So it’s pretty cool and socially acceptable to make fun of Zooey Deschanel these days. I have even done it myself on occasion. (I kid because I love!) But while I’ll admit that I used to harbor a mild dislike for her for various poorly thought out reasons, I’ve decided lately that I think she is great. And not just because I find New Girl amusing.
Once upon a time, I held Zooey up as a symbol of, and scapegoat for, one-dimensional film characters who promote a limiting view of women in our culture. (And of artsy brunettes in men I shouldn’t have dated.) While I do hold that the manic pixie dream girl is a lame sort of imaginary character generally written by dudes, I now blame the people who are writing these movies, not pre-megafame Zooey. “There are not enough strong feminist roles in Hollywood” is not a problem to blame on Zooey D, Megan Fox, or any young actress who just wants a part. I blame the patriarchy, duh.
And anyway, any MPDG-related damage Zooey’s early roles might have done was more than atoned for by her turn in 500 Days of Summer, a movie that is vastly misunderstood by many. Contrary to the opinions of people who didn’t pay attention, this film turns the manic pixie dream girl trope on its head. It initially presents Summer as a classic MPDG through the eyes of the head-in-the-clouds male protagonist, but eventually makes it clear that she is actually much more than that, he just fails to see it because he’s idealized her so much. Unlike in say, Garden State, he is not rewarded for this behavior with love, but punished with loss. I especially like the part where he attempts to slut-shame a cleavage-y girl he sees in a bar, saying he prefers girls who dress like Summer, and Summer smacks him down for judging both her and the cleavage-y girl based on how they look.
Fast forward to New Girl, a show over which Zooey has much more creative control than any of her previous projects (she has producer and soundtrack credits as well as the more obvious acting one), and I am charmed anew. While the first season got off to a rocky start, the second is truly funny, and without resorting to the cheap stereotypes often seen on mainstream TV. In Jess, we have a character who is neither the token hot chick nor “just one of the guys.” She’s distinctly female without letting her femaleness define her. (The show handles race in a similarly deft fashion in the episode where Schmidt goes out of his way to remind the non-stereotypical black character Winston that he’s black, and Winston rightfully mocks him.) Like nerdy people of both genders, she can be awkward with the opposite sex, but she’s rarely presented as a sex object, instead taking a more active role as a sex subject. She appreciates men for their looks as well as their personalities (whereas most female TV characters tend towards one extreme or the other), and she knows what she wants out of a sexual encounter, which is hardly woman-child behavior.
The thing people like Jennifer object to is her character’s lack of general competence, but I don’t totally agree. Many of Jess’s foibles, like her social awkwardness, are more the result of her being a weirdo than her being a woman. And for every flaw, she has a redeeming quality. As she reminds us in one episode, she has a career that requires a master’s degree (fuck anyone who thinks teaching is an easy, dumb, girl job), and is, as Schmidt says, “a go getter in a brightly colored sweater.” When she is laid off from her job, she goes through a brief period of shiftlessness (which I think is very recognizable to many people living in the current economic climate), then realizes she’s too old to hang out with her millennial neighbors (who are, themselves, a great bit of satire), picks herself up, and pushes through some serious PMS to find a new job teaching writing to adults. Sure, she lives with roommates with whom she plays bizarrely elaborate drinking games, but she also knows how to get shit done. Her life is a mixture of teenager-ish fun and grown-up responsibility that I think a lot of us city-dwelling folks in our late-20s/early-30s can relate to, and against which I have yet to hear any compelling arguments. Even by normative standards I don’t respect at all, she’s hardly a case of arrested development; she’s actively looking to find a partner and have kids. As sitcom characters go, she’s actually remarkably well-rounded!
Outside the TV realm, Zooey Deschanel the person seems even cooler. True, the name of her website grates on me, but I appreciate her commitment to female friendship and authorship. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and has written a ton of great songs. She spends her money wisely (for a celebrity) and doesn’t engage in tabloid-y behavior. She self-identifies as a feminist in an age when most female celebrities are still annoyingly averse to ever breathing the f-word or talking about feminist issues. Most importantly, she constantly smacks down anyone shallow enough to think that “girly” things are inherently stupid, and anyone who tries to put her, a flesh and blood woman, in the “manic pixie dream girl” box because of how she looks or the fact that some of the things she likes are silly things. I will always love what she said to Glamour when asked about her critics:
“I’m just being myself. There is not an ounce of me that believes any of that crap that they say. We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So fucking what?”
In the end, it’s totally valid for you to find Zooey Deschanel annoying because her looks and personality just happen to annoy you. People like and dislike other people all the time for lots of random reasons; that’s just life. But as a feminist, I’d have to place Zooey on the side of progress even if I hated her bangs and Peter pan collars and retro-sounding music, because she’s a powerful woman who supports other women and adds an anti-sexist voice to mainstream culture. And that’s just music to my ears.