As a big fan of Fox’s “New Girl,” I was surprised to hear that Zooey Deschanel, the show’s star, is, in some circles, considered to be a controversial figure.
Huh? Who could be more anodyne than the cute and innocent star of this very funny show? Deschanel plays Jess, an elementary school teacher who moves into a loft with three guys she met on Craigslist. This is a relationship sitcom, where 90% of the plot revolves around the attempts of the thirty-something main characters to manage their love lives; in that area, Jess is guileless and so averse to manipulation that she can’t even consummate a one-night stand.
Apparently the brief against Jess (the character) and Deschanel (the actress) is that they are too “girly.” Or as Jada Yuan explains in New York magazine, “Among women, Deschanel tends to be more polarizing. They either covet her bangs or they resent her for seemingly playing into the male fantasy that women are only attractive when they act like girls.”
If you Google “Zooey Deschanel girly,” you will find the litany of complaints. She used to be popular in the hipster community because of her quirky personality, ukulele mastery and wholesome grunge look. But now she makes cynics, who consider her twee and overly precious, want to ‘frow up. And after she jokingly tweeted “I wish everyone looked like a kitten,” more than one feminist head exploded.
Sigh. It’s a sad commentary on our hyper-politicized times that someone as sweet as Zooey Deschanel can be considered polarizing. I guess there’s no room in this world for a thirty-year-old woman who overtly loves polka dots and puppies. Over-sexualized power figures like Lady Gaga and dissipated slatterns like Snooki? Yes. But the quintessential girl next door? No.
What’s interesting is that as a male person, I always thought the problem with “The New Girl” was that the GUYS were such a mess. They all live in the Apatow universe of men who can’t grow up, find a career or commit to a relationship. Exhibit number one is Nick, the roommate to whom Jess bonds mostly closely. A once-promising law school student who dropped out because of relationship issues, he now tends bar and doesn’t earn enough to buy health insurance or even have a cell phone. Compared to him, Jess totally has her act together.
Deschanel is clearly aware of the resentment she engenders, and as a guest host of Saturday Night Live helped create the self-spoofing skit “Bein Quirky.” Even more pointedly, on recent episode of “New Girl,” the writers had Nick’s aggressive new lawyer girlfriend lay out the case against her: this tightly wound woman complains that Jess will get out of a traffic violation because of her “thing,” which she described as “the cupcakes, and the braking for birds, and the whole, ‘Bluebirds help me dress in the morning!’” She continues the attack: "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 blankie."
That’s the essence of the argument -- that men prefer submissive, child-like women. But on the show it’s the traditional sexpots, not Jess, who actually attract the guys. Besides, Jess makes the sensible defense that you shouldn’t judge a woman solely on her appearance, telling the lawyer girlfriend: “I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter --but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong."
And if women resent Jess or Deschanel, it doesn’t show up in the ratings. Women 18-34 watch “New Girl” at almost twice the rate as their male counterparts. My guess is that most young women identify with Jess and her sexual reticence a lot more than they do with Snooki.
In any event, the emphasis on clothes and personal style seems to miss the point. Jess’s appeal is not primarily in her fashion choices. Men could care less about the kittens and ribbons. Instead, what makes her truly adorable is that she’s funny, loyal and kind. In later episodes, Nick’s lawyer girlfriend blows him off on Valentine’s Day because she’s working late; later she drops him altogether because he’s so emotionally needy. Jess wouldn’t do that.
Both Jess and Deschanel are -- dare we say it -- nice. Deschanel runs a humor website that is open to any woman who wants to contribute, but she says, “Please don’t be mean about other people. Even if you’re really funny, I still don’t think it’s worth it. I have total respect for all of those other sites, but, yeah, snark is not our bag.”
Is that what it means to be girlie? To be nice? Also modest, empathetic to a fault, nurturing, and fun to be around? There could be worse things in the world.