The commercials have been beckoning to me for weeks, promising that I’m their target audience. What’s not to love about a sit-com caper that features Zooey Deschanel, the dreamy cop Leo from Veronica Mars (turns out his name is Max Greenfield), and twenty-something screw-ups thrown together by fate in a far-too-spacious-to-be-true city apartment? As if cop-Leo and well-lit apartments weren’t enough appeal, Frontier Airlines’s TV preview on my Denver-to-Grand Rapids leg was the full pilot episode of New Girl. I watched it without sound, as I was too travel-befuddled to dig out my headphones and as I think “guess-the-plotline” is a really fun game. Once I was home, I eagerly checked out the on-demand preview (with sound this time) (the series airs for real September 20th, I believe).
Unsurprisingly, I’d gotten the entire plot right.
See, here’s the problem I so often have with comedies. They seem to be driven by stereotypes. And at some level, I guess, I get why that works. We laugh because of what’s expected, or something, and they’re categories that we recognize. Okay, maybe I don’t really get how it works. I just get so frustrated because I don’t think seeing the recycling of the same old conventional categories is all that funny. It’s only funny when the caricatures are so poorly done that they miss the mark – hence, the reason I find terrible action movies funny. But when I’m watching gender/race/class/sexuality caricatures, I get an uncomfortable feeling inside that has very little to do with laughing. And New Girl thus far relies heavily on caricatures of this type.
Basic plot: Girl’s relationship ends in infidelity. Girl moves in with 3 male roommates. Girl’s heart is broken. Guys try to fix her up and get her a life. Hilary ensues. And stereotypes. Oh the stereotypes.
So the men. You have Coach (Damon Waynes Jr), the black male athletic trainer – who is straight and big and angry. Thus far, he has almost always been dressed in athletic clothing, and his only tactic for relating to men and women alike is to yell angry platitudes about working harder and pushing through the pain at them. You have Nick (Jake Johnson), the white male emotional wimp. He tries to be tough to women and doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, but when his girlfriend tries to break up with him, he covers his ears and refuses to listen. You have Schmidt (Max Greenfield), who I believe is coded as Italian in this show. He wants to motorboat hot women at parties and pretends to be a bro, causing his roommates to start a “Douchebag Jar” which he has to pay into for every brobag remark that comes out of his mouth. Which is pretty much every line he has in the pilot. None of these characters is sympathetic at all. They take on Jess as a female roommate only because she is friends with several models and the guys want access to hot dating material. They deal with her emotional post-breakup blues by scheming ways to get her rebound dates and get her out of the apartment. And their friendships with each other seem to be based entirely around getting access to women. They are their race and gender stereotypes, and that’s all there is to them.
Then there’s Jess. I find Zooey Deschanel mildly charming. As a cultural representation of a mildly-twee-quirkiness, I think Zooey makes it work. But her character Jess is just one big pile of rom-com stereotypes held together with hipster glasses. She’s painfully awkward, which is normally something I find endearing in characters. But she’s not awkward enough. You know what I’m saying? It’s Drew Barrymore from Never Been Kissed or Anne Hathway from Every Film I’ve Been In. An odd smile, a penchant for inventing your own songs, and the occassional desire to wear stylishly tailored overalls cannot hide the baseline hotness of female superstars like these, and what’s maddening is not how these actresses play these characters but how the logic of the film or show makes every character around them respond. Jess’s roommates act as though she is an animate pile of embarrassment. Whereas experience has shown me that quirky, confident women who dance in bars, approach strangers with self-made theme songs, and transform easily from overalls-lady to LBD-goddess are considered hot by guys and hilariously awesome by girl friends. Why must media keep selling us the story that sans straightener and color-coordination, we’re total goobers?
Still. I do have some quibbles with Jess’s character and not just with the responses around her. If she was really as quirky as the show wants us to think she is, then why does she have to be so female-stereotype? Seriously. Watching Dirty Dancing and sobbing on the couch? Come on! Her total cluelessness never feels believable. Every moment is a spoof on wide-eyed wonder. Here I am, doing a striptease in a trench coat and I keep knocking things over! Here I am, hitting on a man, so I’m going to do a bad impression of a Miss-Jay-broken-down-doll-pose. It’s as though her quirkiness doesn’t get in the way of her doing the things that twenty-something women are “supposed” to do (hit on guys; be sexually adventurous) – it’s just as though she wears these roles like a poorly fitting suit. I get it. I get that feeling of going-through-the-motions-but-I-feel-like-a-goat-on-roller-skates. Yes. But the poorly fitting suit she wears is a clown suit, and it always feels like at any second she’s going to shake it off, say “Just kidding!”, and walk out the bar door with the hottest guy in the place. For genuinely awkward girls like me, the caricature of awkwardness is maddening. Some of us really don’t know what to say to a guy in a bar, but we wouldn’t say “Hey, sailor!” and suck in our inner lip!
I think what bothers me is that the quirky girl is supposed to be an outcast specifically because she doesn’t quite fit in. But these too-quirky girls aren’t as genuinely weird as they could be. Really weird girls are few and far between. Seriously, I’m trying… Luna Lovegood (thanks, Sarah, for your awesome expose of her spacy glory). That’s one so far. I might be stuck for now. But the category of “weird girl” has been so relentlessly sexualized by the rom-com genre that we don’t even allow women the space of their eccentricity; they all become latent sex goddesses just waiting for some friendly guy-advice and some model-friends with generous closets in order to be transformed. In the process, their very quirkiness becomes annoying twee.
I’m reminded of an excellent review I read of the film Beginners, which categorizes Melanie Laurent’s character as “quirky-but-not-too-quirky.” Her character Anne manages to just avoid “manic pixie dream girl territory” because she is grounded in a deeply sad and deeply beautiful personality. First, I thought “manic pixie dream girl territory” perfectly described the kind of “quirky girl” I’m so fed up with. It’s girls that are odd on the surface but conventionally pretty and conventionally feminine underneath. Oddness is just a surface, and these girls never seem painfully, genuinely at odds with the world around them. And second, I thought Anne from Beginners really exemplifies the Better Quirky Girl I dream of. From the moment she’s introduced, we know that Anne is incredibly sexy and pretty…and we know that her strangeness is both charming and potentially annoying. Nobody treats her like a pariah or a princess. She’s a beautiful, talented woman with her own set of baggage, her own sets of friends, and her own life. Not everyone likes her, but not everyone hates her, either; the relationship she builds with Ewan McGregor’s character is based on both quirky moments (roller skating in the hall) and breathtakingly normal-yet-awkward moments (figuring out if and how to move in together).
I will probably watch more of New Girl simply to see how the characters progress. I know. I’m a deranged PhD student who secretly hopes that even comedies can give me characters that do more than animate flat stereotypes. Until then, I’m hanging out with Luna and Anne. I think Meg from A Wrinkle in Time and Anne of Green Gables can come, too. Heather Kuzmick and Bloody Eyeball and Anne from Top Model. There are going to be a lot of Annes at this party. Any other genuinely odd but interesting girl characters that we should invite to a quirky-but-not-too-quirky potluck?