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Archive for July 15th, 2008

Typical Girls

I love Tina Fey. She’s the creator of 30 Rock, which in just two short seasons has proved itself to be one of the funniest sitcoms ever made (seriously, if you can play US DVDs on your machine, go get the box set). 30 Rock is such a perfect, brilliantly performed mixture of the goofy, the bitingly satirical and the surreal that I would love it even if it weren’t centered around the most convincing female sitcom character, well, ever, but Fey’s heroine Liz Lemon is the icing on the comedy cake.

Liz Lemon (hands up if you've ever dressed like this)

Liz Lemon (hands up if you've ever dressed like this)

In most sitcoms aimed at a general audience, the show’s lead is an everyman figure (I could go on here at length about how male experience is always depicted as being universal, while female experience is not, but I won’t), with whom both men and women are expected to in some way identify, no matter how hapless or dorky or long-suffering that character is; think everyone from Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour to JD in Scrubs. But 30 Rock‘s Liz is that rare thing: an everywoman. She’s the head writer of Saturday Night Live-esque sketch show TGS, and over the last two seasons viewers have seen her develop a love-hate relationship with brash boss Jack Donaghy (the indescribably funny Alec Baldwin), attempt to rein in her show’s eccentric new star Tracy Jordan, deal with her rambunctious writing team, discover she’s been walking around all day with lettuce in her hair, and repeatedly attempt to break up with her ne’er do well boyfriend Dennis, the last beeper salesman in New York. Although 30 Rock is very much an ensemble show (and the cast is uniformly superb), Liz is still the heart of the whole thing. She, not Tracy, not Jack, not even her long-suffering co-writer Pete, is the person with whom the audience is meant to identify. And unlike lots of women in sitcoms, she doesn’t have to be the boring voice of reason all the time – she can be as dorky, as megalomaniacal, and as snarky as any of her demented peers.

But one of the most revolutionary things about the way Liz is depicted is her appearance. In a TV world where most female characters are either sexily groomed or comically dorky, Liz is that rare thing: someone who actually looks and dresses like an ordinary woman. In other words, when she’s at work in the writer’s room or slobbing around in her apartment, she’s scruffily and not particularly sexily dressed, in jeans, Converse and little hoodies, usually wearing her glasses. But when she wants to, she scrubs up nicely (this isn’t hard, because, well, look at Tina Fey), in cute frocks, make-up and contact lenses. And unlike pretty much every sitcom ever to feature a female in glasses, this is never shown as being some sort of dramatic makeover. It’s just normality, the difference between what you wear when you’re just arsing around, and what you wear when you decide to make an efffort and get dressed up.

This was perfectly summed up in the episode Sandwich Day, in which Liz’s ex-boyfriend Floyd returns to New York from Cleveland. Liz is determined to make him regret what he’s lost, so arranges to meet him in the studio.

Liz greets her ex (with a little help from a wind machine and a spotlight)

Liz greets her ex (with a little help from a wind machine and a spotlight)

Not only is she looking scorching hot in a little red dress, but she’s enlisted some of her colleagues to turn on a wind machine and a flattering golden spotlight just as he enters, ensuring that she looks like a Hollywood goddess. Of course, the next day Floyd makes a surprise visit to Liz’s apartment, so she answers the door straight out of bed with horrendous bedhead and wearing a huge, manky old t-shirt. I’m pretty sure we can all relate (apart from the wind machine bit, obviously).

Most women don’t look glamorous all the time. Some of us don’t want to. Sometimes we feel like wearing jeans and Converse and Threadless t-shirts sometimes, sometimes we feel like wearing fancy frocks. We don’t want to bother putting in our contact lenses every day if the only people who are going to see us in our spec-free state are our colleagues. But when we dress up and break out the Laura Mercier Mineral Powder (aka the greatest make-up product ever), whether it’s because we’re going out on the town or because we just feel like it, it’s not a big deal. We know we can look glam when we want to; it’s not some “why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!” moment. So all hail Tina Fey, one of the very few people to show us on screen as we really are. Right down to the occasional lettuce.

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This morning, I happened to turn on Dave Fanning-as-Tubridy on Radio 1 only to hear Esther Rantzen being interviewed (click on Tuesday’s show here to listen). That’s Life was one of my favourite TV programs as kid, and an excuse for being allowed to stay up a bit later on a Sunday school night. Always a consummate interviewer, she was an equally engaging interviewee. Straining to hear above the noise of our wheezing kettle boiling, I could have sworn I heard her mention nuns. An odd coincidence, given that myself and the other Anti-Roomers were only talking about this very subject last night. The reason? This article in The New York Times about Beguinages (love that word), which have been operating in Europe since after The Crusades.

According to the NYT:

“Unlike sisterhoods that required a life spent apart from society under vows of chastity, these Catholic women looked for holiness outside monastic norms. Although they lived and prayed together within an enclave, partly as a form of mutual protection — some historians believe they banded together after losing their men to the Crusades, which left behind mainly criminals and louts — beguines were not confined to the cloister. Many ministered to the poor and sick outside their walls. Lifelong celibacy was not required either. They could leave the order and marry (but not return).”

Rantzen mused about how she might once have considered becoming a nun, and that living in a convent can lead to a long life. She cited the example of a Convent graveyard in Galway where the graves of all the Sisters revealed that they had lived until their late 90s. This, according to Esther, was down to “lots of fresh air, a plain diet, a life of routine and no sex.”

The Beguinages and their model of a female only community seems to offered more than the implied life of service under the aegis of the Catholic Church. They offered refuge, options, peace, independence even. If the set-up in Black Narcissus had been a bit more like this, perhaps Sister Clodagh wouldn’t have lost the plot. Personally? I think the scarlet lipstick pushed her over the edge – literally.

 

 

 

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