I was talking to the awesome Chloe Angyal from Feministing a couple of weeks ago about how we need a more specific set of terms so people don’t use Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe all annoying female character tropes. One friendly person (if it’s you, holler and I’ll provide proper credit, I swear) on Twitter had suggested Paper Dolls for replaceable action starlets. Chloe came up with Insert Girl Here for the girlfriend the male lead dumps so he can fall for the lead woman, and Lesson on Legs for women who exist to provide the male lead with an important lesson before heading off to live the rest of their lives presumably in service of their own interests. In The New Girl, Zooey Deschanel is an archetypal Girltergeist, a character who despite her ephemerality manages to be impressively annoying. She would be a female Peeves if she seemed capable of intentionality.
The thing that’s frustrating about the character is that the show makes her seem stupid, rather than goofily endearing or unsocialized in a way that seems charming because it exposes social rituals as artificial and contrived. No grown-ass person thinks that humping a plant is a way to fulfill a stripper fantasy. It’s not actually charming to spend your first days in a new apartment crying loudly in common areas and totally hogging the TV without any consideration for your new roommates. Going up to someone in a bar and addressing them as “Hey, sailor,” is just weird. As is refusing to do as much as order a glass of wine to hold a table in a restaurant and instead asking if you can have more free things when you are an adult with a job. As is being spacey enough to burn your own hair off. None of these things expose anything about social rituals, or calcified senses of how women ought to behave. They’re just infantilizing and strange.
A long-term commenter suggested that I might like the show because of a scene where one of Jess’s new roommates, Nick, suggests that he can guide her back into the dating market, only to have her reply in a quaver, “Like Gandalf through Middle Earth?” Nick’s game, talking her through it and suggesting “First, let’s take the Lord of the Rings references, let’s put them in a deep, dark cave, where no one’s going to find them, ever.” Instead of laughing, blowing her nose, and returning to the world, Jess keeps going in that baby voice, telling Nick: “Except Smeagol. He lives in a cave.” If this is what nerd girls are supposed to be, people who dodge adult conversations by retreating further into fairyland, count me resolutely out. And it’s not like there’s any sign here that Jess is really a nerd, just that she watched the same couple of movies that all of us watched because hey, they’re awesome. This is nerd-pandering, and I have other options. I’m not so desperate for references to the nerd canon that I have to watch this to get some affirmation that Hollywood knows that I exist.
I’m not saying that cuteness isn’t a valid choice, or that it can’t be interesting. But Jess isn’t set up as someone who makes choices or has ideas other than a relentlessly cheery sense that singing to yourself makes the world a better place. It’s not like she’s made an intentional decision to, I don’t know, be a Gothic Lolita or something. Violet Trefusis once declared “Give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve me from the neat little neutral ambiguities. Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent. Live fully, live passionately, live disastrously.” If you’re going to be cute, be cute with conviction, rather than by perpetual accident.
All of which is too bad, because there are some reasonably interesting things in the guy half of the show. Most shows about groups of men tend to involve them retreating into a safe space where they can be un-PC as a gateway to finally, at some point, being somewhat vulnerable. Jess’s new roommates seem to have a slightly different tack, a mild sense of collective self-improvement, whether they’re trying to jolly one of their number out of a post-breakup funk, or making the other pay fines into a bro jar. Though of course most of his transgressions are the male equivalent of Jess’s bizarre quirks. No one routinely takes their shirt off in the presence of attractive women if they are not at the beach. To paraphrase the Fug Girls: WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY. And the character with the most interesting potential dynamic with Jess, Coach, a somewhat crass guy who’s been told by his boss he needs to learn to how to relate to women more appropriately , is being written off the show entirely.
But don’t even get me started on the character who works in an office where he is surrounded by aggressive, emasculating businesswomen and the show’s quick jog away from the idea that the guy who got dumped may have been a rotten boyfriend (if the show had the courage to have a Forgetting Sarah Marshall moment, I would have been impressed). The New Girl seems to exist in a world where actual women are terrifying, whether you’re facing up to one, or facing the prospect of being one.