thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Defending Deschanel

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Sarah T.

Sometimes we don’t get to choose who we relate to.

As a nine-year-old tearing through The Babysitter’s Club series, I understood that Claudia and Stacey were objectively the coolest characters. (Claudia’s neon-green leotards worn under purple hammer pants! Stacey’s glamorous city slicker past!) But I couldn’t help but love Mary Anne Spier—a shy, big-hearted girl who loved animals and cried at the drop of a hat—the most. It was kind of embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do about it.

When I started getting into music from the 1960s in middle school, I understood that picking your favorite Beatle said a lot about you. A John person was smart and sensitive and revolutionary. A George enthusiast was mysterious and spiritual. Even a Ringo fan was fun-loving and unique. But I liked Paul best despite myself, knowing that it marked me as hopelessly cheerful, daffy lightweight.

Today, I find myself in a similarly uncool, wide-blue-eyed boat with Zooey Deschanel, the star of Fox’s The New Girl. Of course, plenty of people like Zooey—after all, she’s a sunny, funny, beautiful actress who has a hit sitcom on a major network. But she has a powerful 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 less diplomatically.

Deschanel critics tend to organize around several arguments. First, they claim, she is cloyingly twee. This is a problem not only because her critics are experiencing cute overload akin to The Berenstein Bears and Too Much Birthday, but because they see her adorkability as retrograde and unfeminist. Her girliness, they argue, places too much emphasis on singing and kittens and other childlike, harmless preoccupations, and not enough on adult, serious-minded matters.

While I understand these concerns about Deschanel, I can’t help but bristle at them. And a big part of that is because I know that I am in possession of many of the traits with which Deschanel-detractors take issue.

Like Deschanel (or at least, like the image Deschanel chooses to project in her roles and public appearances), I am a girly, quirky girl. I smile a lot and make polite small talk with strangers. (I could totally envision complimenting somebody on their neat, practical gasoline bucket.) I do duck impressions, I like drinking wine with a big group of girlfriends and talking about our feelings, and sometimes I chase Phoebe around her apartment pretending that a pair of salad tongs is a baby dragon. That is all a part of my personality, though not the only part.

And so I know what it is to be underestimated because of these traits. People think nice, goofy Midwestern girls aren’t a threat. People think adorkable LA ladies are setting back feminism at least sixty years.

But they’re wrong.

A girly, quirky exterior is no more or less a performance of gender than piercing your tongue or sporting a buzzcut or running around in tie-dyed t-shirts and dreadlocks (fine options all). But the rhetoric surrounding Zooey—much like the recent discussion of supposedly girly-girl social media site Pinterest—tends to be dismissive of women with more traditionally feminine appearances and interests. Take the Washington Post’s recent tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless condemnatory, assessment of Pinterest: “It’s so crafty and girly, I can almost wonder if it’s part of a sinister plot — aligned with the attack on Planned Parenthood, Girl Scouts and access to contraception — to enmesh women in yarn craft and divert them from political action. Back to the kitchen and crafting table, ladies!” (I should note that the article does end up offering a more positive perspective on Pinterest, but only after disparaging it for three-quarters of the way through.)

Of course, there’s no sinister Pinterest plot. But furthermore, Planned Parenthood and crafts are by no means incompatible. Hard as it may be for some people to fathom, you can read Laura Mulvey and bell hooks while eating a cupcake you baked yourself. Wearing a circle skirt does not prevent a woman from occupying Wall Street. Elle Woods can go to Harvard Law, kick some serious ass, and maintain an impeccable manicure.

Crafts and cupcakes and circle skirts are all signifiers of a certain brand of white female 1950s domesticity, yes. But they’re not horcruxes. Plunging a sword into them won’t get rid of patriarchy, though that would certainly be an easy solution.

S.E. Smith offered an astute critique of the media’s misogynistic Pinterest coverage, which could just as easily apply to many conversations about Deschanel: “Women talking about their lives, discussing fashion, chronicling childraising, and writing about similar activities are deemed ‘girly’ and told they’re not producing content of interest or value.” What people sometimes seem to miss is that it’s as sexist to suggest that women who talk about motherhood shouldn’t be taken seriously as it is to suggest that motherhood is all women are fit for.

That’s not to say that liking cupcakes, crafts, and circle skirts is radical or counter-cultural. (Although there are definitely subversive and multifaceted ways to engage with them.) And clearly not everybody has to like them, or Deschanel, or me. But it’s a mistake–always–to equate girly and quirky with dumb and trifling.

A recent episode of The New Girl addressed this ongoing cultural argument head-on. Demonstrating a highly ethical understanding of fair play, the show cast Lizzy Caplan in the role of a pantsuit-wearing, sarcastic-quip-lobbing, dessert-refusing lawyer who is both dismissive and skeptical of Jess’s “whole thing.” Caplan is popular among Deschanel lovers and haters alike—she’s got a similar level of indie credibility, but with a grumpy, snarky streak. Her status as an actress whose coolness is pretty much above reproach (I mean, Party Down—come on!) lent extra weight to lines like this, delivered to Jess:

“A judge might buy into this whole thing … Your whole thing with the cupcakes and the braking for birds and the bluebirds come and help me dress in the morning. It’s a great thing. The big beautiful eyes, like a scared baby. I’m sure that gets you out of all kinds of stuff.”

Not only does this list pack in a lot of the Jess/Deschanel qualities that tend to irk people, it also points to the other major argument that critics often cite: her adorkability isn’t just annoying and anti-feminist, it’s also an act. The idea is that Deschanel is strategically constructing a girly, quirky, “harmless” image of herself in order to manipulate people (particularly men) and better market herself as America’s sweetheart.

But Jess’s response is telling: “I didn’t realize I was doing a thing,” she mutters. As this very smart Racialicious piece by Tami Winfrey Harris points out, nobody acts in a cultural vacuum. I’m completely on board with the idea that cultural forces that fetishize cuteness as a sign of un-threatening white girlhood are influencing Jess’s decision to get checks with farm animals on them. And that’s a problem, as is the unexamined privilege Jess appears to enjoy. But I highly doubt that Jess (or Deschanel) is actively plotting to support the degradation of women through said checks. And in addition to the cultural forces at play, part of the reason Jess thinks farm animals are cute because they are cute. Have you seen a baby pig? They are amazing.

Besides, as a later scene shows, just because Jess is generally sweet and silly doesn’t mean she can’t stand up for herself with a sensible, vehement argument. “I brake for birds,” she tells Caplan’s character Julia. “I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children, and I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pant suit and I wish it had ribbons on it to make it slightly cute. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”

Two things about this speech stand out to me. First, just as Julia judged Jess for her tweeness, so is Jess judging Julia for her Murphy Brown-ness. But this doesn’t read so much as a flaw with the show’s logic as it does a realistic acknowledgment that women are not always going to cosign things other women do and say and wear. Disliking Jess and her ribbon hat doesn’t make you a bad feminist any more than disliking Julia and her pantsuit does, although both forms of dislike prompt the question of whether “you’re doing femininity wrong” has ever gotten us anywhere productive.

Secondly, and more importantly, the speech is aimed at debunking the idea that signifiers of traditional femininity can be correlated with a lack of intelligence, strength, and capability. Look at Buffy Summers: she’s a tiny blonde fashion-conscious former cheerleader who saved the world about a thousand times over. Her girliness in no way interferes with her apocalypse prevention services, or with achieving feminist icon status. As Dodie Bellamy writes in The Buddhist, “An in-your-face owning of one’s vulnerability is a powerful feminist strategy [. . .] to deny behaviors gendered as weak or ‘feminine’ is not feminist or queer, it’s heteronormative to the hilt.” That’s why Buffy and Jess can be tough and vulnerable at the exact same time. But in addition to the Buffys and Jesses of the world, we need Katniss Everdeens and Ellen Ripleys and Zoe Washburnes and other distinctly un-girly badass types too, along with women from other points on the femininity spectrum. Everybody gets a place at the table.

If people interested in fighting for equality across lines of gender and class and race and region and sexual orientation are serious about that all-inclusive table, there has to be a seat for the girly quirky girls along with everyone else. Not a bigger or a better seat — there are of course other people who are experiencing far more oppression, and they absolutely need to be represented, in large numbers  — but a spot. And the girly quirky girls, for their (our) part, have be willing to risk losing likability in order to speak and be heard, and willing to move away from the relative comfort and safety that quirky-girlism often provides in order to engage with political, social, and economic realities.

That’s part of what I think Molly Fischer was trying to get at in her n+1 essay “So Many Feelings,” though it lands short of the mark. In that essay, she criticizes The Hairpin for being “too charmingly self-effacing to take itself seriously, too tirelessly entertaining to ever bore a visitor [. . .] they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable.” She’s frustrated because she wants women’s websites to be more political, more willing to tackle touchy and perhaps unpopular subjects; she wants them to speak up.

But the problem with Fischer’s argument is that she looks at some of the girly-quirky packaging — the cleaning advice columns and Friday Bargain Bins and creepy doll photos — and misreads The Hairpin by oversimplifying it. The Hairpin is charming and self-effacing and helpful and silly. But it also runs features like the incredibly moving and doubtless controversial Ask an Abortion Provider, Anne Helen Peterson’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood (proving that cultural criticism can be smart and entertaining one column at a time) and interviews with female novelists. Fischer reads the quirky girl signs and assumes they’re mutually exclusive with sharp critiques and political engagement, when in fact the website’s brilliance is that it so often combines the two. (See Emily Gould’s impassioned and one hundred percent accurate defense of “Women Laughing Alone with Salad.”)

This kind of complexity is what The New Girl sometimes lacks, and it’s the anti-Deschanel argument I’m most sympathetic to. Jess is still a fairly one-note character, if a whimsically lovable one. The most recent episode, “Injured,” begins to address this problem. Nick, drunk and dealing with a cancer scare, tells Jess that she’s not allowed to speak at his funeral because she doesn’t know how to be real. Her Daffy Duck impressions and cute dances are just a barrier she puts up between herself and real human connections.

Nick has a point, which is why Jess gets so offended. It is a problem when a quirky girl makes her cuteness into a kind of boulder that blocks out everything else. Schmutzie touches on this in a post about her issues with the feminine search for approval, writing: “All of the appealing, appeasing, ingratiating servitude we’ve been trained to see as our being so giving of ourselves is actually the tool that keeps us quiet, controlled, and cut off from each other, cut off from the kind of honest, vulnerable interaction that brings the most joy to people and communities.” This desire to appease and ingratiate is Jess’s Achilles heel, and maybe Deschanel’s, and maybe a lot of other people’s too.

But something cool happens in that episode. Jess gets mad and resentful. Then she reconsiders things from Nick’s perspective and takes her friends out to the ocean. She listens to Nick and lets him feel scared and sad right in front of her. (Messy emotions! Yah!) She even opens up a little herself. And then in the morning, she wakes up on the beach, mostly just the same, but maybe slightly different too.

Jess is a quirky girl, but that’s not all she is. The more New Girl explores the real and meaty parts of her — her anger and her sadness and her pride — the better off the show will be.

It’s like my feminism professor used to say in college: “You don’t have to be one thing. You can be a moving target.” There are always going to be people firing shots at Jess and Deschanel, and at any body who happens not to be toeing some very specific white straight Christian male lines. Sometimes the best way to fire back is to go ahead and get ugly, and then pretty, and then something else. Embrace the multitudes.

  1. I could not love this post more! Thank you for actually changing my mind about some things right here, things that I was holding on to out of a misplaced fear of my own position as a smiley-sunny-redheaded-smart-girl within patriarchy. I’ve had a lot of thoughts and feelings tumbling around in my head about these issues lately, particularly because a female professor publicly called me out on my particular brand of femininity last term, claiming that I was doing myself a disservice with my occasional giggles and concern about clothing. While I was crushed then, a bunch of amazing peers jumped right in after said professor left, bucking me back up and restoring some of my confidence; but the fear has remained. I think you do a great job here in explaining how that fear is a product of social forces that are nothing more than misogynistic body politics masquerading under the heading of feminism. Thank you thank you thank you for your smartness and eloquence here!

  2. This is so well written and thought out, ST! I have lots of thoughts, but need some processing time. Just wanted to let you know–as a representative of the anti-fan camp–how much I appreciate your non-reductive approach to Zooey and contextualizing her within a larger gender performance/identity.

  3. This was really awesome to read. I loved Zooey UNTIL “New Girl,” but found her grating on the show too many times. But based on what you’ve written here, maybe I will watch it again, especially because I was really psyched to see Zooey and Lizzy together. I really appreciate all your points here; thanks for writing this.

    And while I admit to loving Stacey the most, Mary Anne rocked. It was so awesome when she got to remove the Oppressive Braids Of Doom. Did you know that she was the one Ann M. Martin based on herself?

    • Thanks so much, Judi! Also: “oppressive braids of doom” = brilliant. I do remember reading that Mary Anne was Martin’s stand-in in her bio — what up, hardcore Babysitter’s fans. Let me know what you think if you do decide to revisit New Girl!

  4. This post totally had me thinking about the relationship between feminism and fear. Martina’s comment re: grad school + Sarah’s opening return-to-middle-school flashback just made it all so suddenly, viscerally clear to me: so much of the arguing and the hullaballo about what kind of woman is the “feminist” kind stems from some fundamental, yet-to-be-resolved fear that most of us continue to carry at some level, no matter how loudly we giggle or shoot slogans – a fear that we’re not “okay” as women. As feminist women. As feminine women. Lemme see if I can put this into words…So many of us involved in these discussions about feminism and performances of identity are smart and recognize that we have been taught by patriarchal, heteronormative systems to believe that we are not okay. So we struggle to stand up for ourselves, “be ourselves,” and fight back against repressive, normative voices. But inside, there’s this nagging fear that comes out as judgment of other kinds of women – “If only girls would stop giggling, then maybe men would treat us better.” “If only girls would stop trying to become tom-boys that participate in the boys’ clubs, then we could develop real female solidarity and fight back!” But part of this fear has nothing to do with feminist rhetoric and just has to do with ourselves – with us tomboys fearing that the pretty girls in their polka-dot dresses won’t like us with our bad tempers and our torn tennis shoes, and the complimentary fear that I’ve heard voiced here, that more “girly” girls fear they won’t be taken seriously in their strength, intelligence, and smartness unless they conform to “masculine” performances of identity. (I can’t help but laughingly remember the first day of 690 that Chelsea and I always talk about, where I was intimidated by all the cute woman sweaters and I was apparently somewhat intimidating in my own right, unbeknownst to sullen, insecure me). So, sullen and sweet, girlish and grungy, we all sit around feeling anxious and then nobody gets to come to the table. But – as the long friendships I have with all of you women clearly shows a) these are not very helpful, representative categories anyway, as we all fit in the “girly” camp sometimes and the “tough” camp others (I like Twilight, Top Model, Kanye West, backpacking, ultimate frisbee, and tango dancing. I like stilettos and Chacos. Don’t limit me!) and b) women can clearly form meaningful friendships across these categories. Hahahahaha, Chels BK and I remain good friends although I think cities are scary and she thinks coyotes are scary.

    Sorry, this is long. My POINT is the real power of feminist rhetoric could be to get us admitting our insecurities and then moving on from them, building each other up rather than sneering at one version of femininity in order to feel better about the one I’ve identified with, often without much choice but through a series of accumulating identity performances. Maybe it’s better if we all wear what we want, bake or not bake, but just hang out and drink some wine, and chase each other around the apartment with alligator tongs too. Sarah, I love your take on the last New Girl episode, because I think we all hide behind our gender performances at times. My tough-girl, fight-you-in-seminar-or-an-alley demeanor is just as effective at shutting down vulnerable, meaningful conversation as a cute-girl, sing-songs-about-dinosaurs-and-beagles persona. We all need to make an effort to let those walls down at times and to support each other despite aesthetic differences in what kinds of outfits we want to wear or music we want to sing or sports we want to play.My friendships and working relationships with you girls make me hopeful that feminism can look like a variety of kinds of women coming to the table, disagreeing, and hanging out anyway.

  5. I think what’s hitting home for me about this post is Sarah’s assessment of how certain performances of gender/self-hood get used by ourselves to avoid vulnerability, emotion, and revealing our messy, imperfect selves. I know I am totally susceptible to this tendency and I appreciate how this post suggests how that avoidance is the real disservice to ourselves, rather than wearing (or not wearing) circle skirts or pant suits. I suppose there’s more to say and think on but that’s all I have for now.

  6. […] my post on Friday played defense (with a few reservations) for Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl, […]

  7. […] dumb, I swear. I’m a smart person and I’m freakin’ awesome. (See Sarah T’s recent GLG post “Defending Deschanel” for a more thorough defense of the kind of person I am. I get the Jess comparison a lot.) Rather, […]

  8. […] competing visions of what it means to be a fully actualized woman. We’re now at a point where (as this blog aptly demonstrates) women are interested in reclaiming conventional forms of femininity with pride, whether that’s […]

  9. […] I often feel for actresses a lot of other people find annoying, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel among them. If enough people find a woman irritating, she’s usually doing something […]

  10. I think that people automatically assume that she’s some manic pixie dream girl character because of her role in (500) Days of Summer. However, her character is actually quite different, despite Deschanel’s quirkiness on the show.

  11. Dude, Stacey and Claudia were TACKY! jelly sandals, jumpsuits, a dinosaur pin on your beret all say 80s child with too much time and mom’s money. Never understood why they always called themselves ~sophisticated~ when they clearly lack taste. Janine and Mary Anne fashion FTW, cuz geek chic and girly are in! But I digress.

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