Completely despite myself I have been watching FOX’s breakout sitcom of the year, New Girl, and enjoying it. When this show debuted, I was one of many feminist critics who wrote it off, in part because it was marketed as a show about an “offbeat and adorkable” girl who moves in with three bros who proceed to try to teach her how to get guys. Starring Zooey Deschanel, no less. Zooey Deschanel! Really? Does anyone really think that this woman playing this hipster fantasy role, in this day and age, would have any trouble finding guys? We’re not in The Princess Diaries or She’s All That, in which taking off a girl’s glasses magically made her ten times more attractive. We are not post-feminist, post-racist, or post-gender, but I think we might be post-glasses.
It might also be argued that I have some issues with Zooey Deschanel. Not really with her as a person, because I don’t know her, but with the stereotype she markets herself as. On- and off-screen, Deschanel is a hipster goddess. She’s beautiful, but deliberately styles herself in a vintage, soft, unabashedly twee aesthetic that works more to brand her than to flatter her. Her hair in particular, a brunette cascade of pre-Raphaelite tresses, is often styled to echo 1960s mod cuts. The retro references don’t end with her appearance: She’s also one half of the musical duo She & Him, whose feel is decidedly vintage. (Feel free to cue up their single “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” as you keep reading.) She was until recently married to Ben Gibbard, lead singer of indie breakout bands Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service.
And she almost exclusively takes roles that require her to be an ethereal, quirky, wide-eyed innocent, in which she is largely a plot device for the stories of the men around her. In other words, she almost always plays the manic pixie dream girl, most notably in (500) Days of Summer. At least that film was honest about the fact that Deschanel’s character Summer was being portrayed entirely through the lens of the male protagonist, Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and director Marc Webb pushes her characterization to more aloof and mysterious than that ubiquitous word used to describe her, “adorkable.” But she plays almost the identical role in films like Elf and Yes Man, suggesting this is typecasting she’s not afraid of.
Also, and this is crucial, in the past year Deschanel co-founded a magazine-y website called, I shit you not, Hello Giggles. From the site’s about page: “hellogiggles.com is the ultimate entertainment destination for smart, independent and creative females. Everything hosted on the site will be lady-friendly, so visitors need not worry about finding the standard Boys Club content that makes many entertainment sites unappealing to so many of us.”
I’m sensitive to the fact that business-savvy actresses have to find a niche that sells and work it, hard, to succeed. I have no doubt that Zooey Deschanel has other capabilities as an actress – indeed, I’ve seen them, in roles ranging from Jimmy Fallon’s girlfriend in “Idiot Boyfriend” to Anita Miller in Almost Famous. But it’s clear that playing the indie card works very well for her.
No, what frustrates me isn’t that this is the niche Zooey Deschanel has chosen. It’s that somehow this niche appeals to audiences. As with everything I hate immediately, New Girl became an overnight hit, quickly getting renewed for a second season after it proved it could maintain audiences. I think critical ire diverged into two points of outrage: 1. Is this girl really supposed to be indie? 2. Is this degree of cute naivete appealing?
I’m not here to discuss the first. Zooey Deschanel’s indie cred can certainly be called into question (how can you be indie when you’re in a sitcom on FOX?), but ultimately I don’t care how authentic she is – I’m not sure if I even know what “authentic” means anymore.
But the second – Deschanel’s calculated cuteness – is a cause for serious concern. I’m not trying to be dramatic here when I say that this degree of forced naivete, of blithe innocence, is insidious, for women and for men.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that New Girl is challenging this marketed version of Zooey Deschanel. Subtly, for sure, but challenging, nonetheless. Whereas in the first couple of episodes it seemed like Deschanel’s character Jess was a twee fairy godmother descending upon the bros to dispense wisdom and cookies, by this point in the season it looks like the bros are there to teach her something, too.
Deschanel’s Jess is perhaps best characterized by a plotline in the season’s fourth episode, “Naked.” In one of those sitcom-staged conflicts, Jess accidentally walks in on her roommate Nick naked. Nervous, she giggles hysterically and runs out of the room. Nick and Jess spend the rest of the episode trying to communicate about the incident and failing, mostly because Jess is unable to say the world “penis.” She can get out euphemisms and diminutives, but she can’t say the word itself, which just infuriates Nick even more.
Jess has heavy bangs, colorful dresses, thick glasses, and a propensity for the nauseatingly cute: polka dots, ribbon hats, florals, lace, knitting, cupcakes, handbells, flats, glitter. Her tastes and attitude are not dissimilar to that of a kindergartener. Appropriately, she is an elementary-school teacher, but that doesn’t explain her almost shocking infantilism. Rather than being a living, breathing woman, she seems like an oversized six-year-old. Why say “penis” when you can say “wee-wee” and giggle uncontrollably?
I know that sitcoms aren’t supposed to reflect reality (though it’s nice when they do). I’m willing to make some room for Hollywood extremes in Jess’ characterization. But it freaks me out that we as a nation are all so willing to embrace this very strange manifestation of femininity. Because she is absolutely sanitized. Can you imagine Jess having sex, menstruating, or growing out her bangs? Leading a board meeting? Running for office? Negotiating a cab fare? Giving birth to a child? It’s weird that women would be expected champion this character, who defines herself through glitter and cupcakes, and it’s equally weird that men would be expected find her attractive, given that she is the least sexually empowered character conceivable.
The show seemed like it was going to buy into this cuteness, but early on it established an important seed. It’s not okay that Jess’ roommates are bros that don’t know how to relate to women. But it’s not okay that Jess is an oversized child who refuses to grow up, either. It’s light comedy, and it’s not judging anyone too harshly for their faults, but I was surprised to discover that Jess is taken to task by those around her for her infantilism: less often than I’d like, but often enough that it’s an important line of character development.
For example, “Naked” ended with a small, touching moment. After apologizing to Nick, Jess tells him she’s been “working on something for him,” and proceeds to pronounce, without affectation or embarrassment, both syllables and all letters of the word “penis.” Nick is understandably touched. Our little girl is growing up.
Last week’s episode took on Jess’ shtick far more aggressively. Nick has started dating Julia, a hard-hitting corporate lawyer played by Lizzy Caplan, and the two could not be more different. Julia is tough and doesn’t like to talk about her feelings. Worse, she doesn’t like dessert. This alone sends Jess into a tailspin. Who doesn’t like dessert?! The women clash when Julia points out that Jess’ “thing” might work to soften up the judge. Jess inquires naively what her “thing” is. Julia says, “You know, your whole”¦ thing,” unable to articulate what is so obvious to the rest of us.
Later on Jess and Julia have an argument, and Julia points out that if she acted the way Jess does at her place of work, no one would take her seriously. Jess retorts that if she acted the way Julia does at work, all of the kids would go home crying. The episode ends with Jess affirming that even though she likes cute things, she’s still tough and strong – though not tough enough to negotiate with a judge over an $800 parking fine – while Julia allows that she needs some cuteness in her life, and joins Jess’ crochet circle.
Whether or not you’re happy with this resolution is beside the point. The fact that the writing team of New Girl recognized and called out Jess’ schtick for what it is seemed no less than revolutionary. Somehow it seemed to penetrate both Jess’ saccharine-sweet character, which is admittedly flat, and Zooey Deschanel’s put-on hipster persona, as well.
Because the dark underbelly of twee is that it’s a persona defined by the lens of the status quo – the patriarchy, if you will. (I know, it’s a little early to be bandying about the term “patriarchy,” but bear with me.) “Cute” is a term that girls are supposed to aspire to. “Cute” is delicate, fussy, and pretty. Women can be all of those things, of course. But any woman in this world would be able to tell you in a heartbeat that femininity isn’t cute. Being a woman is not easy. It’s blood and pain and harassment as well as joy and beauty and love. But it is by no means delicate or uncomplicated.
Holding on to cuteness seems to be a way to code oneself as passive and nonthreatening – probably because cuteness is so closely related to childlike innocence. “Twee,” cute’s immature older sister, is outright rejecting ideals of empowerment and blindly accepting the status quo. Twee is not saying, “Who cares if feminine domesticity is problematic? I love baking!” Twee is merely saying, “I love baking!” as if feminism never happened at all. Coming from a character that is the only major female character (on a show that features three male co-stars), the result is disconcertingly regressive. It was good to see the show respond to the issues this character represents by having her interact with another female character.
I’m very curious to see where New Girl takes Jess. and if you’re so inclined, you can tune in at 9 p.m. tonight on FOX to see the next episode. You might see merit in it, or you might hate it, or you might experience what I’m feeling, which is an unsettling cocktail of the two.