I have to tell you, if there are two words I never again want to hear uttered in a comedy, it’s ‘biological’ and ‘clock’. But, readers, never fear, this isn’t going to be a womanish outpouring that will be all ‘fish out of water’ among the other Scriveners’, as ever, highly entertaining contributions; this is not, I hope, going to be like when Carlton feminist rock band Stiletto made an appearance on Countdown, something from which I have never recovered. That reassurance out of the way, however, I am determined to say a few words on this matter before I die of a massive aggravation-evoked coronary.
Tina Fey creation Liz Lemon, of 30 Rock, is a repeat offender when it comes to plucking my nerves. While I find the show to be, at the very least, reliably entertaining, and often hilarious, and that while viewing it the minutes fly like seconds, I do get brought low by the episodes in which we are given to understand that Liz, despite the many distractions of being head writer at a Saturday Night Live-ish television show, is wholly fixated on getting married and/or having a baby. Anyone who has seen the first three series of 30 Rock will be unsurprised to read that, aside from the general Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York-ish focus on Liz’s binge-eating singlehood, and on her wish to adopt a child, two episodes in particular come to mind: that is, one in which Liz buys a wedding dress, even though she doesn’t even have a boyfriend, and becomes so attached to the garment that she wears it everywhere; and one in which Liz nurses a coworker’s infant and is so hypnotised by the magic of doing this that she ends up in her apartment, still with the swaddling babe, with no idea how she got there. This is not even mentioning the episode in which Liz befriends olden-times female comedy writer Rosemary Howard, who was once Liz’s idol, but at present is required to function as the Ghost of Christmas Future for our heroine. Nowadays, Rosemary is, of course, unwed; lives in a tiny, filthy apartment; and is, in short, a total loon. I’m sure that even Carrie Fisher would have to agree they got their dream casting in Carrie Fisher.
I assume that 30 Rock’s creators felt that, in order to give the show the best chance of staying on the air, they needed a certain dose of Friends to leaven the Arrested Development-ness, and that Liz Lemon, who is clearly extremely successful and scarily intelligent, needed to be imbued with the horridly named ‘relateability’, which can roughly be translated as ‘ensuring that a character is a big loser’. Now, I worked in book publishing at the height of the Bridget Jones’s Diary craze, when every novel that had a woman as a central character tried to push and shove its way onto that particular gravy train. The greatest thing that could happen in the eyes of those trying to sell vast quantities of a given title was if a reviewer likened it in any way to the Diary. Preferably, this mention would be combined with a reference to the character relocating herself to France or Italy, the other publishing marvel of the day, and these precious words could be extracted and slapped on subsequent editions: for example, ‘Imagine Bridget Jones, having just turned fifty, is renovating an old farmhouse in Tuscany!’ Bridget Jones herself, though, is, both on the page and in the films based on the page, something of an underachiever, and in the films, as played by Renée Zellweger, seems, not to put too fine a point on it, mildly mentally retarded. Therefore, Bridget’s sitting around scoffing stodge and repining about her lot at least makes a kind of sense that it doesn’t for ‘a hip doll like our Liz’ (as the great Pauline Kael referred to Elizabeth Taylor, when reviewing Suddenly, Last Summer). At certain points, 30 Rock makes me long to be kicking back and watching Marlo Thomas cheerfully flying a kite in That Girl.
Thinking locally, I encountered the same issue with Australian advertising-world comedy :30 Seconds. Kat Stewart’s character, Marion West, thirty-nine and head of marketing at an automotive company, is the designated ‘biological clock’ watcher here (and, yes, ‘biological clock’ is indeed used as shorthand when Marion is discussed in the DVD’s extras). Here is the show’s website’s description of her: ‘Marion’s Bluetooth earpiece constantly flashing with important calls, she fills her days with meetings, spreadsheets, cost analyses and product reviews. When she goes home, it’s a different story. A long-term affair with a married colleague ended badly, leaving Marion only her over-attended, overweight goldfish Buki to relax with’. Really? I mean, really? This is, after all, a woman who is not only bright, well meaning, and amiable company socially but, thanks to the actress playing her, a raving beauty. What man even slightly in his right mind wouldn’t want to be with a woman who has not only these qualities but an enormous pay packet? This kind of default characterisation of ‘career gals’ in early middle age as All Alone in the World seems to encourage living, breathing females with high-powered careers to think that No Man Will Ever Want Them. In truth, though, this will most likely only be the case if they are the kind of gorgon that people of both sexes find difficult to take, not if they’re good-hearted hotties like Liz and Marion.
Now, please don’t get me wrong; I have no particular wish to watch ‘feminist princess fantasies’, as skewered by, again, Pauline Kael, when she reviewed My Brilliant Career. It’s not that I expect, or even want, any female character of any stripe to be any kind of ‘role model’; this does no one any favours. I’ve been seared forever by, for example, the ghastliness of 1986’s short-lived sitcom The Ellen Burstyn Show, in which Burstyn played an unfeasibly wonderful Baltimore college professor, who, natch, had the same first name as she does. It’s like when they introduce African-American characters into The Bold and the Beautiful and they never last because they are way too dignified and honourable, and so aren’t allowed to be part of the truly blue-ribbon storylines that involve sleeping with and getting pregnant to one’s son-in-law or poisoning some hated rival by stealth. I also don’t feel any special need when I turn on the television to see women getting along wonderfully well with each other: that is, having emotionally sustaining friendships, whipping up quilts together in a supportive atmosphere that embraces public breastfeeding, or setting up mentorship programs in their places of business. All I ask is to see something vaguely original in the area of female trouble, and it sends me out of my mind that television comedies that obviously pride themselves on being brainy get so lazy in this area.
I am at an age where, if I cared to listen to it, I am sure I would find my clock to be ticking as loudly as the one on 60 Minutes. However, here is a shortlist of issues that do actually happen to loom large for me at this moment in time:
1. I wish I had a private income. 2. I’m fairly sure it’s too late for me ever to be famous enough to be ‘styled’ for a magazine photo shoot. 3. I don’t think I ever got over the trauma of being sent to preschool. 4. I don’t have the kind of professional occupation that will allow me ever to fly business class at someone else’s expense. 5. A restaurant at which I dine regularly had for a couple of weeks a special, a pasta with chorizos, that I really liked and they’ve never had it since.
Prosaic though these may appear to the casual reader, as a viewer I would many times rather see a storyline about any one of them, or anything resembling them, than I would lazy old flapdoodle about ticking biological clocks or deranged wedding-dress purchasing.
Despite, what I deduce is, the thinking of television programs’ architects that having a woman character obsessively wanting to get married and become a mother is evergreen as something that any viewer can identify with, and so will make a show’s smart arsiness easier to take, it seems to me that: first, male viewers wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn about this brand of agonising and so disengage from it; second, that this goes quadruple for those female viewers who don’t relate to it, not to mention alienating them; and, third, that it makes the female viewers who do relate to it even more inclined to drown themselves in the bath. Twelve years after the final episode of Seinfeld and, despite the many magnificent shows that have emerged in its wake, Elaine Benes has never lost her supremacy as a smashingly entertaining female lead character in a television comedy who, though unwed and childless, doesn’t have her as-yet-unoccupied womb leading her around on a choke chain.