The Zooey Deschanel is a rare creature. She’s like a special dish at an uptown hipster restaurant that offers only Asian fusion macarons and Ghanian sushi, like a banjo/mandolin hybrid that plays itself while knitting a panda a sweater, like a interpretive dance collaboration between Mickey Mouse and a tutu-wearing tight rope walker. She has supernatural powers: One batting of her lush eyelashes and you’ll find yourself talking to animals. She lives off dandelion milk and crushed rainbows. Her hair so soft because it’s full of kittens.
With her high-waisted skirts, polka dots, and ribbons, her awkward, stilted, monotone delivery, and her portrayal of an identical character in each of her movies, the woman has become her own adjective. From (500) Days of Summer to Yes Man to Elf, Zooey plays the exact same role: the quirky girl.
Her new show, The New Girl, sucks this role dry. I enjoy this show a lot, because I, like everyone else who listened to the Shins in middle school, also have problems matching my glasses to my hair clips. But the more I watch it, the more feminist commentary on the show starts to make sense. There have been several bloggers who’ve identified that the quirky girl is just the ditzy girl we’re so familiar with, only wearing big-framed hipster glasses and riding a vintage bicycle.
There are two main complaints about the quirky girl: She capitalizes on traits that have been historically used to justify the subjugation of women (they’re emotional, they’re silly, they’re unrealistic), and she’s childish, unable to take care of herself, needing constant attention and assistance. Having watched every episode of the show in my inability to spend more than thirty seconds focusing on anything besides my own entertainment, I have a lot of thoughts about whether this dismissal of Jess, Zooey’s character, is fair. Jess is a kindergarten teacher (what else?), sensitive, wacky, and socially awkward. When the show begins, Jess has just moved in with three guys she found on the Internet who turn out not to be sexually perverted or dangerous or even vaguely attracted to the beautiful woman who’s suddenly entered their lives.
(A digressive observation: Because of the setup of the show, a straight girl living with straight guys, much of the comedy is fueled by unexplored sexual tensions. There’s a lot of eye-rolling at Jess’ girliness and mockery of Schmidt’s attempts to be hypermasculine. The storylines are usually romantic, with Jess’ relative sexual cluelessness a commonly exploited plot device; she bumbles her way through one-night stands and new boyfriends and picking up guys at bars.)
When we meet Jess, she’s babbling, telling a story at breakneck speed—we then flash back two weeks to her in the back of a cab, wearing tortoiseshell frames à la Hipster Mermaid (nice touch, costuming!), talking about how she’s going to surprise her boyfriend by engaging in one of his relatively vanilla sexual fantasies in which she’s a stripper. Basically, it just involves Jess being nude. So, cool, guys: We’ve barely even met Jess and we’re already picturing her naked. That’s not the way I often encounter women who I feel like I should respect—the writers could at least give us a name before they turn this heretofore anonymous protagonist into a sexual object. But feminists can relax: This isn’t your average heteronormative objectification; it’s supposed to be endearing, because Jess is so awkward about presenting herself sexually that the whole thing is funny, and we understand that Jess isn’t a nympho, she’s just weird, and girls with personalities are, like, a feminist thing or something, right?
I think the grumbling about the gender roles on the show got a little too loud for the producers to ignore, because a recent episode addresses almost explicitly the accusations being made. In this episode, called “Jess and Julia,” Jess’ roommate Nick is having trouble making things official with his lover Julia. Julia, who is spending more and more time with the roommates, starts to clash with Jess and gives voice to the feminist blogsophere when she accuses Jess of having a “thing”: ”With the cupcakes and the braking for birds and the bluebirds come and help me dress in the morning… the big, beautiful eyes like a scared baby.” Jess is taken aback, hurt and startled. When I watched this, I rolled my eyes at my laptop screen, disappointed with the writers. You’re going to do the nice girl versus mean girl story line? I thought. Where the nice girl, who is feminine and gentle and easily recognizable as the kind of girl who gets loved gets the guy and the mean girl ends up wearing sweatpants, teaching gym in Ohio and dying alone?
It was a crisis moment in my relationship with the show. It almost ended things forever, because I identify with Julia in the rivalry created here. I find Jess ridiculous. She’s a parody of herself, one of the most bumbling, awkward, incapable, and clueless characters I have ever seen on television, the exact kind of girl I—like Julia—have always rolled my eyes at when they, giggling, say, “Oh, I’m so clumsy!” As human beings who aren’t Beyoncé, (skip this next part, Bey), we all have moments where we are stupid or seem stupid or are confused or awkward, but the kind of girl who consciously cultivates her own awkwardness is misunderstanding what individuality means and mostly just making herself something cute to smile condescendingly at. Being awkward and weird isn’t a thing to do on purpose. If you’re weird, you’re weird, but at least be weird authentically. Jess’ self-aware awkwardness feels like a gimmick. It’s the same as acting dumb for attention, but it’s just the hip and happening, Urban Outfitters clad version of it.
So later in the episode, when Julia, frustrated by Jess, lashes out at her, saying: “I know that I’m the mean lawyer girl who wears suits and works too much, and you, you’re the really fun teacher girl with all the colorful skirts and you bake things and eventually Nick is going to come running to you and you’ll tuck him in under his blanky.” I was like, “Damn that’s a super self-aware analysis to have embedded in your television show guys, wait maybe you understand what’s going on here?” And then by the end of the episode, Jess and Julia are friends! Julia makes herself vulnerable, she sits down and knits with Jess and they bond about how mean girls were in middle school. This is a pretty uncommon move in television (and movies for that matter.) Two female characters, divided by a man they have in common with each other, are always rivals. And if there’s a mean girl in the picture, who does things like roll her eyes at someone as innocent and sweet as Jess, she’s definitely getting the karmic backhand from the show’s writers. But The New Girl is different, and I say this with relief, because I love this show: Jess and Julia actually grow to like each other, and, somehow, Julia learns how to knit. While the fact that Julia’s happiness involves her capitulation to Life as Jess Understands It is a little discouraging for me and my inability to knit or bake (but seriously when did knitting become a thing), it is true that sometimes girls like Julia (and me) who have trouble expressing their feelings act a lot tougher than they are.
But girls like Jess are a lot tougher than they act, and that is something that is not often expressed by The New Girl. Jess’ victories are usually the triumph of sunshine over shadow. In all her fringed, big-eyed adorability, she rarely shows the self-knowledge and self-possession that—in the show’s favor—all the other female characters have in droves. These competent women hover over Jess like mother ducks, always ready to rescue her from herself and temper her aww-shucks cutesiness with tired realism.
It makes sense that a new type of girl would receive the cultural adulation that was once reserved for stereotypes which, to our enlightened minds, now seem sexist and reductive. The quirky girl—though childlike, though vulnerable, though awkward—has some depth to her and, perhaps most importantly, it is her intelligence which pegs her as “quirky” rather than her lack of it marking her as “ditzy”. As a matter of fact, Jess is all about depth, and The New Girl’s plotlines always end up proving that there’s more to her than a hat made out of ribbons.
Really, the show’s creators have done an astute thing in capitalizing on the polka-dotted magic of the Zooey Deschnael phenomenon: Quirky is in. The backlash from the cultural homogeny of the early 00s—when choreographed dance routines and perfectly styled hair were everywhere—paired with the rise of the Internet and the intensification each of our obsessions with ourselves mean that, for Generation Y, the echoboomers, the trophy generation—whatever the sociologists call us—being unique is the most important thing we are. We are our parents’ special flowers, worth millions of dollars in braces and SAT tutoring and Ivy League educations: we’re unique, we’re individuals, and we need a new girl to love, a girl just as alt, just as idiosyncratic, just as special as we are.