Back in 2006, Zooey Deschanel was the third lead in a Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy called Failure to Launch. You’ll pardon the obvious pun, but that just about sums up her career so far: after her breakout in Almost Famous, she’s been relegated to the role of eternal love interest, the third-rank star in a string of poor-to-decent films (Elf, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Yes Man are the most prominent examples). She’s been rescued from (at worst) obscurity or (at best) being Kate Hudson by the fact that she’s turned herself into an instantly recognizable archetype, the supreme example of what has some become known as the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’ It also doesn’t hurt that her name is so memorable, and so expressive.
She’s become recognizable enough, in fact, that Fox has entrusted her with the task of headlining their new sitcom “New Girl”. The title, like the casting of Deschanel herself, is a declaration of what they’re trying to do: essentially, create a new kind of starlet, a new kind of comedy. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a stock character, one who exists as a canvas on which a male lead paints away his insecurities and neuroses. Fox — slyly, in my opinion — is trying to flip that paradigm. The pixie is an often criticized character type for combining an idealized quirkiness with an apparent lack of interiority. “New Girl” wants to watch the pixie project herself out, not be projected onto. Calling on Deschanel to do that was either a stroke of genius or completely obvious — there’s no one else I can imagine being able to pull that off.
The quintessential Deschanel role, of course, is her turn in (500) Days of Summer, as the titular Summer Finn, a girl who becomes the object of affection for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen. (It’s worth noting that, though JGL’s star has suddenly exploded, at the time Deschanel was actually the bigger star — JGL was still ‘the guy who was in 10 Things I Hate About You back when he was a kid.’) The movie was a bit too cute, and far too gimmicky, for me, but intellectually I would defend it against all the criticisms that are levelled against Deschanel’s character: the crisis of the film is entirely concerned with Tom discovering, to his shock, that Summer is in fact her own person. That’s especially notable given that Summer is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl par excellence, the kind of girl who does things like shout ‘penis’ at loud volumes in the middle of public parks and spends a lot of time being simultaneously soulful and spontaneous.
Without (500) Days, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “New Girl.” That’s because it gave Deschanel a signature role to have on her resume, for sure, but also because the film’s success displayed an appetite for the type of humor that the show tries to tap into. ‘Irony’ and ‘awkwardness’ have become the twin buzzwords for what contemporary comedy is based on (“The Office,” “Community,” and “30 Rock,” to name a few, are all built on some combination of the two ideas) but “New Girl,” like (500) Days, isn’t quite in that mold. Irony and awkwardness are part of it, yes; the opening scene of the pilot, in which Jess goes to her boyfriend’s house to give him a sexual surprise only to discover that he’s with another girl, is as awkward as they come. “New Girl” and Deschanel add a strange blend of goof and unawareness. It’s not ironic if the characters don’t recognize their own absurdity, and Jess appears to act with absolutely no awareness — even while the characters around her are rolling their eyes, both at her and at each other.
This affected lack of awareness, even as it motivates the show’s humor, is the most infuriating aspect of the show: Jess is, in her way, a classical ingenue, and both her roommates and her best friend spend their time trying to protect her seeming naivete. Jess is “a really good person” (an quote from her best friend) whose bumbling and lack of self-awareness seem to become further signs of her goodness; it seems that it’s better to preserve those things than to let her grow up. Jess, then, is the best female parallel yet envisioned to the Judd Apatow man-child that has been the unlikely star of many of the past decade’s most prominent comedies; Deschanel, meanwhile, the dark-haired, wide-eyed, quirky-cute hipster princess for whom the term ‘unconventionally beautiful’ might easily have been invented, has branded herself as the embodiment of that character.
If “New Girl” takes off, that will have been a brilliant move, at least insofar as Deschanel will be raking in cash. At the same time, though, assuming the role of hipster princess is precisely what prevents Deschanel from being a star: television is the place for her to shine, but she’s already excluded herself from being a Hepburn or a Streep or even a Johansson. Quirk is funny and cute and perhaps naively lovable, but it’s also self-consciously limiting.
At first blush that take might seem objectively wrong, given that another queen of quirk has already invented herself as a superstar — that is, Katy Perry, she of teenage dreams, bubble gum hair, and deliberately over-the-top, (sch)malty music videos. It’s telling, though, that Deschanel is thought of as trying to model herself on Perry when she’s been refining her pixie persona as far back as 2003’s Elf — a full five years before Perry hit the scene with “I Kissed A Girl.” So why is it that Perry is the one that people are trying to emulate?
Most obviously, the answer is that she’s a superstar — incredibly, given how conventional her music is, one of the most successful pop musicians ever. That ignores the vital part of the why, though, which is, of course, why does it work for Perry and not for Deschanel? And the answer, of course, is sex. Even as she pioneers her territory as an icon of quirk, there’s never been any doubt that part of the Perry brand is the way that it straddles the line between her affected quirky naivete and an underlying almost-but-not-quite-dirty sexuality. “I Kissed A Girl,” with its poppy introduction of Perry as a good girl accidentally stumbling on forbidden attractions that she would never have expected, was a totally appropriate breakout for her — or she’s just stuck to the script incredibly well.
Either way, Perry has successfully made her sex appeal a part of her identity as a pop star, somehow believable no matter how strangely she chooses to dress. With Deschanel, though, sex is inherently absurd, something to be played for laughs. We’ve made mention already of Jess’s effort at spontaneous sexuality in the opening scene of “New Girl,” where her awkwardness is a source of comedy: she’s clearly out of her element — clearly not meant to be doing this — and that incongruity gives rise to the comedy of the scene. It’s hard to take Deschanel seriously as a sexual being, at the same time that it’s hard to take her seriously as an adult.
Female movie stars fall into two categories. There are the ones you’re meant to desire, who scream sex from somewhere beyond the screen: the Mae Wests, Marilyn Monroes, and (it has to be admitted) Angelina Jolies of the movie palace. Then there are the ones you’re supposed to fall in love with — and who better exemplifies that than Audrey Hepburn? Deschanel doesn’t just not fit into either of those categories. She’s off the map entirely. She’s not the girl next door — she’s your lovable, loopy little sister.
I don’t know if that, of necessity, has to be the end result of Deschanel’s brand of hipster quirk — Perry, in fact, may be living proof that it doesn’t. As it stands, though, the end result of Dechanel’s efforts to brand herself is that she has become an ideal character for a sitcom. That being so, she’s found the right niche with “New Girl,” a genuinely funny, potentially very good show that despite sometimes missing the mark in groan-inducing ways still has a lot of heart. She’ll have a home and a bunch of fans for as long as she keeps doing what she’s doing. She is, in other words, viable.
Just don’t call her a star.