How Tina Fey Changed TV, or How It Changed Around Her

Tina Fey is seen backstage with the award for outstanding female actor in a comedy series for “30 Rock” at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Sunday Jan. 27, 2013. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Tina Fey is seen backstage with the award for outstanding female actor in a comedy series for “30 Rock” at the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Sunday Jan. 27, 2013. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

As the final episode of 30 Rock approaches tonight and America prepares to bid its harried, comedy-star-herding heroine a last goodbye, Liz Lemon is already being celebrated by the media as one of the more memorable female characters in the history of television. Tributes are being paid. Lists of her memorable quotes have been assembled. Her image recently appeared in the supporting Lois Lane role on the cover of Rolling Stone, prompting outraged blog posts because — hello? — Liz Lemon, not Jack Donaghy, is our Superman.

None of this is surprising. While the audience for 30 Rock was never massive, among many affection for the show and Liz Lemon has always run deep. From the moment Lemon first appeared in the 2006 30 Rock pilot, bought every hot dog from a street vendor’s stand to shut up a rude New York businessman, then gave away those wieners to the tune of a song reminiscent of the theme from That Girl, we have expected Liz Lemon and Tina Fey, the show’s creator and Lemon’s real-life alter ego, to usher in a fresh, fruitful era for funny ladies on television.

If our Tina — first female head writer for Saturday Night Live and the stinging satirist behind the movie Mean Girls — could be put in charge of her own show about a woman who’s also in charge of her own show, then surely this would lead to a TV landscape in which, to borrow the title of Fey’s book, a lot of ladies would soon be walking across our LED screens wearing bossypants. At least that was the hope. Now, with all 138 30 Rock episodes in the can and just that one final send-off left to air, this seems like a good time to ask: Did the existence of Liz Lemon actually change anything for women on television?

Fey’s 30 Rock success — and let’s define success here by the show’s longevity, quality and accolades, not its often pitiful ratings — just so happened to occur on the front end of what has been a very encouraging time for women working in the industry. More high-profile comedies — from Girls to The Big C to Enlightened to The New Girl and The Mindy Project, which serve as anchors for Fox’s Tuesday night comedy block — are being created or co-created by women and placing dynamic, dysfunctional and funny female characters at the center of their narratives. Shows that weren’t necessarily invented by women — Parks and Recreation and Veep — also have generated buzz while casting women as central figures in powerful positions. Are Tina Fey and/or Liz Lemon responsible for this? Maybe not directly. But many of the women riding this wave, like Kaling and Fey’s friend and partner in Golden Globes-hosting, genius Amy Poehler, would likely cite Fey’s simultaneously self-deprecating and cutting sensibility — both on 30 Rock and in her previous work — as an inspiration for their own.

In fact, during a 2012 Television Critics Association panel, Eileen Heisler, one of the two female showrunners of ABC’s The Middle and a former producer for Murphy Brown, attributed TV’s lady renaissance in part to Fey. “I think Tina Fey — and us — poked a little hole that allowed for this proliferation of women in television,” she said, according to Deadline. As we all learned during this year’s Golden Globes, it was watching Tina Fey, among others, that helped a young Lena Dunham make it through middle school. That has to count for something.

Even though more opportunities for women now exist, TV comedy, like TV in general, still remains an unquestionably male-dominated field. Modern Family has been the Emmy-anointed Best Comedy on television for three years running, but only one of the 12 producers credited with last year’s victory is a woman. Fewer than half of the members of the writing staff of The Big Bang Theory are Pennys as opposed to Sheldons. According to IMDB, in the 20-plus years that The Simpsons has been on the air, only seven of its 71 episode-writing credits belong to women. Even the 30 Rock writing staff skews male but, to its credit, just barely: According to NBC, five of its 12 current writers are women.

It may be too early to determine what the lasting legacy of Liz Lemon is, especially since it’s not quite clear, prefinale, how to interpret what appears to be Liz’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom to her newly adopted twins, Terry and Janet (aka Lil Tracy and Lil Jenna) — a decision that will undoubtedly start a whole new round of Lemonalysis in the blogosphere. But these words written by Fey herself in the aforementioned Bossypants sound at least partly right to me:

My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, forget it and move on ... don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.