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Zooey Deschanel and the Appeal of the Girly Girl

2011 September 26

There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately about actress Zooey Deschanel. After all, she’s pretty much the indie girl idol right now, what with her whole “quirky” new prime time television show and her (actually pretty great) music with M. Ward and her billboards and tweets and general ubiquitousness. But as she becomes more and more famous, it becomes increasingly apparent to me that Zooey is one of those oddly polarizing characters who seem to divide women along party lines. Though she’s just one person, just one goofily twee actress, the various reactions to Zooey World™ have come to represent the schism apparent in modern feminism and subculture lady-hood. And I find this divide curious—maybe even a little threatening.

On one hand, you have the detractors—or, in colloquial-speak, the haters. This camp, which includes famous funny person Julie Klausner, views Zooey as the spokeswoman for a certain type of particularly saccharine adult girlishness. In an article republished on Jezebel, Klausner writes:

It’s like how we used to hide our interests around boys (“I hate math! It’s so hard!”). Now, instead, we’re singing the praises of Skittles Sours instead of emulating, say, Kathleen Turner? Barbara Stanwyck? Any female lead from the pre-awkward era who stuck out her tits and didn’t talk like Rocky from the Bullwinkle cartoons? You realize the Harajuku girls who danced behind Gwen Stefani, are like “seriously, bitches?” And then they go to book club.

It’s all to the same ends—women are trying to broadcast to men that we won’t bite their dicks off. It’s just that now, instead of lipstick, we’re wearing glittery lip gloss, or that shit you get in the drug store that tastes like Dr. Pepper.

The comments on this article are particularly telling. Hoards of Etsy-lovin’, bird jewelry-wearin’ feminists come out to deny one of Klausner’s main points—that this whole girly girl act is a thing we just put on for the men folk—using purely anecdotal and persona evidence. Now, I have to say I disagree with Klausner on this point as well. I don’t believe the candy-mouthed infant act is necessarily an attempt to get a boyfriend. I do, however, think it’s tied to certain ideals of what a woman should be that aren’t necessarily made for men, but are constructed around a world that is still defined and dominated by certain power dynamics.

The act that Zooey Deschanel appears to perform on a daily basis, the act that The New Girl presents as a way of life, is unabashedly child-like. Though there are plenty of narratives about the grown-up dude bro (see: The Hangover, Parts I & II) and plenty of people worried about the decline of manliness, I find myself far less concerned with the breakdown of the modern man. This is partially because the “fountain of youth” version of masculinity no longer means the man’s a scrub—it’s equally possible that the jeans-clad hipster type is a successful Zuckerberg-in-training, or something equally lauded by society.

However, while you can’t argue that Zooey has got her shit together, the issue is not with whether she plays the part well, or whether she can sell the image in a lucrative way. The question for me—and for Klausner—is whether this version of nonthreatening femalehood is something we do specifically because it is nonthreatening. And, let’s face it, sexualized. We live in a world of Toddlers in Tiaras, where chain stores sell bikinis for seven-year-old girls, where women worship at the altar of anti-aging, injecting chemicals into their jawlines and spending thousands of dollars to do the impossible–reverse the leathery ravages of time.For thousands of years, the barely-pubescent girl was viewed as a highly valuable sexual conquest, a piece of property that could ensure the propagation of male genes. While our modern laws and sensibilities ostensibly reject the idea that a 13-year-old should be viewed as a sexual object, I think we doth protest too much. Kids, like it or not, can be sexual. And while it’s nearly impossible not to notice this, it’s also not necessary to fetishize the “barely legal” look. I believe this version of heterosexual attraction, which demands doe-eyed, big breasted, slight, young-appearing women can’t be simply filed under some dubious “evolutionary biology” heading. I think it still has a lot to do with the patriarchy.

And though he may  not use that word, so does Salon‘s Matt Zoller Seitz. In his review of New Girl, he writes:

If you thought you couldn’t get enough of Zooey Deschanel’s 21st century Diane Keaton routine—the stammering, the fluttery hands, the retro singing, the game-for-anything klutziness—the new Fox sitcom “New Girl” (Tuesdays 9 pm/8 central) will cure you of it. I won’t bore you with analysis of Deschanel as an example of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” ; if you don’t know what it is already, click here, or watch almost anything Deschanel has ever appeared in, starting with “All the Real Girls” or “Elf.” Suffice to say that if Deschanel didn’t invent the MPDG prototype, she damn sure defined it—and that it might be time to re-tool it, or maybe retire it for a while.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who sees Zooey as a walking, talking epitome of a pixelated trope. Despite her spot on prime-time television, she’s still being sold to us as a subculture hero, an indie rock MPDG who spreads light and unicorns everywhere she goes—all while retaining a certain amount of geek, dork, insider-y appeal. It’s actually quite a feat, when you think about it: the woman manages to walk so many lines—mainstream and subculture, adult and child, pinup girl and physical comedian—that even Johnny Cash would be impressed.

But for me, what it all comes down to is this central divide, one that seems to break apart our acceptable forms of femininity. You’ve got the Klausners and the Clintons of this world on one side, and Zooey and her army of kittens on the other. There is the strong, capable version of womanhood that reeks of Second Wave, and the retro-fun, irony-rich version of grown-up-girl on the other. It may not necessarily be dumbed down, but I can’t shake the sense that there is something lost in all the lightness. Does throwing on a pink babydoll dress actually lessen down our considerable intellect? Of course not. But the things we wear, and the way we present ourselves, send a significant message to the rest of the world. And though many may not want to recognize it—consider the many commenters protesting Klausner’s argument with “but I just really like pink kitten-printed rompers!”—these trends always come from somewhere.

As everyone’s favorite incomprehensible literary theorist Jacques Lacan once argued, there is no outside. We exist within a framework, be it the symbolic, or simply the social order. Lacan believed that all thoughts and actions existed within the symbolic, which was held up like a giant, flimsy tent by the central signifier, which he (fittingly for my argument) called the phallus. But, like all symbols, the tent-pole piece is ultimately, and tragically, empty, lacking in substance—yet still exerting power. The patriarchy works the same way. There is no space truly outside this vast and insidious construct. Our choices, choose-my-choice feminist as they may be, exist within the framework. Rebellions are always rebelling against something.

And at the bottom of this barrel of monkeys lies my point: we really are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we enjoy the activities and decorations ascribed to the girly-girl act, we’ll always be damned by more serious types for betraying the sisterhood. But if we jump on the I am Woman Hear Me Roar train, we’ll always be barred from certain freedoms of behavior. Judgment exists all around, and each type of ladyhood is rife with pitfalls. However, until we recognize the fact that this is all an act—as every performance of gender always is—you miss a valuable chance to blur the boundaries. As with all well-dressed straw men, this split is false, and serves to obscure the real problem, which comes with the obsessive labeling, defining, and categorizing our different ways of being female. And while I don’t see a way out of the patriarchal cage, I do think we can skip the name-calling and stop pinning our hopes on one-dimensional images.

And if you are looking for a great, nuanced and funny female lead on the television, may I suggest to everyone Leslie Knope? Any other options are more then welcome, in the comments.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Sylvia permalink
    October 3, 2011

    haha check this out:
    she does a really amazing MK Olsen impression too

  2. Joel C permalink
    October 29, 2011

    I find it funny how you and others discuss ZD as if the direction of womankind is either threatened or affirmed by her singular persona.

    She is who she is, a cute hipster girl. Basically, she has taken the “hipster” image and refined it, to maximize the “odd appeal” elements and remove the annoying realities. Her character (which may be her real-life persona, we all play a character in our real lives) wears stylish clothes and hangs out with interesting people. Whoever she really is, she gives off the appearance of being honest and unashamed about being different. Plus, she’s sometimes funny and has a pure singing voice.

    In other words, she is appealing specifically because she is not the mainstream-sanctioned ideal.

    Male entertainers are allowed an extreme range of roles: (silly, smart, goofy, strong, pathetic) without having their motivations questioned. Consider the characters of Will Ferrell, Jim Parsons, Zach Galifinakis or Ricky Gervais, to name a few. Few people are seriously questioning the state of manhood based on a Lacanian analysis of the flaws displayed by these characters.

    But if a female personality strays too far over the line away from the modern heroine (Carrie Bradshaw?), if she dares to display imperfect quirkiness rather than conform to the accepted feminine ideal of her era, she is questioned and chastised by the female-character police for her heresy?

  3. November 22, 2011

    This doesn’t seem right. It seems like they’re taking something perfectly okay and turning it into some “bad message” because it’s something the “power-obsessed male gender” happens to like.

    You know why guys like her so much? Yes. It’s that she’s non-threatening.

    But the appeal of non-threatening isn’t about some sort of eagerness to overpower others, or some fear of female power or something stupid like that. If she was a Ph.D or CEO, the appeal would still be there, and the education or status would be a plus.

    The real appeal behind Zooey’s line of character is that she seems like a real girl with realistic expectations. It’s not that a “power woman” creates fear or disempowerment. It’s that the powerful-attitude women seem unpleasable. That in order to be worth anything to them, you would have to devote yourself to them. Either that, or you don’t matter all that much behind their work and their ease of getting “more perfect men”.

    But around a girl with a geeky, more dorkly personality – that is, a more realistic, comfortable one- a guy feels like he can be himself as well. Take off the mask he has to put on nonstop every day. The powerhouse woman doesn’t allow this, so the guy has to stay bottled up.

    It’s a simple matter of emotional health, guys. When one side relaxes their standards, the other side does as well.

  4. Milo permalink
    May 1, 2012

    In terms of feminism, and gender, I’ve been all over the board. I started out as a geeky, intellectual tomboy who hated women so much that I decided to become a man, then hated how boring it was to pretend to be macho while receiving sexual harassment so decided to identify as genderqueer, and then finally decided that I am an outrageously intelligent, video game loving, political, radical GIRLY GIRL and that it’s okay to be powerful, different, smart and criminally cute all at once. I refuse to compromise on my power or my frilly skirts and I’ve never been happier.

  5. Monica permalink
    November 19, 2012

    Take a look at Mariah Carey, who dresses in revealing outfits and says that she’s “eternally 12 years old”, and Christina Aguilera, who is constantly declaring that she’s a strong woman while wearing cleavage-baring tops and sparkly hot-pants. They’re role models for young women? But Zooey Deschanel, who is the producer AND star of “New Girl”, writes all the songs for She & Him, has starred in some truly great films, and wears modest, feminine clothing is a threat to feminism? I think all this criticism of ZD is unjustified, and I’m not sure I want to call myself a feminist anymore.

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