New Girl and Sterilized Femininity

In her article, “Is ‘New Girl’ Secretly Feminist?” Sonya Saraiya discusses the character of Jess as well as the media persona of Zooey Deschanel. Saraiya talks about how the roles that Deschanel plays are usually just exaggerations of her “adorkable” personality which hardly changes, project to project. Sayaiya notes that Deschanel “almost exclusively takes roles that require her to be an ethereal, quirky, wide-eyed innocent, in which she is largely a plot device for the stories of the men around her.”

Following the themes of feminism and post feminism, Deschanel has found a marketable persona that works with her own real life personality and she is sticking to it. She has chosen to become this persona, both on and off screen, while still maintaining other projects, such as her musical project, She & Him which require her to change from this naïve, ditzy personality.

newgirl [This picture just screams “Wait…..wait?”]

Saraiya’s article questions the appeal of this passive, uncomplicated persona and she challenges the “calculated cuteness” which she sees as being “insidious, for women and for men.” Saraiya asks, “Can you imagine Jess having sex, menstruating, or growing out her bangs? Leading a board meeting? Running for office? Negotiating a cab fare? Giving birth to a child? It’s weird that women would be expected champion this character, who defines herself through glitter and cupcakes, and it’s equally weird that men would be expected find her attractive, given that she is the least sexually empowered character conceivable.”

The “sterilized” view of femininity that Jess portrays, is dangerous not only because it creates an impossible and unrealistic idea of femininity, but it paints women as being passive, not active. It creates a situation where femininity is equated with girlishness and innocence. Deschanel’s character is so nonthreatening, that anytime Jess stands up for herself, it is a major plot point. Hardly an empowering situation.

However, throughout the show, Jess does have experiences and crises in which she learns and, theoretically, matures. Saraiya gives the example of an interaction that Jess has with Nick, one of her roommates, in which it is revealed that Jess cannot say the word ‘penis.’ Much hilarity ensues, a she tried to avoid saying the dreaded word, but the episode concludes with her finally being able to spit it out.

By the first half of the second season, Jess has become more sexualized, but still manages to retain her innocent “Twee” persona. Instead of de-sterilizing Jess and making her more real and capable, this character development just succeeds in incorporating sex into her world of unrealistic femininity.

New Girl does offer a valid, or so it is presented, type of femininity. Jess and the guys often defend her quirkiness to non-believers. However, it defends it in a way that does not recognize feminism as valid or relevant. In this way, it is strongly post feminist. Jess is the fun, playful girl who contrasts the unappealing killjoy feminist. Another way in which New Girl, and Zooey Deschanel are post feminist, is the strong implicit emphasis on clothing. Deschanel’s persona, which transfers into her New Girl Character, is strongly reliant on her fashion choices. Her intense femininity, as girlish as it may be, is expressed through her appearance which harkens back to a 50’s housewife combined with a school girl.


4 thoughts on “New Girl and Sterilized Femininity

  1. Love this idea of sanitized femininity — which is, as you point out, very much the (virginal) femininity of the ’50s housewife. So how does this work within the paradigm of postfeminism? Usually we think of postfeminism as encouraging “the choice” to self-objectify, but there’s also the home-making, conservative, regressive strain as well….what do you think?

  2. Saraiya talks about the passivity of the “twee” persona and how it rejects “ideals of empowerment and blindly accept[s] the status quo. Twee is not saying, “Who cares if feminine domesticity is problematic? I love baking!” Twee is merely saying, “I love baking!” as if feminism never happened at all.”
    The post feminism in Jess’ character is her passivity when it comes to being objectified. Even when she confronts other characters and asserts her right to be who she is and to self-objectify, Jess is still not being active. Her girlish femininity is a shield behind which she can remain objectified without having to do anything about it.
    By pretending to be empowered through her “twee-ness” and her domesticity, Jess avoids having to recognize and deal with her powerlessness and her need for feminism.

  3. I totally agree with your post about Jess and I really find the description, “Jess is the fun, playful girl who contrasts the unappealing killjoy feminist” very crucial in a post-feminist culture. Jess, embodying both femininity and feminism, seems to represent an “ideal” feminist of sorts if post-feminist culture had to choose one. Jess maintains her childish, “sanitized” femininity, and quirky personality that allow her to be the guy’s girl and an image of feminine perfection. Yet she asserts herself throughout the show enough to remain within the post-feminist boundaries that do not set off the “unappealing killjoy” feminist vibes. In her public life, Deschanel discusses her feminist stance but does delve deeper into feminist activism nor represent that stance in much of her work.

  4. I think that your comment brings up several important factors that situate both Jess and the show “New Girl” in a postfeminist moment. One thought that I had reading your post is about the ways that Jess is even desexualized when she is performing the sexualized work of the shot girl. For example, it is her job to be sexy and con men into buying overpriced $9 shots, which illustrates the use of sexuality to exploit men endemic within post feminism and the use of sexuality to gain material capital, ie having a job and looking unbelievably sexy doing it. Yet she chooses a conservative, buttoned, multiple collared, cutie bow ridden get up that does show her legs, but in a cute childish-like way. Compared to her counterpart, who is shown to be sexually desperate, scantily clad in a referee cleavage bearing ensemble with sexy tights, and she is sad. The other shot girl gets on the table and is sexy; Jess gets on the table wearing the tiny glittery top hat that she picked out of an elementary school lost and found. Even when the audience is supposed to read her “adorkable” attempts at sexuality seriously, she is wearing symbols both of childhood and of her failure to keep her job, which serve to impugn the attempt at sexual authenticity. Jess is seen as a comical naïve mess, which earns her pity laughs and the chants of “Shot Girl” “Shot Girl” when she dances in an endearingly awkward way on stage, drawing attention to impossible performance of sexuality. As mentioned in your entry, she is unthreatening and is unable to complete the post-feminist objection of exploiting men through sexuality. Though she does sell some shots, she doesn’t do it in a way that undermines men; rather, the jokes are at her own expense.

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