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.