Friday, July 16, 2010

Constructs of Masculinity and Femininity in 30 Rock

            The episode of 30 Rock, entitled “I Do I Do”, presents several interesting depictions of what it means to be male and what it means to be female. The crux of the show’s plotline stems from the love triangles of three main characters. The ways in which the relationship troubles are resolved provides a strong message about male and female identity along with the ways in which gender roles are switched around and played with in the episode. The language of the program is also indicative of far-reaching cultural and societal views on gender.

            For example, during a wedding reception, when the character of Jack Donahue makes a remark about he and another woman’s relationship being “fate”, his girlfriend Nancy questions whether “they put gay juice in the champagne”. It is at this moment that the gender roles of the two characters are switched. When Jack becomes emotive and espouses a belief in fate, Nancy quickly becomes glib and emotionless. The interaction both parodies the idea that “emotion” is a feminine characteristic and equates male homosexuality with femininity. The latter is an important statement about cultural values in the US. As Newman points out, “Any male high school coach or military drill sergeant knows that the best way to whip his men into an aggressive frenzy is to call them girls” and that “…homophobic name calling is one of the most common modes of bullying and coercion…” (76). Despite the brevity of Jack and Nancy’s interaction, it reveals both important messages about what traits are required to be considered “masculine” in society and how equations with homosexuality are considered an affront to male heterosexuality. 

            The episode also plays with typical notions of gender roles by naming a male character “Carol” and featuring another character as a drag queen. When someone in the show points out that Carol is a “girl’s name” the character of Carol is then left to defend his masculinity by replying that Carol is “a family name”. By having someone question the name, the show reinforces societal gender norms. By having a name that deviates from the norm, Carol must explain himself and reassert his identity as a male.

             In the case of Paul, the drag queen character, the humor is derived both from the over-the-top flamboyance of the actual drag and the fact that Paul is both heterosexual and dating the character of Jenna. Raymond states that, “the humor in these situations is…the fact that the viewers know that the character’s heterosexuality is never in doubt” (Dines and Humez 107). This point is underscored in scenes where Jenna and Paul have serious discussions about the future of their relationship while Paul is in full drag. Paul even explicitly reaffirms his masculinity when he reminds Jenna that he’s the “man in the relationship” while remaining in drag.  By playing with ideas of masculinity and femininity, the characters of Paul and Carol both serve to subvert typical beliefs about sexuality and to reinforce cultural norms.

            Additionally, the dynamics of the characters’ relationships are a powerful insight into masculine and feminine identity. Three of the main characters are involved in love triangles: Jack has feeling for Nancy and Avery; Jenna demands that Paul choose between dressing in drag as her or Cher; and Liz Lemon must choose between her fiancĂ© Wesley and a new man, Carol.  When Jenna sees Paul at a wedding reception, she immediately stops commiserating with Liz about relationship troubles and hurries over to her boyfriend.  When Carol also appears at the same reception, Liz literally jumps a table in order to talk to him. By having the female characters abandon their conversation about “sisterhood” in order to pay attention to men, the show parodies the ridiculousness of the situation while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that being a woman is validated through male acceptance and attention. Only Jack, the male character, does not experience this same situation. In his case, his girlfriend Nancy foregoes her relationship with him because she believes he is truly in love with Avery. After Nancy bids farewell to Jack, Avery appears onscreen to assume the position as Jack’s new girlfriend. By showing Liz and Jenna having such exaggerated and strong reactions to the appearance of their male love interests at the wedding reception, the show asserts that men are commodities that should be coveted. Likewise, the fact that Jack did not have any such reaction when either of his love interests were on screen with him emphasizes the notion that men are the prize and therefore do not have to work for attention from the opposite sex.

            While some of the ways the show played with gender identity were obvious, like with the character in drag, other ways were subtler. When Nancy impugns Jack’s masculinity, she also draws attention to her own masculinity and sends a message about how male homosexuality is viewed as a negative. Furthermore, the way the three main characters behave when their significant others appear on screen is indicative of a gender-based power relationship between couples where the male is dominant. Overall, the episode equates “femininity” with homosexuality and validation through men and reveals that being “masculine” means rejecting emotion and asserting authority in a relationship.

Works Cited:

"I Do I Do". 30 Rock. By Tina Fey. NBC. May 20, 2010.

Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersection of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Raymond, Diane. “Popular Culture and Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text- Reader. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication Inc., 2003.