier moments toward women reveal the work that needs to be done within feminism regarding homosocial trust and healthy forms of professional competition.
I've always enjoyed the moments when Lemon or other characters mention of make light of distinctly female items of mass culture: Spanx, cougars, MILFs, Dove Pro-Age, Oprah, Ellen, Ugly Betty, Cathy, Alanis Morrissette, and Designing Women, among others. I'll add queer electro artist Peaches, who has a strong fanbase within contemporary feminist circles. She also appeared on the soundtrack to Mean Girls, Fey's breakout screenplay that adapted Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. GE Vice President Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) was mocking subordinant Lemon in the pilot when he described her as, "New York, third-wave feminist, college-educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, over-scheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says 'healthy body image' on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for … a week." At the same time, he was referring to at least certain aspects of many of us. And since Fey herself wrote the pilot, presumably that's her assessment.
I'm also interested in whom Lemon likes. Though her white heterosexuality is evident, she is often inspired by or seeks allies and friends in people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, especially black women and lesbians. She wants to be friends with Angie, TGS star Tracy Jordan's wife. She's obsessed with Oprah. Her struggle to remain top dog on the TGS staff mirrors Deborah's ascendancy on MILF Island. She wishes her feelings of companionship for Donaghy's former contemporary Gretchen could be sexually reciprocated. Again, Peaches seems to be another person with whom Lemon tries to identify. And if she can't be friends with her, at least she can use her campy, subversive music as a ringtone to defiantly make public her single status and sexual needs.
As for many feminists, the union of fan and cultural producer is not a perfect one. But the processes of identification are as interesting here as they are problematic, something Liz Lemon and Tina Fey are no doubt aware. And with that, I'll close with a mash-up of Miss Piggy lip-syncing the Peaches song in question. Something tells me that Liz Lemon has already seen it and is amused.
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