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In 2017, Jenna Maroney Is 30 Rock's Most Relevant Character

More than ten years after the cult hit aired, it's Jenna Maroney and her outlandishness that resonate most in these bizarre times.

Posted on October 8, 2017, at 10:52 a.m. ET

Ali Goldstein

News that the cult favorite 30 Rock left Netflix this month sparked a series of frantic reactions on certain corners of the internet. “30 Rock Is Leaving Netflix and People Are Furious” wrote the Daily Beast. The New York Times offered “5 Things to Cook While Watching 30 Rock Before It Leaves Netflix.” Last week’s subsequent announcement that it was moving to Hulu mitigated the loss, although the switch in streaming platform also changes how effortless it is to watch a show usually experienced on a loop. Created by Tina Fey, 30 Rock, which aired on NBC from 2006 to 2013, revolved around an SNL-like variety show. With its mile-a-minute joke delivery and irreverent takes on pop culture, it became a critical hit, rejuvenated Alec Baldwin’s and Tracy Morgan's careers, and marked Fey’s ascent to comedy A-lister.

Netflix does not offer viewer statistics on its shows, but between all the elegiac write-ups and the sad texts from my friends that say they will have to “talk to some food about this,” I gather that constantly streaming 30 Rock is a common experience. I know I’m not alone in saying that I have forged more than one friendship based on a shared language of deep cuts like “the old leather pumpkin” or “very wool.” For me, the threat of losing the constant company of 30 Rock means not getting to spend time with the character that makes me feel like it’s okay to be a human woman. I’m talking about Jenna Maroney. Though ever-exasperated eyeroll master Liz Lemon (Fey) has been the source of many viewers’ “it me” moments, the histrionic train wreck Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) is the character who resonates most with me. In the hyperbolic Trump era, it is Jenna’s outlandish reactions that feel appropriate. And after a decade of thinking about Liz’s self-interested feminism, it is Jenna’s relationship to feminist concerns like misogynistic violence and discrimination against gender nonconformity that are most salient today.

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Liz and Jenna are old friends on the show, each serving as a foil to the other’s deeply ingrained hang-ups. Liz is a frowning brunette killjoy; Jenna is all blonde ambition and horse glue. The two are more negative images of each other than opposites, with Jenna’s self-aware fakeness cutting through Liz’s tone-deaf self-righteousness. Throughout the show’s run, Liz’s feminism was subject to rigorous debate. Ten years after the show’s premiere, essays are still being penned about Liz’s feminism and whether it sufficiently registered on the subjective barometer of what a feminist should be. “Why Liz Lemon Was The Flawed Feminist We Needed 10 Years Ago & Still Need Today,” claimed Bustle in an article from last year. On the Huffington Post, Zeba Blay wrote that 30 Rock, while myopic and dated in its white feminist worldview, also made apparent the “need for women who aren’t white, straight, and middle-class in comedy.”

Watching the show in 2017 is to be frequently confronted with a liberal feminism that considers success to be personal and professional contentment — “having it all” to yourself. Liz Lemon is the kind of individualist feminist who likes to stick it to the man while playing it safe, who knows that being a woman is “the worst” because of “society,” but does not seem concerned with making that society better for anyone else. Liz leaned in — and was rewarded with the “G.E. Followship Award.” “I would have been a Nazi,” she muses about her willingness to collaborate with her CEO boss Jack’s machinations in spite of her nominal objection to them. In critic Sady Doyle’s blog post from 2010, she correctly identified this strain of “Liz Lemonism” as “privileged semi-feminism.” Emily Nussbaum, TV writer for the New Yorker, aptly characterizes Liz as a George Costanza more than a Mary Tyler Moore, pushing back against the idea that she should be considered a role model of any sort. But in this post-sheet cake moment, it is harder for me to sit with this shallow feminism.

It’s clear that Liz’s concerns were meant to be relatable whereas Jenna’s were ridiculous. But what about those of us whose lives have taken an odder turn than Liz's has, who are not baby-crazy, who cannot afford to buy our own apartments, and who do not even have the option of “settling,” even if we wanted to? And those of us for whom feminism helps queer our lives, rather than serving as a belief set that reconciles us toward marriage, motherhood, and the workplace?

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Early in the series, Jenna’s problems are more typical. A struggling actress upstaged on her own show, she deals with a pathological need for attention along with more universal female complaints such as weight gain and ageist beauty standards. Her issues, however, become less normative as the show continues. Instead of revolving around the tragedy of an old crone yearning for the spotlight, her storylines in later seasons consider how to pair love with kink, and the need for attention with the desire to please. Whereas Liz gets to “have it all” by the end of the show, giving the audience that relates to her the happy ending they ostensibly want, Jenna’s life takes a turn for the weird and wonderful. Jenna is so dramatic, she is radically unrelatable; it is difficult to identify with someone who exclaims, “Stop being dramatic. That’s my thing. And if you steal it from me, I will kill myself, and then you.” It is a given on the show that Jenna is unlikeable and not to be taken seriously. Even in Doyle’s nuanced critique of Liz, Jenna is written off as a shallow, unstable narcissist. But in 2017, I find Jenna’s issues more resonant, her outlandishness a better balm against the outrageous misogynist currently in power.

Jenna spends her adult life dodging death at the hands of dangerous boyfriends, most famously, Mickey Rourke. While Liz’s worst (but funniest) ex, Dennis Duffy, constantly threatens into come back in her life with his promise, “You’ll be back,” Jenna’s exes are considerably darker. On 30 Rock, when trauma resurfaces, it is always treated as a moment of wild comedy. Other main characters on the show have moments of unearthing repressed trauma and are somewhat better off after talking it out. Jenna, however, never has her breakthrough on the couch, not because she is too shallow to bury anything deep, but perhaps because she does not repress that much. Her asides about her own traumas have the horrifying buoyancy of a woman who walks away with a stride of pride. “You should have killed me when you had the chance,” she sneers about Rourke. Violent exes are her specialty, including but not limited to O.J. Simpson, a mob boss, and a sniper who would never shoot her because he was “afraid of his own mother” — there is perhaps no greater kiss-off for an ex. It is fitting that the rom-com Jenna was supposed to star in, Take My Hand, gets turned into a torture-porn flick. Jenna is a final girl in her own right. And that’s why it is all the more satisfying when she finds The One.

Will Forte (left) and Jane Krakowski as Paul L'astnamé and Jenna Maroney
Courtesy of NBC

Will Forte (left) and Jane Krakowski as Paul L'astnamé and Jenna Maroney

In the end, Jenna’s secret weapon — her sexuality — allows her to become a more self-actualized person by the end of the series. When she finally finds love, it is with someone who shares her profession, the female impersonator and performer Paul L'astnamé, played by Will Forte, a both decent and perverse person (#RelationshipGoals). The campiness with which Jenna always approached gender is perfectly complemented by Paul’s drag performance of her.

On the surface, her relationship with Paul exists merely to make two obvious points: Jenna is a narcissist, and gender is absurd. This reminds me of a remark of Fey’s during her sheet cake manifesto: “You know what a drag queen still is? A 6’4” black man.” Drag laughs in the face of the idea that who you really are exists under the makeup and clothes. I’ve struggled with whether or not Paul as a character hints at suspicion toward nonbinary identity. Am I laughing at the small-mindedness of those who would mock Paul? Or is his character a wink of acknowledgment at those who think, Oh brother, people sure do take this stuff too far? Even if I can’t shake the feeling that this line was written with an eyeroll at such a nonconforming identity, it is to Forte’s credit that the character is played with such earnest compassion, joyful in his expression of how he identifies as “gender dysmorphic bi-genitalia pansexual” (pronounced sex-u-AL). As someone who regards gender both as a category that tries to exclude me from normalcy and, paradoxically, a playground with no rules, Jenna and Paul’s relationship might be the most relatable on the show.

Sexuality, let alone complicated sexuality, so seldom gets an open-hearted and curious treatment in any rom-com plotline. Together, Jenna and Paul figure out not only how to make it work, but how to make it weird and keep it that way. Though they initially struggle to define what their “normal” might look like, they settle on a deliciously campy parody of heterosexual couples getting surprise married and going to Bed Bath & Beyond. Eventually, she has a coming-out of sorts and stands in her own truth in front of the Wool Council to let them know that her relationship with Paul is also based on love and warmth. And chafed skin.

As the series progresses, Jenna learns not only how to feel but also how to express her emotions. For a woman who was taught to identify sadness through flash cards, she makes incredible strides by the end of the series. She accepts Paul’s need to dress as another woman (Cher) and even turns down his televised marriage proposal — her dream — to compromise with his needs for intimacy. But she’s still our girl. “Don’t interrupt,” she says to Liz during a reconciliation. “The pill that lets me feel emotion is gonna wear off soon.” The moment is again played for laughs, but as someone who takes pills like that, I can relate.

We have a clear enough picture of what Liz Lemon feminism looks like. The Liz Lemon of today wears a Nasty Woman T-shirt; Jenna sells them on her website, Jennas-Side.com, profits going to benefit a scholarship in her name at the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks. Liz Lemon keeps her maiden name and would point out the sexism behind the term “maiden.” When Jenna and Paul marry, he takes her first and last name — good praxis! If there could be such a thing as Jenna Maroney feminism, it would be queer, unruly, and untraditional, and it would not define itself in relation to normative benchmarks of adult life like marriage or children. But I don’t want to reclaim Jenna as a feminist antihero. She is a hero for those of us who are fatigued with the question of whether a pop culture figure is a feminist.

Whereas Liz sees the patriarchy as her personal stumbling block, Jenna, who truly suffers at the hands of men, seems blithely unaware that she exists within it. It’s not so much that Jenna is a feminist figure; it’s more that she becomes proudly anti-heteronormative. She is at turns both delusional and self-aware enough to know that prettiness is a facade, and that portion control and exercise won't heal a broken heart. 30 Rock excels when it treats gender as a performance of the absurd, and perhaps I watch it again and again for this absurdity. I am not a Jenna Maroney, because no one but Jenna can be a Jenna. But I do see myself in her. Not so much, however, that I would steal her thunder. You cannot steal her thunder. Her whole life is thunder.


Natalie Adler has a PhD in Comparative Literature and works in disability advocacy. She is currently writing a novel on obsessive thinking and feminist disillusionment.

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