thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Oh, for a Better Quirky Girl – on “New Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Territory”

In gender on September 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Melissa Sexton

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?

  1. I watched the promos for this show and feared for it, for exactly the reasons you point out here. If you do keep watching it, I’d like to know your evolving impressions (if they do evolve), because I like Zooey and feel she is just on the edge of being that quirky anti-type stereotype.

    The choice of Meg is genius. Also, the main character from the Fox flop “Wonderfalls,” and maaaaaaybe Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State. At least at the beginning, though I think she has many of the same problem characteristics you point out of Z.D. here.

  2. I invite Meg Murray to everything in my life. Good call. And good call on Jaye from Wonderfalls! Can we please have a dinner party with them and Luna? And then maybe stage an intervention for Zooey and Hathaway (have you seen the previews for One Day? How on earth does frizzy hair and glasses always equal ugly/awkward on her? She is always stunning!)?

    I was just reading Esquire’s (I think… it might have been Men’s Health?) review of fall tv and they call Zooey’s character a dream girl. Who wouldn’t like a sexually aggressive, beautiful, quirky lady? They don’t even begin to buy into her awkwardness, simply talk about how much they want her. So not only is the Zooey-as-adorably-awkward cliche tired, it is so unbelievable that it goes unnoticed.

    I completely agree with you on this perpetuation of stereotypes. The reason I watch so little current television (and primarily watch old shows on netflix and online) is because all they seem to do is revel in stereotypes and cliches. I’ve met lots of screenwriters while living in LA. They are smart, interesting people. So why not let them do their job well? Why do the powers that be in tv make so much bad tv? I keep thinking about the Kermode article on diminished expectations ( and while I hope the fact that I’ve been seeing it everywhere means that maybe the money-grubbers will pay attention, I doubt it. By all evidence, they only think they can make money from bad tv, so we get another horrible cliched scripted comedy or a spinoff of an already terrible reality show.

    Blerg. Let’s go drink with Meg, Jaye, and Luna.

  3. […] (FOX): I will admit I did laugh a lot in the pilot. But I have my reservations … See Melissa’s thoughts on it to see why it is on the maybe […]

  4. Hey, friends! I have to say, I was pretty charmed by this show. As you know, I have a soft spot for comedies, especially those without a laugh track. I also don’t mind Zooey Deschanel, though on some level that doesn’t make sense, as I keep deleting emails from McSweeney’s without reading them and I think they’re both from the same cultural milieu.

    Anyway, here’s my working theory: I think there are some actors we are just pre-programmed to dislike, based on our own prejudices: I can’t stand watching Goldie Hawn without wanting to clobber her or someone nearby. And I kept wondering, Melissa, if there’s a particular brand of female heroine you’re after these days, one that doesn’t necessarily have to do with stereotypes vs. depth but with personal preference. All genres (even those good blow-em-up ones you like!) work with and against stereotypes, right? I think I liked Jess because she wasn’t a “screw you I’m strong and I’ve got my act together except for this one small chink in my armor which I will make attractive and anyway it doesn’t matter cause I’m a vampire/spy-in-disguise/mom saving the earth with my powerful kicks” type – she’s kind of a hot mess. I could totally relate to the last scene when she’s been stood up but refuses to leave the restaurant, asking for more free bread. I’m not sure her brand of ‘quirk’ is my favorite, but I think I’m more sympathetic to it than others.

    For my money, I was also happy to see a new comedy that wasn’t a bromance or a “who needs the dudes after all? Rah-rah sisterhood-of-the-traveling-kickass!” story. In fact, in a world of Judd Apatow comedies, this one conscientiously rejected that narrative when the boys left their “boys night out” party in order to console their friend. If even the mostly brilliant Bridesmaids eschews male-female friendship in lieu of the glories of same-sex bonding, I don’t know – maybe we can use more comedies where those relationships (outside of marriage or romance-plots) are explored.

    If we’re talking stereotypes, I can’t help but mention Glee as one of the prime examples. I’ve been trying to ask people what they like about this show – I feel like I totally have missed the memo about what’s enjoyable or interesting about it. One of our profs (Dr. P) said, “You know, I think it’s because they are all familiar stereotypes – the jock, the cheerleader, the band nerd, etc – but in this narrative, what’s interesting is how our expectations of those stereotypes are defied or complicated.” So in Jess, Schmidt is the stereotypical guido/Jersey Shore/douchebag stereotype – but he has friends who call him out on it, and there’s some sense that he doesn’t want to be offensive to women. Nick, interestingly, is more of an ’emotional wimp’ than Jess, which complicates some of our expectations of gender. Modern Family, too, has some brilliant examples of this tension between enacting and resisting stereotype. Cam and Mitchell are a brilliant example – they are the definition of defying the stereotypical sitcom family! But even within that framework, a lot of the narrative is about resisting the roles others stereotype them with, even though they can be exactly who they are. (There’s a great episode from last season where Cam gets mad about being included in the mother’s day festivities just because he stays at home with Lily – he’s emotionally mom at times, but then in terms of physical strength/bravery is more dad in other moments.)

    Also, I’ll mention that I think you’re smart to wait and watch the show for a bit – often, pilots are so eager to get character differences OUT IN FRONT that they lean more on stereotypes than usual – I guess what I’m saying is this pilot seemed to be over-selling the quirky cuteness a bit, but I think that’ll iron out. If you want to see a pilot of a comedy where the characters were SPOT ON, the writing is sharp and not stereotyped from the beginning? Cheers is available for instant viewing on netflix – and it’s awesome. We’ve been watching it recently and amazed at how well it’s aged over time.

    • Good points, Jeni. I think at a certain level I am pre-programmed to dislike certain kinds of quirkiness. But I think it goes beyond that. I know that action-shoot-’em-up comedies rely on stereotypes, but part of the reason I find them enjoyable is that they wholeheartedly embrace such stereotypes. Maybe, based on Dr. P’s comments, I would like Glee after all, then! What I have trouble with in comedies is that I’m supposed to laugh at the stereotypes, which makes me feel uncomfortable. In, say, really bad action films, the movie is usually so amazingly unconscious of its stereotypes – so affirming of them! so faithful to them! – that my laughter comes from amazement or recognition. I recognize the stereotypes; they do not. Laughter ensues. But in comedies like this, I feel uncomfortable because I can’t tell if the show is self-conscious of its stereotypes. You make good points about how Schmidt and Nick seem to be struggling against their stereotypes. But maybe it’s that very undecidedness – their slip into and back out of “douchebag” or “wimpy guy” territory – that generates discomfort in me rather than laughter.

      This is really making me think about my preferences! We all know I hate most comedies, and the more I think about, the more I think it has to do with this exploitation rather than naive participation in stereotypes. I know I’m supposed to laugh and so it makes me uncomfortable doing so. The rare comedies/comedians I do like are all eccentric in the extreme – Monty Python; Eddie Izzard; Arrested Development. While Arrested Development uses stereotypes, I would argue that the characters are so bizarre that I can never quite expect what they will do, in spite of their stereotypical framing. I seem to either want my films to defy expectations or buy into them whole-heartedly – only that can explain my love of genuinely quirky stuff like AD while also explaining my love of epic battle films, crappy action flicks, and things like Google Chrome commercials.

      • Yes! You’ve really got me thinking on the ways that different genres use stereotypes, especially comedies. I’ll have to think on this more – thanks for the response!

        I’m not sure that I can go as far as to believe that action movies simply relish overdoing the stereotypes and embrace them mindlessly, nor that all viewers read them as ‘celebration of stereotype that none of us take seriously.’ I think what I love about comedies (and other films/tv shows like Lost, for example) are those moments of ambiguity where I have confront my own beliefs by thinking about why I reacted a certain way, either laughter or discomfort. We laugh at Tobias because he is Every Single Stereotype of a closeted gay man (“I want something that says ‘leather daddy'”), but we are also reminded of the points when he is unique and surprising. Beyond the bizarro plot twists, even the comedy in Arrested Development relies a lot on our expectations for and understanding of stereotypes, I think. (Lucille as clueless rich drunk, Buster as mama’s boy, Lindsay as popular girl bimbo, Michael as hardworking conservative father, etc).

        Also, if you liked genres that wholeheartedly bought into expectations, then you’d be perfectly happy with hollywood blockbuster rom coms, yes? I mean, there is NO sense of irony and no lack of stereotypes in, say, “how to lose a guy in 10 days.” But I know those movies make you want to throw up in your mouth a bit – a totally fair response! 🙂 But also one that I think is mediated a bit by personal preference as much as by use of stereotype.

        I had an interesting conversation with someone once who has traveled quite a bit – she mentioned that white Americans are the least comfortable of all with stereotypes, largely because we’re the ones to benefit from them. In the cultures she has visited (Asia, Africa, South America), she said people regularly trade in stereotypes as a means of cultural understanding and shorthand without the sense of caution or guilt that we experience. I’m not sure if that helps, but I’d love to know how this idea works in other cultural frameworks, you know?

        Anyway, let’s talk more – I wanna figure this OUT! 🙂 (Or at least feel less guilty about my love of cheesy comedies.)

  5. Lots of good thoughts. Good points: re the stereotypes in rom-coms.

    Let’s make a deal – you can love cheesy comedies without guilt if I can love action movies without guilt. Bahahahaha.

    Anyway, I want to say lots more, but I’m cutting myself off because I have to go to school.

  6. […] New Girl” launches a defense of the manic pixie dream girl, as recapped by […]

  7. […] band of detractors too. GLG’s own Melissa S. wrote a very eloquent, well-reasoned, non-attacky post on her problems with Deschanel’s character Jess in The New Girl. Many others make their points […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: