The Sexual Humiliation of Sitcom Women

Over at NPR’s Monkey See blog, Linda Holmes has a provocative essay up chronicling the decline of Liz Lemon, the harried comedy showrunner who is the star of NBC’s sitcom 30 Rock, from competent if overwhelmed woman to cringing child:

A recent storyline featuring James Marsden as Criss, Liz’s boyfriend who drove a hot-dog truck, was very reminiscent of Dennis the pager salesman. But this time, she didn’t break up with him because Jack gave her the side-eye and forced her to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t want him. She broke up with him because Jack appeared to her as an apparition — her spirit guide, basically — and mocked Criss, mostly for not having any money…Over the course of six seasons, Jack has been fully transformed into a condescending, all-knowing daddy, and Liz has been fully transformed into a needy little girl who is eternally terrified of displeasing him. She’s always had a grudging respect for him, but now she simply reveres him and trusts his judgment more than hers. She was once frazzled but smart, harried but competent, capable of wrangling a bunch of crazy people and then slumping at the end of the day, exhausted but minimally victorious. Now, she’s just dumb, incapable of making her own decisions, and her relationship with Jack is entirely out of balance.

For me, the tipping point with 30 Rock actually came last season when the show decided the next logical place to go in finding ways to be funny about Liz was to utterly sexually humiliate her. Liz was, at the time, dating a commercial pilot with the unfortunate name of Carol and an unfortunate moustache, played by Matt Damon, and they were having bedroom issues. Or, as Liz put it “I freaked out and my junk closed for business. It’s like Fort Knox down there.” The reason? An incident involving a Tom Jones poster, roller skates, the worst haircut anyone could bestow on a child, and a pair of flowered underpants. Liz can’t just have garden-variety intimacy problems: she has to be utterly freakish—and of course, to have Jack help her reach her breakthrough.

The decline of Liz Lemon may be a particular tragedy given how great 30 Rock once was. But when it comes to sex, it’s hardly unprecedented. A number of television comedies have decided to get laughs out of suggesting that their female leads are sexually freakish, and not in a Ludacris-approved kind of way. New Girl‘s done this to Jess twice. First, when she was finally about to sleep with her new boyfriend, the show had Jess overcome her jitters by getting her tangled up in ridiculous lingerie and then had her act out so many exaggerated versions of so many fetishes that she almost scared the poor man to death. More recently, Jess, in an effort to prove that her perennial optimism is always well-founded, ended up almost having a threesome with her creepy landlord. Her inability to read signals in any rational way—and her dancing around her bedroom doing jazz hands after the man proposed a threesome—were not the actions of a rational person.

And Parks and Recreation, which has done an admirable job of making its public servant heroine Leslie Knope into a sex symbol, had a weird slip last season when Leslie’s boss, Ron, discovered that she was dating their immediate superior, Ben. Her big secret was revealed when she accidentally dialed Ron during foreplay with Ben, a leadup that involved the two of them pretending to be historical weird leaders. Ron was disconcerted by the fact that Leslie had kept a secret from him, but the joke was clearly Leslie’s sexual proclivities.

Now, it’s not as if there’s an entirely clear double standard on these shows. On Parks and Recreation, Ron, normally a manly, independent libertarian is reduced to jelly and silliness by the sexual wiles of his ex-wives, to whom he is dangerously susceptible. Jess’s roommates on New Girl are not uniformly romantically successful. But Jack’s sexual quirks are generally treated as evidence of his prowess and manliness. When Liz is shocked that Jack’s girlfriend Avery likes a particular sex act, Jack explains that she appreciates it when it’s well-executed. And during his relationship with liberal Congresswoman C.C. Cunningham, he consistently credits for being sexually adventuresome. It’s too bad that someone like Leslie, who’s otherwise competent, aggressive, smart and attractive couldn’t get credit for sexual creativity rather than becoming the butt of jokes for having specific tastes.