Love Her or Hate Her, Let’s Let Zooey Be Zooey

My enormous deer eyes command you to think I'm the cutest.

Want to really get the War of the Sexes going? Sure, you could bring up the Big Issues — a woman’s right to have access to birth control, the dangers and idiocy of slut-shaming, everything that Rick Santorum has ever thought about anything, etc.

Or you could just mention Manic Pixie Dream Girl and #1 on your friends’ and lovers’ “can-bang” list (I promise you, this is true), Zooey Deschanel.

Zooey has become a deeply polarizing figure on the battlefield we call gender. Men seem universally to love her, while women have decidedly mixed feelings. Sure, she’s cuter than a tiny pig in tiny boots or a corgi in a sweater or a sloth doing literally anything or (well, you get the idea). But it’s that kind of cute that makes you sort of want to push her off a building, just to see if her teensy polkadot dress and massive doll hair catch her like a parachute, amirite?

Just take her character in her new TV show, “New Girl.” Jess, who is basically just Zooey playing herself, is a grade school teacher who wears adorable oversize glasses, sweet little dresses, sings to herself constantly, loves to be nice to strangers, and bakes cupcakes in almost every episode. And her three male roommates? Are they pining slavishly over her, competing to be her ironic sweater vest-wearing, facial hair-having, fixed gear bike-riding boyfriend? Nope. They think she’s weird and awkward and they are embarrassed by her.

In the sage words of my significant other, “That would literally never happen.”

The problem many ladies (myself occasionally included) have with Zooey is that she perpetuates an impossible ideal of womanhood, all while getting to portray herself as “edgy” and “quirky” and “outside the norm.” By that, she must just mean outside the norm of the 21st century, because these days, most women simply don’t have time to bake and craft that much. But in her own awkward-girl way, Zooey perpetuates a male fantasy — simultaneously infantilized and sexual, embodying the virgin-whore dichotomy, domestic and mysterious, cute as a button and utterly unattainable — that no one can possibly live up to. And more to the point, that no one should want or need to. We can’t all be expected to bike through the over-saturated scenes of our lives in sundresses emblazoned with hearts, and still accomplish anything. Zooey makes us feel like we should be a certain way, which is anathema to so many of us who were raised with strong, do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to female role models and senses of ourselves. At the same time, she makes us want to be that way. It’s exhausting.

But as much as Zooey Deschanel, and everything she seems to embody about fetishized cuteness, irks me, I have to say something really important. It’s not okay to hate her for being who, it seems, she really is.

To put it another way: There’s this amazing “30 Rock” episode called “TGS Hates Women.” In an effort to make the writing staff of TGS a little more balanced, Liz Lemon brings in a female comic to write. Unfortunately, as Liz soon finds, she is not the edgy, girl power type. Instead, she has long, straight blonde hair styled in porny pigtails and acts, dresses, and talks like a naughty infant. Liz ham-fistedly tries to get the new girl to be her “real self,” only to unwittingly reveal her identity to her psycho-stalker ex. Liz looks stupid, and everyone learns an important lesson: Feminism, and liberation, and all the things our foremothers and we ourselves have fought for, means being allowed to be whoever the hell you are.

Even if who you are is a sex-crazed infant who calls everyone “Daddy.” Even if who you are is a retro bombshell who just wants to make cupcakes for boys and has farm animals on her checks .

On a recent episode of “New Girl,” called “Jess and Julia,” the writers and Deschanel herself tackle all the Zooey haters in a surprisingly winning, funny way. The haters are collectively portrayed by the amazingly amazing Lizzy Caplan (Janice Ian from “Mean Girls,” among other memorable roles), a hot-shot lady lawyer named Julia who thinks Jess’ whole schtick is exhausting. Jess, however, doesn’t know she’s doing a “schtick,” and lets Julia know, in a fairly awesome monologue, how much bullshit it is to judge another woman about the way she presents herself.

And it is bullshit. Zooey Deschanel, like the rest of us comparably lucky American women, was born into a half-century that would have allowed her to be just about anything — from a hot-shot lady lawyer to a Supreme Court justice to a stay-at-home mom and food blogger, and anything in between. She has chosen a certain vibe, aesthetic, worldview, and set of interests. She has decided to be Zooey Deschanel, and we should be nothing but psyched for her. This doesn’t mean we have to be her, or make the choices she’s made, or embody the kind of womanhood she embodies. But it does mean we should let her be, and be proud of her success, and maybe occasionally sing show tunes while riding a bike in a sundress. You know, if we feel like it.


8 thoughts on “Love Her or Hate Her, Let’s Let Zooey Be Zooey

  1. Heather,

    I absolutely love this article. I wrote one just like it a few months back, but your argument is much more articulate and more clearly explains why women seem to hate Zooey Deschanel. I adore her and think girl-on-girl jealousy is pathetic and sets our gender back many years, but understand why women would feel she makes it harder for the rest of us to please our boyfriends. Zooey is awesome, though, and I’m so glad you came to her defense. The hate and envy has to stop.

  2. Nice piece, HWPW. One point of discussion: “We can’t all be expected to bike through the over-saturated scenes of our lives in sundresses emblazoned with hearts, and still accomplish anything.”

    Though I agree with your points about the virgin-whore dichotomy, the tension I feel with the Zooey Deschanel image is that I *want* to ride my bike around with a basket full of poppies while humming the soundtrack to “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” And I’m a little ashamed of this, because I (like you mention) want to be a go-getting warrior feminist, and warrior feminists have better things to do than take arty photos of graffiti. The Zooey-hatred implies that being silly, or spending the afternoon baking a cake with puppies on it, must either be a girlish point of weakness or an affectation to get men to fall for me.

    New Girl dealt graciously with this struggle in that scene where Jess is arguing with Julia (another interesting female ideal) in the hallway: “I brake for birds,” Jess says. “I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours…And I hate your pantsuit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”

    I agree with Jess. I’m a strong, powerful woman, and I love aprons and crafts and reading books where the girl gets swept off her feet. That doesn’t make me less smart or less capable. Wearing retro dresses is not an act of tweeranny to get men to fall for my coquettish innocence, and it’s not an antifeminist statement. What kind of image are nth-wave feminists perpetrating that Jess has to validate that being herself isn’t something she can be shamed out of? Why do I, an educated, articulate woman, feel the need to clarify that just because I’d rather watch Bride Wars than The Hurt Locker doesn’t mean I’m a less aware, valuable woman?

    • I definitely see where you’re coming from with that, Anna. And that was a particularly awesome scene from “Jess and Julia.” I guess what I meant by the sentence you highlighted was that we no longer live in a world in which a woman’s whole job is to look the part, and a lot of the time, that’s what chafes me about Zooey Deschanel (even though, as I argued, it shouldn’t chafe me because she has the right to make those decisions)- it feels like she spends a lot more time looking like a twee fantasy than exerting any kind of creative force. I think it’s also a testament to how far feminism still has to go that we’re even having this mini-debate/discussion; I still feel painted into one or another corner by the roles I may or may not play as a woman. It’s hard for me to admit that I like romantic comedies and “New Girl,” because I also care about embodying the more Julia-ish side of my ladyhood, and about having that side taken seriously. Zooey Deschanel is complicated because she’s so simultaneously modern and retro, stereotypical and stereotype-flouting. That’s why the project you’ve undertaken here is so great. You’re letting smart, competent Julias tell the world how OK it is to be their inner Jess. That was corny and I don’t even care.

      • Haha aww! I liked it. You can be corny, Julia! We will still take you seriously.

        I agree with you, emphatically, that this debate reveals the continuing struggle of feminism. And you’re also right that this is a big part of why I started this project: There should be no singular female ideal. I really appreciate the thoughtful consideration you presented in this piece, and I relate to the struggles of emphasizing parts of your womanhood to the detriment of others (Am I hurting the ladycause if I wear this headband with a bow on it? Am I perpetuating the stereotypes if I let him pay? WHAT IF I AM WEARING POLKA DOTS TO GET GUYS TO LIKE ME?). So thank you — sincerely — for engaging in this friendly debate with me.

  3. This conversation and almost every conversation on here makes me confused about feminism. From what I’m hearing, I’m pretty sure I hate modern-day feminists, especially if they question my polka dots. Will someone please write what modern-day feminism means to them?

  4. Pingback: Women Talking to Women, and Why It’s Important | Serving Tea To Friends

  5. Pingback: Someone is trying to give dimension to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and it’s giving me a headache « Femination

  6. Pingback: Don’t Buy Me a Drink: Girls and the Guys Who Buy Them Stuff | Serving Tea To Friends

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