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Body dysmorphic disorder, '30 Rock' style


One of the greatest puzzles of "30 Rock" is the fact that Tina Fey plays a frumpy, unattractive character on the show. After all, Fey is glamorous and petite in real life, not to mention impossibly successful; an ideal role model for any young woman. She is, as they say, the whole package; or, as Jack Donaghy might say, "the one."

And yet so often on the show, Fey's character, Liz Lemon, is shot down by the people around her; laughed at even. And nowhere this season have the tongue lashings been quite as brutal as they were in Thursday's episode. It starts in the jewelry showroom, where Jack is picking out an engagement ring for sexy Salma Hayek's character, Elisa. The jeweler, mistaking Liz for Jack's fiancee, announces, "she's very spirited. Like a show horse." Jack quickly -- urgently even -- clears up the misconception by showing the jeweler a photo of Elisa. The jeweler is relieved: "Please follow me to the real showroom," he says. Thus, in the opening minutes of the show, Liz is deemed unfit to have a "real" engagement ring, the assumed symbol of feminine worth in a man's world.

Liz's worth as a female is called into question again in a scene with Elisa. Elisa confesses she has a secret, and Liz guesses that she is really a man. "Really? That's your guess? A man?" Presses Elisa: "You want to see me naked?"

"Sort of," replies Liz, in awe of Elisa's voluptuous body. Liz's curiosity in this moment is not necessarily sexual, but rather the prepubescent curiosity of a girl who is not yet a woman, in awe of one who is.

Things go to the next level when Elisa kisses Liz full on the mouth, and Liz acknowledges that she can see why Jack likes Elisa.  In this exchange, Liz has gone from admiring Elisa's beauty to admiring her sexual prowess. And being at least mildly aroused by it.  

And so it would seem that Liz was being painted as one of the boys, a tried-and-true sitcom category.  Only she isn't that either. As Jack tells her again and again over the course of the episode, she does not understand men. And Liz agrees. So where does that leave her?

It leaves her alone in her "slanket" eating cheese; one of the more amazing images of the season. After a day of not fitting in anywhere -- not with super-sexy Elisa and her ilk, and not with the men she doesn't "understand" -- Liz comes home, wraps herself in a blanket with sleeves, and prepares a cheese platter. Not just any cheese platter, mind you. It is painstakingly arranged, with huge wedges of fancy fromage and all of the proper cheese-utensils. It is even served on a wooden board in lieu of a plate. It is the cheese platter of a woman who has been looking forward to a cheese platter all day. Another great and subtle detail: Liz has lit candles. When Jack comes to her apartment for counsel, she is singing "Working on the night cheese." Yes, "working on the night cheese." She can't hide from Jack, even if she wants to; I heard you singing "working on the night cheese," he tells her when he enters her apartment.


And so, Liz's sanctuary invaded, she allows Jack to vent; that is, until Elisa comes barreling into the room. For a split-second, Elisa suspects Jack of having an affair with Liz. After giving Liz the once-over, however, she realizes this is impossible. The exchange is slightly ludicrous, in light of Tina Fey's flawless physique, but works in the fantasy world set up on the show. Elisa realizes that Jack has come to Liz "because she's your bro," and nothing more. Then, in the most hostile Liz-bashing moment of the episode -- and probably of the season -- Elisa barks, "Lemon, isn't there a slanket somewhere you should be filling with your farts?"

Just looking at Liz, there seems a great disconnect between the way she looks and the way she is treated on the show. Why would a jeweler not want to serve her? Why would a beautiful woman not think Liz capable of stealing her man? The answer is this: Although "30 Rock" is an ensemble series, the action is all, however subtly, seen through Liz's eyes. Sure, there is no voice-over, but in a way, all of the characters, including most prominently her own, are performed in the way Liz sees them. Thus, all of the characters treat Liz the way that she thinks they see her, not the way they necessarily do. The grave disconnect lies, not in the way Liz looks (beautiful) and the way the world sees her (plain), but in the way Liz looks and the way she sees herself.

-- Stephanie Lysaght

Photos, from top: Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin; Fey, Salma Hayek, and Baldwin. Credits: NBC

Comments () | Archives (31)

The writer of this piece clearly does not get the show.

Tina disses her looks constantly and I can't figure out if it's for the sake of comedy or if she really believes it. It'd be a shame if she really doesn't realize how beautiful and sexy she is. I know it's good for comedy on the show, but when she does it in real life it mostly leaves me baffled and a little sad to think she's really that insecure. I'd kill for her body! And her brains ...her sense of humor. Well, I just want to be her clone, basically.

Wow. This is just horrendous. No offense to the writer - who I'm assuming is a perfectly earnest 2nd-year communications major - but passing this off as legitimate media coverage? One can only assume that the The Times is just letting things go to seed these days.

Great take on the episode/show. Insightful. Thanks for writing it out. It's often hard for devoted fans (like myself) to step back from the show's quick, and fast, wit and see some of the more painful character flaws that might be more fully explained/explored/resolved in a dramatic series. Tina?

sounds more like a personal problem

I agree with Stephanie - I'm a fan of the show, but to see an obviously hot and smart lady like Fey play a frumpy workoholic loser strains credibility. Not sure if there are psychological issues behind it, but it is interesting that the only other recurring female character is written as a slutty, amoral dingbat.

Nice analysis. I do always find it funny that Tina Feys supposed to be Frumpy. Liz is just as much a total package as Tina. I'll be sharing this at Pregnant Cornbread. http://pregnantcornbread.com

Oh, please. Not everything done on TV is for educational purposes - it's like when Joss Whedon talks about how he's constantly getting criticized for being antifeminist, "I don't make 'feminist' or 'pro-choice' or television with an agenda - I try to make entertaining television."

I like the fact that Liz Lemon eats. And stress eats, a lot. I have a lot of self-identification and I think other viewers do too. Yes, Tina Fey is gorgeous and the idea that people would find her unattractive or fat is ridiculous, but I think it speaks out to certain groups of people and she's not doing it to prove a point. It's being written in because when Liz Lemon gets caught eating her Sabor de Soledad in the closet, reading about living with orangutans, it's funny.

Lighten up.

This is an interesting perspective, however, I disagree. I always thought that the way people treat Liz is just another example of how often beautiful people are misunderstood because of the way they dress or speak. This scenario happens often, especially in a career like Liz's where she is surrounded by beautiful actors/actresses.

High school students could write better than this.


While I enjoyed this article and thought it was well-written and insightful, I think you're taking the show and the episode far too seriously. Tina Fey has said that with this show she wanted to go the opposite route of Sex and the City, which involves all rich gorgeous women living unrealistic idealized lives. Fey wanted to do the opposite of that which is show life in New York with a comedic dose of reality always getting in the way. That's what makes for comedy; it's that self-deprecating humor in which the world sees Liz as some kind of frumpy nerd, that gives the show its humorous insight. And while I agree that Fey is much more attracive than her on-TV personna is let to believe, you can't compare her to someone like Salma Hayek. Not by a longshot. But that's just it: Fey KNOWS this to be true and is OK with it. Thus, comedy.

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