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Male Characters Achieving Success and Laughs

The relationship between creator and character is complex, and perhaps best understood when compared to the portrayal of men in these programs. Berg, Ball, and Fey created and portrayed women who work within far more traditional gender roles than they did in their own lives. Allen, Moore, Poehler, and countless other actresses also play more devalued characters than the actresses themselves – struggling to prove themselves to men even though the women themselves were enormously successful – but their devaluation occurred in much more independent, feminist ways. Of course, most situation comedies are centered on “normal” families or friends, and this family-centered programming began with the success of The Goldbergs. These shows are obviously fictions and not meant to be accurate representations of the comediennes involved; however, Ball and Fey’s characters are clearly based on the comediennes themselves. The downplaying of women’s personal successes should not be overlooked simply because these programs are not factual accounts. In most of these shows, male characters succeed personally and in the workplace. In short, there are very few television depictions of women doing well in the workplace, but there are countless depictions of successful men. Even in shows created by women, who had themselves clearly succeeded in the workplace, this fiction persists. While the characters portrayed by Fey, Poehler, and Moore were finally in the workplace and outside the kitchen, they still served men more important than themselves.

 

Consider the character of Jack Donaghy in Fey’s 30 Rock. While he certainly has his comedic flaws, Jack is a respected network executive who chooses to mentor Fey’s hopeless character of Liz Lemon. Their relationship begins with them butting heads over the creative process of Liz’s show. Jack doggedly focuses on making a profit while Liz fights desperately to defend the show’s creativity (which, adding to the comedy, is nowhere near as sacred as Liz purports, as can be seen in the notorious line “someone put too many farts in this engine! It’s about to explode!”).[1] Differences aside, the two quickly become close, with Jack claiming he “know[s] Liz Lemon better than she knows herself,” which often proves to be true.[2] Indeed, recent criticism of the show comments on Liz’s dependence on Jack’s approval, likening her to a needy child.[3] Though Fey pokes fun at the character’s steadfast conservatism, Jack always seems to come out on top, unlike Liz. While they do care about each other, their relationship is primarily antagonistic; they disagree on almost everything, and though both are passionate, Jack always gets his way, and Liz only ever triumphs when Jack himself ensures her success.[4]

 

In some ways, Liz Lemon can be compared to Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Both women worked in broadcasting, making it “on their own” in a career dominated by powerful men, dealing with self-centered stars, and serving as the voice of reason amid their coworkers’ insanity.[5] Mary’s mentoring relationship with her boss, Lou Grant, is similar to Liz and Jack’s. Mary’s coworkers became her television family, and Lou was the patriarch. Serafina Bathrick argues that Mary’s separation from her own parents, an important mark of her independence, is affirmed and resolved by the introduction of Lou Grant, “the father-like boss who will take her away from her family past and will give her a job… In this sense Mary Richards is beyond her family, but is still linked to familial needs and concerns.”[6] Mary looked up to Lou, always asking him for advice and listening to it. He certainly had his comedic faults, including a drinking problem, a troubled marriage, and a hot temper. But Lou was also a very successful news producer, while Mary, who had an even temper and a much more put-together life, was a glorified secretary. Both got laughs from the audience, but Lou was portrayed as successful in his career, while Mary was always his subordinate.

 

The same can be said of Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman’s character in Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation. A government-hating government employee, Ron is clearly still a comic character. However, his common sense keeps Poehler’s Leslie Knope and her insane energy in check. He is Leslie’s boss and, though far less dedicated, receives commendations and offers of promotions for doing nothing while Leslie campaigns desperately for a spot on the city council. In one entertaining twist, Ron receives a Woman of the Year award for town projects that Leslie developed.[7] He ultimately arranges for Leslie to receive the award, but only after teaching her a valuable lesson about not attaching too much importance to such trivial matters. Without trying, Ron is relatively successful at his job while also providing laughs to the audience. Leslie, however, must manage an endless onslaught of problems and naysayers that thwart her personal success. Ron does, however, care deeply for Leslie and sometimes assumes the role of the wise father, much like Lou.

 

[The "Woman of the Year" episode can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly

 

And of course, Jack, Lou, and Ron are the recent male counterparts. In The Burns and Allen Show and I Love Lucy, George Burns’ character George and Desi Arnaz’s character Ricky managed to get laughs while still asserting their intellectual dominance over the characters their wives portrayed. They both had comic flaws: Ricky’s thick Cuban accent and George’s poor singing voice were regularly mocked. They were still dominant over their wives, however, and managed to be comic in their domination. Ricky’s reasonable pleas to Lucy were always a laughing matter, and George’s quick one-liners after Gracie’s illogic were crowd favorites. Both were still comic characters, but the power dynamic was still clear. Even on The Goldbergs, though Molly’s husband Jake also had a strong accent, she struggled much more with the English language than he did. While the programs have changed, the message remains; these comedic actresses are funny in their struggles, while the men can get laughs in their personal triumphs.


[1] 30 Rock, “MILF Island,” season 2, episode 11, aired April 10, 2008 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://netflix.com.

[2] 30 Rock, “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” season 6, episode 1, aired January 12, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://netflix.com.

[3] Linda Holmes, “The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon: From Woman to Little Girl,” NPR Blogs: Monkey See, February 9, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2012/02/09/146626983/the-incredible-shrinking-liz-lemon-from-woman-to-little-girl (accessed January 30, 2013).

[4] 30 Rock, “Today You Are a Man,” season 6, episode 5, aired February 2, 2012 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://netflix.com.

[5] Kera Bolonik, “There’s ‘Moore’ to ‘30 Rock’ Than Meets the Eye,” Entertainment Weekly, March 30, 2007, http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20033306,00.html (accessed February 3, 2013).

[6] Bathrick, “Women at Home,” 168.

[7] Parks and Recreation, “Woman of the Year,” season 2, episode 17, aired March 4, 2010 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://netflix.com. Swanson was also offered the position of assistant city manager (which he ultimately turns down) in “Live Ammo,” season 4, episode 19, aired April 19, 2012 (NBC).

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.