I don’t think of myself as a person with a cause. I don’t see myself as the victim of a social injustice that I need to champion – certainly not if it interferes with my daily inactivity. I’m a lazy sort of person, a person who mostly prefers to stay out of it, whatever ‘it’ may be. Not because I don’t care, but because I don’t like confrontation, or having to explain myself, and because I don’t know where it stops. Open that gate just once…
That said, in the last few years, as I’ve come to terms with my own identity, I’ve noticed a trend in media that makes me uncomfortable, and often just plain sad. Since the dawn of political correctness, writers have striven to make sure that even those with the rarest of conditions will find someone in film or on television with whom to relate. You can’t turn on the TV without tripping over characters of color, or characters with disabilities, or characters in relationships with persons of the same gender. While there may still be an inequality in these representations, the fact is, people are trying to put those issues out there.
Except when it comes to sex. Whether the relationship be hetero, homo, or bi, the fact remains that Everyone On TV Wants to Have Sex. If they don’t, Something is Wrong With Them.
This largely stems from ignorance – most people, understandably, assume that sex is a part of everyone’s life. It’s perfectly natural, desired, and a biological imperative. To most people, there are No Such Things as Asexuals, which may be the saddest part of all.
Understanding the motivation doesn’t, however, stop me from feeling hurt or even a little humiliated, when my feelings are expressed through a character who is the face of this issue, and that character is promptly informed that he or she is wrong. Just plain wrong. Sex is wonderful. Sex is the be all and end all. Sex is life. Therefore, the misguided character in question needs to be “fixed.”
Which is what happened to Liz Lemon.
One of the reasons that I have loved 30 Rock even when the episodes themselves are less than stellar is the character of Liz. Sometimes I imagine she’s what I’ll be in fifteen years, and despite the depressing aspects of her life getting played for laughs, I find it reassuring. Sure she may choke to death in her apartment because there’s no one around to give her the Heimlich, but she’s smart, she has friends and a career, and generally seems content.
Liz has had a number of love interests over the course of five years, but no real stable relationships. Not because she’s uninterested, but because she has very specific desires that have yet to be fulfilled. Liz is, in my opinion, a romantic asexual: a person who does not experience sexual attraction, but desires companionship. She sums it up perfectly in this exchange from the Season 3 episode, “Gavin Volure”:
Liz: I’m still tired from that dinner. And meeting someone new, ugh, all the nodding and smiling and sibling listing. And what’s the upside? It works and you have to have a bunch of sex?
Jack: Lemon, what do you want? Do you want to be alone for the rest of your life?
Liz: No. I just wish I could start a relationship about 12 years in where you don’t really have to try anymore and you can just sit around together and goof on TV shows and go to bed without anybody trying any funny business.
And again in Season 4’s “Lee Marvin versus Derek Jeter” with:
Liz: I want someone who will be monogamous and nice to his mother. And I want someone who likes musicals, but knows to just shut his mouth when I’m watching Lost. And I want someone who thinks being really into cars is lame and strip clubs are gross. I want someone who will actually empty the dishwasher instead of just taking out forks, as needed, like I do. I want someone with clean hands and feet and beefy forearms like a damn Disney prince. And I want him to genuinely like me even when I’m old. And that’s what I want.
Not once in either of those two speeches is sex a necessary ingredient, and, in fact, in the first it’s named as a deterrent. She took the words right out of my mouth. But I suppose, this being a sitcom and all, they couldn’t leave it be.
Last Thursday’s episode, “Reaganing,” began harmlessly enough. Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy was solving problems left and right, aiming for 24 hours of perfection – only to be met with Liz and her reluctant confession that she’s going to break things off with new boyfriend Carol, the pilot. When Jack pressures her to tell him why, she says that she had ‘a performance problem’ which leads Jack to point out that she’s always been something of a prude (“Squeamish? Conservative?”) when it comes to sex.
Then it goes into a montage of the number of times Liz has expressed disgust or dislike of anything to do with sex. While Liz’s search for a partner has been a theme of the show since its inception, I don’t believe there has ever been a moment on 30 Rock in which Liz has said, “Man, sex with that guy was great! Best ever!” – even in her most functional relationships.
Jack, of course, views Liz’s “problem” as a challenge to his Reaganing.
“I’m going to fix you, and save your relationship with Carol,” he pronounces.
“I don’t need to be fixed,” Liz protests.
Jack asks if her inability to copulate had ever happened before, and Liz admits there were a few instances. Which leads Jack to assume that her distaste for sex has to do with Sexual Trauma from the Past.
This is the first assumption made by sexual people when a person reveals his or her asexuality. If a person doesn’t want to have sex, it must be due to sexual abuse. (Sadly, this is as much a Real Life convention as it is a television one.) For about three seconds, I actually hoped the writers of 30 Rock would defy the trope, and be forced to deal with Liz’s “problem” another way, until…
“Stop it, Jack, stop it, stop asking about the roller skates!”
Cue commercial. When NBC has finished hawking its wares, Liz very reluctantly tells Jack about a misunderstanding involving a fallen Tom Jones poster and her underwear getting caught around a pair of roller skates. (It’s about as stupid in context, don’t worry.)
Jack can’t handle the truth, but after solving an unrelated problem, thereby maintaining his winning streak, he returns to find Liz, only to reaffirm that he’s “fixing” her, and saving her relationship.
“Sex is a beautiful, natural, and joyful part of our shared human experience,” he says, only to be accosted a moment later by a hooker with a lot of colorful offers and a false leg.
“Sex is horrible,” a defeated Liz replies. I’m right there with her.
Jack asks her what she’s going to do about Carol, and Liz says she’s going to break up with him, to let him off the hook. Jack thinks that would be a mistake, because even though Liz is the “sexual equivalent of a million Hindenburgs,” she deserves to have a nice guy in her life. Then he advises she take Carol into a unisex bathroom, pull down the changing table, and “go to town on him.” Which really doesn’t make sense in the context.
“I’ll try,” Liz says with a sigh, “but if I couldn’t get it done in Vegas at a Penn & Teller show, I don’t see how it’s going to happen here.”
Jack has a lightbulb moment and realizes that Vegas reminded Liz of Tom Jones and her prepubescent sexual humiliation. Jones is the root of all her sexual problems!
“Does this mean I’m fixed?” Liz asks gleefully.
Jack lays in a reality check, even if it only serves to reinforce the idea that Liz’s sexual ‘hang-ups’ are caused by trauma, and can therefore (eventually) be repaired. “Oh no, you’ve got years of therapy ahead of you, probably electro-shock. But it’s a breakthrough – and a big one.”
Except, it’s not. It’s very predictable. Finding the ‘root’ of her performance problem, all Liz needs now is some therapy and miraculously she’ll learn to love sex.
I’m not in the least surprised or angered by the way the subject was handled. I was not, am not, expecting a global epiphany to come from a half-hour sitcom. I’m only disappointed, because for a while there, I had a role model. A self-proclaimed female geek in her thirties who was unmarried, and wanted to be in a relationship but wasn’t interested in the sexual aspect of it – Liz Lemon was my idol. Regardless of how often she was made to look like a loser, she kept hope alive.
I don’t see characters on TV like me. It’s assumed that everyone, even if they aren’t in relationships, wants to have sex. There’s a reason they call it ‘sexual tension’ after all. And that’s fine – great even. I love watching those relationships unfold too, and have absolutely no issue with characters whose sexual track records become part of the plot.
I’d just like a little acknowledgment that I’m not alone in the world, and that maybe it’s okay. Maybe it’s not something that needs to be ‘fixed.’ I’m not anti-sex, and I understand that I’m part of a small minority, but that doesn’t mean I, we, don’t exist.
The media portrays sex in many ways, but often as something that has to be done as soon as possible. Where are the role models for people like me, who want to know that they can live happy lives without it? Why is sex a prerequisite for contentment? All I’ve ever learned from film and television is that a person can’t be whole until they’ve done the deed.
I’m not surprised by this turn on 30 Rock, and I’m not outraged, but I am disappointed. I had hoped for more. The jokes would be a lot funnier if there was a character out there I could point to as a positive representation of a person who is uninterested in sex, but there isn’t one. Liz was as close as I got.
I would like to live in a world someday where I can mention that I’m asexual in casual conversation and not have the discussion grind to a halt. It would be nice to exist in a time when the term is at least understood, if not accepted. I’m waiting for the day when my identity can be more than the butt of jokes.
But I’m not holding my breath.