A friend of mine has a theory that every 20-something girl in the city believes she is Liz Lemon. It's hard to argue with his thinking, since Tina Fey's character on 30 Rock demonstrates such an array of awkward vulnerabilities and embarrassing hang-ups that all of us relate to at least a few.
The show concludes its seven-season run today, leaving a legacy of sitcoms with female leads primarily characterized by their quirks and flaws, such as Jess Day on New Girl and Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project. Today's leading lady also builds on those of the past – Ally McBeal and Mary Tyler Moore, among many others – in her fairly honest depiction of a life when no day is without failure and no woman truly has it all together.
Everyone can relate to failure, but it's how today's TV woman deals with failure – resolving itself hilariously by the post-credits coda – that often teaches us about managing life, or at least how we're supposed to manage it according to Hollywood's creative powers-that-be.
Funny as they are, these fictional women also set some cultural expectations for women, especially for the type they portray: the post-graduate woman who lives in a city, seeking self-sufficiency and fulfillment in her career and personal life. This season of life actually exists for many women, including me, so it's no wonder this is becoming such a common set-up on TV. Their familiarity gives them the power to sway us to think, "Perhaps this is how everyone lives." Even the characters of HBO's Girls, the post-recession Sex and the City that I am told constantly is the "cultural weather vane" for my generation, regularly hobble along on the same well-worn crutches that TV teaches us all women use.
For one: the one-night stand to recover from hardship. For these ladies, there is no retreating to a quiet place to pray; difficulties trigger a quest for external distraction. The TGS crew once colluded to essentially trick Liz Lemon into a one-night stand for the sole purpose of improving her mood. Even New Girl's Jess Day, a character criticized for her 13-year-old girly-girl schtick, jumped into a sex-only "relationship" in order to get over losing her job. (There are a couple of virgins on TV, but as Salon's Willa Paskin put it last year, "Shame-free virginity: not currently a fictional TV offering." But that's a whole different post.)
For another: the self-soothing chat with friends. True mentors are few and far between on TV. It seems my generation, and the characters that reflect it, is obsessed with self-analysis through "talking things out" with a group of peers. There is no seeking out wisdom from elders, pastors, a higher power, or parents, who are usually peripheral characters, if mentioned at all. Mindy banter-argues her problems into submission. Jess re-filters hers through the male perspective of her roommates. Liz Lemon breaks this type somewhat by frequently consulting her boss Jack Donaghy who, while not exactly "wise" in the biblical definition of the term, at least doesn't parrot all her own assumptions back to her and call it advice.
To be fair, situational comedy the very definition of a sitcom, and expecting a TV woman to solve a problem without minimal pratfalls or misunderstandings is pointless. Still, even though the fictional women of TV are designed as comedic foils, each of their lives is defined by a quest, be it for a significant other, professional success, or a certain kind of life. Liz Lemon—a 30-something woman, not a 20-something "girl"—is ending her run by deciding to have kids and getting married (triggering all sorts of feminist controversy). Jess is clearly determined to organize her life around regular encounters with vintage stores and crafts. Mindy is a somehow-successful doctor obsessed with turning her personal life into an equally successful romantic comedy.
These goals might be the products of a successful life, but they hardly ensure it. Marriage as "happily ever after?" Coordinated wardrobe as proof of contentment? As signs of female success, these are hardly revolutionary clichés.
When I encounter difficulty, or even frustration, I am looking for a solution that is more than a detour or a distraction. I want something that teaches me how to live. I often start with personal experience or guidance from someone I trust, but I look for actionable answers in my Bible or in prayer. After all, if wisdom is "more precious than jewels" then isn't it a logical goal for the endless quest of modern life?
I know – to my own shame – that sometimes the tired idea that religion is a crutch can hold me back from fully expressing the ways God gives meaning to my daily life. As much as I enjoy TV, it helps to acknowledge that these characters endlessly wield their own tired crutches in the same quest every episode, only to stay stuck in an endless loop that will never reach the fulfillment and contentment God can bring to our real lives.
I still wind up with a funny story to share with friends and mentors at the end of the week. Call me crazy, but I suspect that the more fully I am abiding in Christ the more I get a kick out of the ridiculous, every day situations and people I encounter. Everyday problems in real life seem more like sitcom problems when you're tapped into the wisdom and joy and peace of God.