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30 Rock, Katy Perry, and the “Dumb Hot Girl” Persona

February 26, 2011

Three cheers for this week’s episode of 30 Rock, which took a break from most of this season’s ongoing narratives to explore the tension between various perspectives on feminism, sexuality, comedy, the workplace, and the culture at large. In the episode, titled “TGS Hates Women,” a pop culture blog hails an up-and-coming comedian named Abby Flynn as the freshest new female voice in comedy and simultaneously criticizes Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, for seeming to “hate women” in many of its characterizations. Liz, played by Tina Fey, is stung by the criticism and knows it’s true, to some degree, as we see cutaway bits to TGS sketches in which both Amelia Earhart and Hillary Clinton are felled by their menstrual symptoms. Liz may have intended those sketches to be, as she says, “ironic reappropriations” of anti-woman cultural assumptions, but she knows that something was lost along the way and they ended up reinforcing the “menstruating women are unstable” trope. So, to make herself feel better about her show’s place in the cultural discourse, Liz decides to hire that fresh new comedy voice, Abby Flynn.

However, Liz quickly sees that Abby is a hypersexual, infantile nightmare who has begun to succeed primarily by selling a “dumb hot girl” image that Liz perceives as harmful to the overall concerns of the female sex. Abby prospers on an individual level by playing up every stereotypical trait that “the average heterosexual man” wants in a woman. She has giant breasts and a tiny brain. She constantly craves male attention. She is a willing sex object rather than rejecting objectification. She is gung-ho to kiss Liz after a stranger tells her to do so. In short, Abby is everything Liz has tried not to be throughout her professional life, and Liz is anguished at having to live in a world where Abby’s jiggling her way to the top works like gang-busters for her. But then, in standard 30 Rock fashion, everything is turned on its ear and Liz’s righteousness turns out to be fueled by no small amount of self-righteousness. Liz is “right” in many ways, but she still handles it all wrong and mucks up a lot of things. Watch the episode to see what I’m talking about.

This episode caught my eye for at least two reasons. First, I greatly admire 30 Rock for simply having the courage to play around in this discursive territory and bring some of these debates into the realm of network television. Second, the episode asked difficult questions about what constitutes “female empowerment” and acknowledged that answers are not clear cut, even when they appear at first to be straightforward. Does Abby Flynn’s ownership and conscious exploitation of her own sexuality make her empowered? If so, at what cost to herself and her gender? “TGS Hates Women” not only asks these questions, but also acknowledges their complexity (and even makes them funny!) through dialogue and plotting. 

30 Rock’s embrace of complexity stands out even more when contrasted with the recent episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Katy Perry guest starred. In the episode, titled “Oh, Honey,” Perry plays an utterly stereotypical “dumb hot girl” whose gullibility is mined for at least half a dozen jokes, including a scenario in which Barney is able to easily lie his way into a sexual encounter with Perry’s character because she’s not smart enough to know better. 

The real-life Abby Flynn, trying to answer a melon.

Don’t get me wrong—I like How I Met Your Mother and enjoyed this episode, but the presence of Katy Perry and her dumb character did nothing to add to my enjoyment. In fact, I believe that Katy Perry is in many ways the real-life version of Abby Flynn, and her guest-star turn on HIMYM is just the latest example of Perry’s objectionable willingness to sell a “dumb hot girl” image for her own benefit without concern for its larger gender implications. As I said above, I don’t think the questions about sexual empowerment always have easy answers, but on HIMYM and throughout her career, Perry seems entirely unreflective about the question, and entirely unable or unwilling to acknowledge that her “dumb hot girl” persona might not be a positive thing for women other than herself.

Call me an elitist if you must, but the fact that 30 Rock still struggles with low ratings while Katy Perry is a ubiquitous pop-culture megastar doesn’t exactly speak well of the public’s willingness to engage complex ideas  in their entertainment media. Also at the risk of sounding judgmental, if I ever have a little girl, I’m going to do my best to have her reciting Liz Lemon quotes from 30 Rock rather than singing lyrics from Katy Perry songs. Liz is a bit of a screw up, sure, but at least she succeeds (and sometimes fails) by trying to be a smart woman rather than a dumb girl.

  1. February 28, 2011 4:25 pm

    I agree totally about the spot-on cultural critique of this episode. I couldn’t help wondering though, because I only know her work and have seen little of the woman in question herself, but do you think Abby could’ve been a play on Diablo Cody?

  2. Lloyd permalink
    February 28, 2011 4:33 pm

    Not sure about Diablo Cody–like you, I only know her work. I did see a couple of articles over the weekend that mentioned Abby in relation to Sarah Silverman. That rings a bit true to me–what with Silverman’s whole “high baby voice” thing that seems to come and go when she wants it to. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Silverman make a “my uncle thinks I’m sexy” joke just like the one that Abby makes in the episode.

    Just to be clear, I really don’t think 30 Rock was saying anything about Katy Perry. I was just drawing those parallels b/c of her recent appearance on another sitcom, where she played a dumb character, and her overall on-camera tendency to play up the “dumb girl” thing that (some) men seem to love.

  3. February 28, 2011 4:44 pm

    I hate Diablo Cody. And all her hipper-than-thou blogpeak. Just wanted to say that.

    That is all.

  4. Kelly Rienerth permalink
    July 5, 2011 8:13 pm

    Thank you for writing this article. I always enjoy seeing things like this to make me think about feminism. Personally, feel like women who say that showing off their body and acting slutty makes them “empowered” are just clinging to anything to excuse them of being attention whores. I just can’t see how that could be considered feminism. Anyway, I very much appreciated this and your comments on today’s culture and how women like Katy Perry ride their way to the top by exploiting themselves sexually and intellectually. I’m crossing my fingers for a change.

  5. Lloyd permalink
    July 11, 2011 9:21 am

    Many thanks for your comment, Kelly. In the debate about sexuality and empowerment, I agree with your perspective. The individual may “feel” empowered through aggressive displays of sexuality, but I believe that comes at the cost of harming the overall cause of women who don’t wish to be reduced as such. A book I really like on this topic is “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy. Check it out if you haven’t read it already.

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