watch

Why Liz Lemon is the Villain of 30 Rock

In 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is certain that she’s the hero of her story. From her point of view, she’s the smart, sane underdog, always fighting an uphill battle against the patriarchy, the corporatism of Jack Donaghy, and the unprofessionalism of her staff. But over time, Liz’s actions paint the portrait of someone who’s ruthless, self-centered, and hypocritical. Here’s our Take on why Liz Lemon is the villain of 30 Rock.


TRANSCRIPT: Why Liz Lemon is the Villain of 30 Rock


Liz Lemon: “If I could press a button and five people in the world would die, but I’d get free cable for life, I’d do it.”30 Rock, 5x05

Liz Lemon is certain she’s the hero of her story. In her point of view, she’s the smart, sane underdog, always fighting an uphill battle against the patriarchy, the corporatism of Jack Donaghy, and the unprofessionalism of her staff. And at the beginning of 30 Rock, it may seem like Jack is the villain of the series. This besuited image of capitalist, corporate America has come to ruin Liz Lemon’s show in the pursuit of cold, hard profit. But over time, Jack reveals he can be empathetic and generous. He treats people with respect, and, ultimately, he wants what’s best for the company. Meanwhile, Liz’s actions paint the portrait of someone ruthless, self-centered, and hypocritical. Her striking lack of self-awareness can lead her to treat the people around her pretty badly. Here’s our Take on why Liz Lemon is the villain of 30 Rock.


Liz Lemon: High School Bully

Liz Lemon sees herself as the heroine of a familiar story arc: the former high-school nerd who makes good as a big-city professional and surpasses the popular kids who once looked down on her. So perhaps the biggest surprise of 30 Rock comes when Liz heads to her high school reunion and realizes in actuality it was her who was the snarky, superior bully.

Liz: “I was a nobody. You were homecoming queen!”

Kelsey: “I have had years of therapy.”30 Rock, 3x05

This revelation undercuts Liz’s origin myth. When she was the bullied kid, she could cast herself as the underdog who fought against the odds to get where she is. When it turns out she was the bully, her rise to the top instantly feels more cutthroat. Liz Lemon fits the mold of what psychologist Dr. Mitch Prinstein calls a “rejected aggressive:” someone who feels as though they were an outcast and reacts to this by becoming defensive, or a bully themselves. When Jack tries to confront her about her behavior, she becomes the aggressor, and incisively plays on Jack’s insecurities to hit him where it hurts most.

Liz’s distorted perception of her high school experience still colors the way she treats people as an adult. She harbors resentment toward the archetype of the “popular girl,” even when that archetype manifests in her best friend, Jenna Maroney. Jenna and Liz are both very successful, but because Jenna is in front of the camera and Liz behind it, Liz feels inadequate, like she’s in Jenna’s shadow. And when Jenna has any projects that don’t involve Liz, like the movie The Rural Juror, Liz feels compelled to belittle them, affirming her own dominance.

Jenna: “Look, look at her. She can’t stand that I’m in something good.”

Frank: “It’s probably because of her own intellectual insecurities.”30 Rock, 1x10

In her relationships at large, Liz’s bullying presents predominantly as a feeling of superiority over other people. She asserts this over almost everyone who works for her, picking on each person’s insecurities or weaknesses as a way to undermine them and maintain her status. With Toofer, she makes fun of his excessive pride in having gone to Harvard. With Lutz, she joins in with the other writers to reinforce his place at the bottom of the hierarchy. With Tracy, she attacks his professionalism and intelligence. She even takes out her ire on sweet, innocent, non-threatening Kenneth.

Thus, Liz poignantly demonstrates how hanging onto a victim mentality can turn you into the aggressor. Liz is in a position of power at TGS, but because she’s never gotten over high school, she uses her historic feelings of trauma and inadequacy as justification for making other people feel bad about themselves.

Liz [to Toofer]: “Oh, really, did you go to Harvard? Cause you haven’t mentioned it in like three hours.”30 Rock, 1x09


Liz Lemon’s Many Prejudices

A lot of Liz’s problematic behavior is caused by poor self-awareness. Liz is hyper-sensitive about race and desperate to be seen as a right-on, progressive person, but she’s unconscious of how much inherent bias she projects onto people of color. In one of her first run-ins with Tracy as her employee, she assumes that the reason Tracy won’t read the lines verbatim is because he can’t. Instead of the much more obvious answer, that he just likes improvising and goofing around, she immediately leans into an ignorant, patronizing stereotype: that black men are unintelligent or uneducated.

Liz’s solution to this problem — one that she’s created entirely in her own head — is to play the role of the white savior. While Liz is quick to make accommodations for Tracy, her performance of generosity toward him is a self-serving way of cementing a power structure with her on top as the benevolent benefactor. Moreover, once she realizes Tracey’s playing her, she doesn’t use that opportunity to examine the prejudice which led her to draw such an offensive conclusion. Liz apparently learns nothing from this embarrassing situation either, because she does the exact same thing when participating in a Christmas present program for inner-city kids.

Liz: “I’m the one who made Christmas happen!”

Kids: “What about Santa?! Daddy! She said there’s no Santa Claus!”

Dad: “What is wrong with you?!”30 Rock, 3x06

It’s not enough for her to take joy in the fact that she’s done a good deed. She needs credit. Liz’s racism is rarely malicious or intentional, but because she’s so secure in her idea of herself as a liberal who’s above racism, she frequently dehumanizes people of color without even noticing. She perpetuates the nickname “Toofer,” literally acknowledging that his role on the TGS writing staff is tokenistic. She gets black people’s names wrong, assuming they’re more exotic than they actually are. And she mistakes black people for each other as if they all look the same to her.

Liz: “Maybe you could help me…Trené.”

Irene: “Irene.”

Liz: “Irene.” – 30 Rock, 3x06

And her tendency toward prejudice isn’t limited to race. One of Liz’s central beliefs about herself is that she’s a good feminist who supports other women. But in addition to the harsh way we’ve seen she treats her best female friend, her notions of “acceptable femininity” are strangely narrow. When she hires new female writer Abby, she disapproves of Abby’s overtly sexualized personality, assuming it’s put on for male attention. Not only does Liz not accept her employee’s choice, but she even tries to openly shame Abby for it in front of the other writers. She ends up shamefaced herself when Abby reveals she adopted this persona to hide from her abusive ex-husband.

Abby: “I changed my appearance to get away from him!”

Liz: “Oh. Cause I thought it was, like, pressure from society…” – 30 Rock, 5x16

Liz also can’t get over her bias when she begins dating Stewart LaGrange, a smart, funny, successful man who works at the United Nations, and also happens to be a dwarf. Liz conceives of herself as a progressive, open-minded person, but in actuality, she has very exclusive, rigid ideas about who deserves to be treated with respect and acceptance.


Looking Out for Number One

Liz Lemon presents as a model of 21st-century girl boss feminism. She wants to have it all. But in her pursuit of a picture-perfect, aspirational life, she acts less like a role model than a portrait of total self-centeredness. Liz isn’t just the protagonist of the show we’re watching — she also views herself as the protagonist around whom everyone else orbits. And though she likes to believe she’s the antithesis of Jack Donaghy’s cutthroat, dispassionate, corporate ways, she can be just as single-minded and selfish. Interestingly, this also tallies with Liz’s idea of herself as having been a victim or an underdog. A 2010 Stanford University study found that playing the victim leads to a sense of entitlement and to narcissistic or selfish behavior.

Liz frequently puts her own interests first and throws other people under the bus. When Jack Donaghy is trying to find out who badmouthed him in the press, Liz blames the writers instead of admitting it was her. And while she views herself as a principled person of integrity, in reality, Liz is opportunistic, quick to exploit situations to her own advantage.

Liz: “I am not going down for this! I’ll tell him you did it! Who do you think he’s gonna believe? I’m important around here.” – 30 Rock, 2x11

Again, Liz’s selfishness is related to her inability to see that she’s not an underdog, but actually a person with a lot of success and privilege. Most people looking at Liz’s life could see that she’s already pretty close to “having it all.” But it’s never enough. Her focus on what she doesn’t have makes her feel entitled to engage in crazy, selfish, morally questionable behavior in pursuit of her desires. Liz has a strong wish to start a family, which we can all sympathize with, but that doesn’t justify endangering the health of a clearly concussed woman to get a better adoption evaluation, or literally stealing someone else’s baby. And despite her lip service to her stated ideologies, what’s good for Liz is, ultimately, all that’s important.


Liz Lemon and Her Men

As Jack correctly surmises, when we meet Liz, she’s acting like someone who doesn’t care about conventional romance, because wanting that doesn’t fit with her self-image. Liz’s pretending-not-to-care manifests as settling for on-again-off-again boyfriend Dennis Duffy, who sells beepers and gives her the nickname “Dummy.” Her meet-cute with handsome lawyer Floyd looks like the start of the big love story that she’s been secretly waiting for. But this relationship introduces a dynamic that we’ll see repeat throughout the series: Liz is quick to put men on a pedestal and cast them as the prize in her story, but her hypercritical mind soon finds reasons to knock them off that pedestal and reassert her superiority. We then witness her hurting and behaving cruelly to partners she’s decided are inadequate.

Stewart LaGrange: “Was anything even going to happen between us tonight?”

Liz: “I’m the weird one! I’m weirder than you!”

Stewart: “How am I weird?”

Liz: “You’re not! That came out wrong!” – 30 Rock, 3x07

Liz’s entitled behavior with the men in her life seems to stem from insecurity over whether love will really happen for her, combined with a girlboss-esque desire to aggressively control her love life and ensure she achieves success in it. She concocts romantic fantasies in her head before the reality plays out, and when it doesn’t play out as she hopes, she tries to force it. Instead of letting the romance with Floyd develop naturally, Liz manipulates the situation by firing Floyd’s girlfriend. She also callously fakes an alcohol addiction to try to bond with him at AA. Her pattern of sabotage continues even after Liz and Floyd’s relationship doesn’t work out. When Floyd enters a competition to get married near 30 Rock, Liz deliberately poisons him so he’s not able to win.

Liz: “Where does she work, your Liz?”

Floyd: “In accounting, on your show. She works for you.”

Liz [later to Jack]: “I know who I can fire!” – 30 Rock, 1x17

She gets another promising start when she’s introduced to her handsome neighbor Drew Baird via a classic rom-com mix-up — his mail is delivered to her house. But then she uses the information she gleans from his mail to trick him into thinking she’s his perfect match, in a ploy she literally learns from a telenovela villain. With Wesley, whom she meets while out of her mind on sedatives and saves in her phone as “Future Husband,” she gets angrier and angrier with him the more she realizes that they aren’t a good match. Yet she still ends up agreeing to marry him so he can stay in the country, again manufacturing drama and chaos by convincing herself she can be the selfless hero, only to let him down when she meets someone who more closely aligns with her ideas of fate and destiny. And even with this seemingly perfect relationship — Carol, the handsome airline pilot who is just as curmudgeonly as Liz and adores TGS — she finds a way to ruin it. Her stubbornness and refusal to concede on any minor points leads to her literally leading a mutiny against him on his plane, in which she uses an old man as a human shield. Maybe there’s a good reason she comes back to Dennis so often: he’s the one she knows she can do better than. And Liz must feel superior to the man she’s with. Ironically, the man she eventually does end up with, Criss Chros, is probably the most like Dennis: on the outside a bit of a loser, also someone she describes as an “entrepreneur,” and also someone who Jack initially disapproves of. It’s just that unlike Dennis, he’s a nice guy, and is easy-going enough to look past a lot of Liz’s issues.

Liz: “I tend to care and let little things ruin stuff.”

Criss: “You can get mad at dumb stuff, that’s your thing. I’ll get over it, that’s my thing.” – 30 Rock, 6x07

Calling Liz Lemon a villain is not a criticism of 30 Rock. The show itself is calling out all that’s wrong about Liz’s outlook. As Emily Nussbaum puts it, “That has always been one of the most radical things about 30 Rock, the way it has continually punctured Liz’s image of herself as a spunky brunette underdog.” Nussbaum wrote that the show worked because “it rarely made Liz an empowering role model, although many women certainly identified with her. The show let her be the George Costanza, not the Mary Richards…. Liz was professionally successful, but she was a sellout.” The point wasn’t to reassure intellectual, middle-aged, feminist, urban liberals that they’re superior to everyone else. It was to challenge viewers, just as it challenged Liz, to notice their hypocrisies or self-serving narratives; to grow a little, while accepting there was a lot they wouldn’t grow out of; and most importantly, to gain some self-awareness. Because while it may feel to each of us that we’re the protagonist at the center of everything, the truth is that there’s a whole world out there, a lot bigger and more important than us.