"New Girl," or In Defense of Zooey Deschanel

strong female characters

Zooey Deschanel’s hit sitcom “New Girl” will have its second season premiere in a couple weeks, and I’ll most likely be watching, because I love her, and I’m clearly not alone—in fact, if both her converts and critics are to be believed, she leads a massive charge of women ages 13 to 50 that want to get in touch with their inner sunshine princess.

Culminating in her role in 2009’s romantic comedy-ish (500) Days of Summer—in which she, paradoxically, plays the gold standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a film that shows the dream of the MPDG to be airy and insubstantial—Deschanel has made a name for herself by tweeting about kittens, by wearing thrift store dresses, by starring in too-cute Cotton commercials, by singing vintage songs in a husky voice accompanied by a tiny ukulele, and by essentially being, as Jada Yuan from New York Magazine designated her, the Pinup of Williamsburg.

“New Girl,” when it premiered last fall, featured promos about Deschanel’s “adorkable,” very Zooey-like Jess Day moving into an L.A. apartment with three guys---who just can’t figure her out! Cue billboards of Jess standing slightly apart in an oblivious, pigeon-toed stance, as three dudes styled to be average-looking give her “uhh . . . what?” looks from the other side of the poster. Jess is quirky, awkward, and yes, loves girlish, silly things like making pancakes and being sweet to everybody. Based on the promos, even I thought it might be too much Zooey-ness. But it turned out much better than I expected.

For one thing, “New Girl” is actually funny. More than other sitcoms on the air, which are either aimed at the 35-and-over parenting set or continue to be filmed on 1990s-style soundstages with live audiences, I relate to this show and its characters, from the fact that Jess meets her new roommates via Craigslist to the career, dating, life issues that they face as people in their late 20s/early 30s.

And despite the promos, Jess turns out to be a fairly solid character. Sure, she’s got fluffy interests and a sunshine personality, but she’s smart and surprisingly self-possessed. She owns her cutesy persona with pride. This is best illustrated in an episode where she squares off against Lizzy Caplan’s tough lawyer character—a bit of a straw (wo)man, maybe, but I appreciated the implied message about women criticizing other women for undermining their own position as women.

To sum up: Why can’t you love rainbows and cupcakes, if you really love rainbows and cupcakes? Why does that automatically cast you in a submissive role that sets all womanhood decades back? Why must we police other women’s behavior and circumscribe their choices? In the grand scheme of things, Jess’s brand of girlishness seems pretty innocuous when compared to, say, action movie trailers or Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s commercials. Though Caplan’s character also brings up a good point: if she acted like Jess, she’d never make it as a lawyer. But what is that really a comment on?

This particular debate seemed to indirectly address the controversy that surrounds Zooey Deschanel herself. More than most other actress/singer/public figures of her generation, Deschanel is often at the center of fierce feminist debates. For those on one side, she’s an unproblematic symbol of indie culture: friend crush, girl crush, actual crush, style icon. For those on the other, she represents everything that’s wrong with third-wave (read: new) feminism: the idea that it’s totally okay to be quirky, child-like, cutesy, and, yes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because we’re over women having to be tough to be strong role models.

Much of this criticism came out of the woodwork with the premiere of “New Girl” last fall. They contend that Zooey represents a flippant post-feminism that, while rejecting the more limiting female ideal of second-wave feminism (ambitious, successful, not crying all the time), reverts instead to a pre-feminist ideal that sees women as childlike, naïve, innocent, to be taken care of. More explicitly, the retro fetishism of the Zooey set creates a female character that seems stuck squarely in 1962, vintage Shirelle crooning and all.

The aforementioned Zooey set is much larger than Ms. Deschanel herself (though some would say she started the trend). It’s in cupcake trucks. It’s in Mindy Kaling. It’s in every woman who has bangs. (Read comedienne Amy Klausner’s vicious takedown of the whole phenomenon.) And ultimately, for critics, it’s seen as a step backwards for womanhood because it allows grown women to present themselves as little girls and thus infantilizes women everywhere.

On the one hand, I understand the danger in constantly presenting women as girls, and how that can be damaging in what is undoubtedly an ongoing struggle for gender equality. Read: We are not post-feminist, and any action taken with the assumption that we are is a misstep.

On the other hand: I love Zooey. And I believe my defense of her stems from two parts, one intellectual and one entirely not.

One part is simply not preoccupied with what she means for feminism. In other words, I love her dresses, I love her hair, I love her bangs. I want to be as cool as her. As I write this I’m wearing a bright red, slightly flouncy A-line skirt and something called Audrey flats and nibbling on a piece of cheese and brie and listening to “Friday, I’m in Love” on my tiny purple iPod, and the image this produces is, all in all, incredibly gratifying to me.

The second part is this. I find it problematic when we define the “ideal” female character within such narrow boundaries. While not prescribing a defined list of rules---i.e., women must wear pants—in the sense that we must repeatedly tell prominent female figures what they should not do, we are creating a limited space in which women are allowed to represent themselves. While it’s completely valid to criticize representations of women in media that are demeaning, or that reproduce negative tropes, or that seem unrealistic (see The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon), those criticisms must be tempered by an understanding that a huge part of feminism is women choosing to do what they want to do.

Can I be asked to break down why I buy into elements of this subculture and its imagery? You might as well ask a woman why stiletto heels make her feel sexy. Sure, we could get into the problematic gendered history of shoe fashion and how heels represent a tortured, demeaning misogyny and, in an ideal world, should be discarded altogether. But does that change how they make her feel? And are we going to convince a country full of women that they should convert to a standard-issue, progress-approved flat for the sake of the symbolism? That feels like treating a symptom of patriarchy and not a cause—and, at the same time, getting on a bunch of ladies’ cases for making their own life choices.

I might be overthinking the whole Zooey Deschanel case. Or, I might be criticizing others for overthinking it. I can’t quite tell at this point. Either way, I suppose the most I can do is recommend “New Girl” (which, if you want to know, also has great male characters who are also hilariously quirky and awkward), and leave you with something like “Leave Zooey Alone.”