Fetishizing Ignorance: Zooey Deschanel and New Girl
I don’t know why I keep watching Fox’s show, The New Girl. I don’t seem to have a reason. (Actually, I do, and his name is Jake M. Johnson).
But even my affection for the sensitive, humorous, and down to earth roommate Nick is being worn thin as the show continues to focus on how “ADORKABLE!” Zooey Deschanel’s character Jess is.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Zooey.  Days of Summer is one of my favorite movies. I love She & Him and have seen them live. And to some extent, her hipster-y beauty is highly appealing.
But in a show that centers on her faux-Manic Pixie Dream Girl image, I can barely stand her, and this week’s episode – “Bad in Bed” – may have been the final straw.
The conceit of the show is that Jess broke up with her boyfriend of six years after she came home early from a trip and found him cheating on her. She moves out and finds an apartment (a very nice one, naturally) to share with three guys, who are a little afraid to have a female roommate, but take pity on her and let her move in. The three guys – who can be summed up as “Normal Dude (Nick),” “Black Guy (Winston),” and “Womanizing Douchebag (Schmitt)” – help guide her into getting over her ex and forge an unlikely friendship full of foibles and misunderstandings. Hilarity ensues!
In the episode “Bad in Bed,” we find Jess in a new relationship with Paul (played by Justin Long). It's her first relationship since Spencer, the ex. And, of course, like most new couples in this day and age, they are getting into the territory of having sex with each other for the first time. And, naturally, there are worries about performance, etc. Those happen, and the show has tipped its hat to this before with the character of Nick, who is recovering from a two year relationship, and decided, in a previous episode, that he needed to get laid after six months without (the episode is “Naked.”)
The way the show writers chose to handle both of these situations, however, reveals a lot about the double standard between men and women. There is also the rather disturbing portrayal of a child-like woman as desirable.
For Nick, his concern is that the girl will reject him once she sees him with his shirt off, which is a somewhat reasonable fear, but one easily overcome by realizing that, if you’re at the point where shirts are coming off, the girl is probably not going to care if you have a little paunch. While Nick is nervous, it’s not anything amounting to performance anxiety – he’s fairly confident in his ability (it’s never mentioned how experienced he is aside from a two year relationship) – and if an actual relationship develops with the girl beyond a couple of dates, cool, but he just really needs to get laid.
Jess, on the other hand, is more experienced – a six year relationship is nothing to sneeze at, even if it took two years before the relationship became sexual (something I doubt based on how quickly she and Paul became an item). But unlike Nick, she has no problems worrying about her body – a portion of the female experience completely absent from her character, in fact, despite living in LA, not really knowing how to dress herself (which is one of her adorkable qualities, played to humorous effect when she chooses overalls to wear for a date), and having models for friends. So there’s message one: The girl every girl wants to be and every guy wants to be with? Doesn’t worry about how she looks, which I suppose is a small tick in the right direction, if an unrealistic one.*
But, despite a six year sexual relationship, Jess develops crippling performance anxiety before going out with Paul. It’s made clear that while, in six years, she hadn’t slept with anyone but Spencer, there were obviously people before then. The entire episode focuses on this new anxiety, this concern that “my ex cheated on me, so I must have been bad in bed in some way what if I’m the same way with Paul and he never wants to see me again!?”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a comedy if this concern wasn’t played up and enhanced to significant comedic effect. To prepare for their date that will end in sex, Jess 1. Goes shopping for fancy lingerie (lingerie that she has no idea how to put on or even knows if it looks sexy), 2. Watches 5 and ½ hour of sado-masochistic porn (because it’s what was on her sleazy roommate’s laptop, and of course she doesn’t know what “normal” porn looks like because what girl watches porn! Hah!), and 3. Freaks out and thinks that S&M is what all people like (despite having enough experience to know that this is not the case). An extremely awkward “sex” scene ensues.
One could argue that Jess’ overblown reaction to the possibility of sex is merely a marker of her personality, of how she’s just a ridiculous worrywart. But I don’t think it’s that simple. There are a number of aspects of Jess’ personality and biography that simply don’t jive, which is why Jess is a perfectly illustration of the trope of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (hereafter, MPDG). The MPDG is a girl who is everything a man wants her to be in the world of popular culture. She’s cute, but doesn’t know it. She’s awkward, but in an adorable way, not in a way that makes you cringe in secondhand embarrassment. She’s feminine, but doesn’t really care about how she looks. She’s sexy without being sexual. And while she may be well educated enough to have a steady job, she doesn’t actually know a lot about the world and its ways, hence her idealism, which is “refreshing” and “adventurous.”
Basically, the MPDG is every nerd boy’s wet dream.
That’s why the character of Jess simply does not jive. The men in her life are allowed to be more complex and interesting – Nick’s reaction to being with a girl for the first time since his ex is measured and basically normal. Jess…not so much. And that is because she is merely a set of personality traits rather than a human being – a human as truly awkward, ignorant, and, frankly, annoying as Jess would struggle as a teacher, and in friendships, much less relationships.
It becomes even more problematic when Jess’ personality problems are applied to a scene involving sex – problematic for women, in particular. The entire scene – for which I do not yet have a link (HULU!) – is predicated around the double standard that women face: the call to be sexy without being sexual, a “lady in the street but a freak in the bed,” so to speak (thank you,
Li’l Jon Ludacris).
Here’s the thing: Jess has been sexually active for years. Even if Spencer is the only man she’s ever slept with, six years of a relationship should give her some idea of what she likes and doesn’t like and what “good sex” is. But her reaction with Paul indicates a few of scary things if Jess is a real person:
- Every single sexual experience with Spencer, over the course of six years, was centered around his pleasure, not hers – something which is basically denied in the opening five minutes of the pilot episode.
- The proto-typical “desirable” woman – keep in mind that is what a MPDG is – knows nothing about her own body, and approaches sex with an ignorance equaling that of Rick Perry and his knowledge of the US Constitution (burn!).
- A girl who takes control in the bedroom (in the way Jess does in that extremely awkward scene) is a scary scary thing that will make boys run away.
So, basically, Jess’ character teaches us womenfolk that if you are experienced in bed, you should hide it because that will scare him off from a relationship. If you happen to have a sexual relationship, let him doing the leading, because obviously you don’t know what you’re doing, silly girl, even if your personal history would show us otherwise. And you should always approach every new encounter like a forty year old virgin on her wedding night: awkwardly, but still adorable.
In short, New Girl fetishizes ignorance. A woman is desirable if she is (or at least acts like is) completely ignorant of “the ways of the world,” if she approaches the world with childlike innocence, wide-eyed, waiting for a man to give her guidance. And this is not an okay message to send. It’s trying to have their cake and eat it, too: a girl who is sexually experienced (because no one wants a virgin!) but who ACTS like a virgin so that you can live in the fantasy that you’re the only guy who has ever tapped that, untrue as it may be.
This is even confirmed when Paul apologizes to Jess for running out on her after she freaked out on him in the bedroom: “I'm really intimidated by you Jess. You're so experienced, and I've never done any of that stuff.” Paul is only willing to salvage the relationship because he likes her so much, despite her scaring him - if he liked her any less, he'd be gone. Contrast that with Nick’s sentiments from the previous episode with a similar situation, in which Jess suddenly becomes comfortable about sex:
Jess: Maybe you don’t want to have meaningless sex. Maybe that’s not your style. Nick: I have a bing-bong and chickadees. It is my style.
That should tell you everything you need to know about the double standard: A girl who is experienced and knows what she likes? Scary scary scary. A man who doesn’t want meaningless sex? Not a man.
But it’s all okay because she’s just totally adorkable, right?!
*It should be noted that she likely doesn’t worry because she doesn’t NEED to worry because she’s already hot. A girl who isn’t hot? Still should totally worry (this is evidenced by comments made by the douchebag roommate, Schmitt).