Liz Lemon Ugly

Tina-Fey-Liz-LemonIt’s no secret that almost everyone in Hollywood is very good looking.  But Chloe Angyal is tired of beautiful people playing “ugly” characters on TV.  And not because they’re taking parts away from genuinely ugly people.

One of the running themes of Glee is that Rachel, played by Lea Michele, is talented, but annoying, badly dressed and physically unattractive. In other words, they Liz Lemon her. Yeah, I just made that a verb – and it needs to be one, because there’s a lot of Liz Lemoning going on these days.

For those of you who don’t spend an embarrassing amount of your time watching sitcoms on Hulu, Liz Lemonning originates with NBC’s 30 Rock. The most frustrating thing about 30 Rock, an otherwise excellent show, are the constant references to the fact that Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon is ugly. The thing is, Tina Fey fits conventional standards of female beauty almost to a T. Liz Lemon, like Rachel, is a flawed character, but the constant references to her ugliness are just absurd. And while beauty is of course subjective, these two women absolutely meet our culture’s standard of female beauty: they’re young, white, slim, cis-gendered, well-proportioned and able-bodied, with long shiny hair and smooth skin. They may not be Victoria’s Secret models, and they may have brown hair and glasses, but they certainly still meet society’s standards of female beauty.

Writing about this very problem, the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein writes that 30 Rock “didn’t have the nerve to cast an actually frumpy actress in Liz Lemon’s role. About half the jokes focus on Lemon’s looks, and they’re all undercut when the camera focuses on the slim, beautiful Tina Fey.” Klein believes that the lack of nerve reflects “American television’s terror of putting normal-looking people on screen.” And he has a point: The closest we’ve gotten to an actually frumpy actress in a lead role lately is America Ferrera in Ugly Betty.

In NBC’s defense, Tina Fey is the creator, head writer, and executive producer for 30 Rock, a show she based on her own experience as the head writer for Saturday Night Live.  And I’ve never gathered that Lemon is supposed to be ugly so much as  a rather ridiculously socially awkward nerd.

Still, as Matt Yglesias points out, the hottie playing the ugly is a standard Hollywood trope.

You see a related phenomenon in movies like She’s All That which is based on the odd premise that Rachel Leigh Cook is ugly until given a new hairstyle at which point it becomes clear that she is, in fact, movie star Rachel Leigh Cook.

The same premise was used for the Sandra Bullock vehicle Miss Congeniality, in which Gracie Hart’s colleagues were simply shocked that, with a little bit of makeup and some attention to her eyebrows, she could be a plausible beauty pageant contestant.   (The fact that Bullock was 35, about a dozen years too old, is another story left cleverly unexplored.)  Also, to a lesser extent, in The Princess Diaries, in which it turns out that Anne Hathaway isn’t particularly bad looking.

Further, as Matt points out, it’s not just women who get this treatment in Hollywood:

You need to be explicitly instructed that “Liz Lemon is ugly” is one of the conceits of the show—this certainly isn’t information you would obtain simply by looking at Tina Fey. Similarly, the fact that Dr Chase is really attractive was a plot-point in a recent House episode. And of course Jesse Spencer has always been a good-looking dude. But given the conventions of television casting that mere fact is insufficient to establish that the Chase character is supposed to be that hot, until it’s explicitly stated in dialogue.

I first noticed this phenomenon as a kid while watching Happy Days.   One of the constant subplots of the early seasons was that Richie and Potsie were high school nerds in awe of the cool Fonzie.  Not only were our sophomore nerds quite mature looking (Richie was played by then-20-year-old Ron Howard and Potsie by a 25-year-old Anson Williams) but Potsie, in particular, was obviously quite attractive.  Indeed, Williams became a minor teen idol.   But, apparently, the circa 1974 standard for a 16-year-old boy to aspire to was a 29-year-old Henry Winkler.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as the TV Tropes entry shows:

    Hollywood Homely

  2. Roberta Taussig says:

    Only a man would think that, just because a woman looks beautiful, she feels beautiful. There’s the basic material, and then there’s the mind inhabiting it. Think of all those anorexics. This works for Jesse Spencer’s Chase character on “House” as well — he has always projected “I am not worthy of love”, and finding out he has social capital of which he was unaware has made for an interesting plot arc.

  3. john personna says:

    I think 30 Rock plays more to Lemmon’s awkwardness and nerdiness than her being congenitally ‘ugly.’ … well that and her addiction to nasty junk food.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Another interesting aspect of TV land is how often overweight, balding guys who are not particularly interesting seem to always end up with women who look like they were Sandra Bullock’s cousin or something.

    Not too many years ago, we had freeks & geeks, a brilliant show that was very true to life. Axed after one season. The networks deserve to go broke, cable channels are giving us things that are actually worth watching.

  5. tom p says:

    Another interesting aspect of TV land is how often overweight, balding guys who are not particularly interesting seem to always end up with women who look like they were Sandra Bullock’s cousin or something.

    Indeed. In “The Unforgiven” Clint plays about as undesirable a character as hollywood has ever come up with (he even looks used up) and yet he still has young girls (mind you, one who was cut up) swooning over him. And this was “honest” by Hollywood standards.

    Real life just doesn’t quite match up. I have a woman who goes to work every day, never complains when I am laid off, and when I am working is the first to jump into the kitchen because I “worked so hard today” (like she didn’t?) etc etc

    And yet she doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model so she does not quite match up. (Don’t even ask about those discussions, no matter how many times I tell her I love her the way she is… It don’t matter)

    Thank God I am a man.

  6. Franklin says:

    The picture above flatters Tina Fey. She is above average in looks but by no means beautiful. Same goes for Sandra Bullock.

    Men put those two on pedestals merely because they are famous, but I can walk down the street in my college town for a minute and see five women more beautiful than the above.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Yeah, I thought she was just supposed to be a nerd, not ugly.

    Incidentally it’s the same with book covers. A character I described as unattractive, overweight, poorly-dressed, with braces and bad glasses is represented on the cover by a pretty model with a gloomy expression and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Apparently anything more honest would have heaved the planet of its axis, set off a rash of suicides and popped open the seventh seal.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Take away:

    Joyner Loves Potsie!

  9. Michael Reynolds says:


    I have to admit I would never have picked Potsie as Joyner’s man crush. I had him pegged as a Spock fanboy.

  10. Triumph says:

    I have to admit I would never have picked Potsie as Joyner’s man crush.

    At least it wasn’t Ralph Malph!

  11. rodney dill says:

    …or Squiggy