I like Zooey Deschanel.
I’ve said it.
For a very long time, probably since 500 Days of Summer came out and that cultural archetype that we’ve all come to embrace for those unordinary, quirky female characters was coined, I’ve felt a very intense pressure to hate Deschanel. Or perhaps, what she, singularly, seemed to represent. Friends, peers, colleagues have all landed on the word “annoying,” to describe Deschanel’s characteristics—maybe unable to separate her from the trope that seemed to be invented just for her.
I actually thought she was good in 500 Days. People seemed to have a problem with her character—and with her, eventually—who was, from what I could glean, essentially a woman who has interests. Not wildly unrealistic, though certainly a bit polished to appeal to a certain type of guy. All of the hatred seemed trumped up, likely fueled by a frustration about the stock character she supposedly lives up to. “Manic-pixie” (and Summer Finn, by extension), while deviating from the few rather unrealistic archetypes currently available for women in pop culture, still ends up being some male nerd’s wet dream, with big eyes and nice bangs.
I thought Deschanel’s show New Girl might be a saccharine variation on the above trope (adorable zany girl moves in with three clueless men who are all secretly in love with her, etc). But recently I delved into it, and I’m glad I did. New Girl is straight up goofy in the best way, each character fleshed out nicely to provide an easy comic balance necessary to propel the show forward. Deschanel’s performance is one of my favorite parts, playing the unapologetically weird Jessica Day, less charming and quirky than she is strange and awkward. Jess doesn’t feel like an archetype, nor does she feel like an unattainable standard of what a woman should be—she’s just a huge weirdo balancing out the other three weirdos she lives in her Los Angeles loft with, and it works so, so well.
Jess is endearing in her paralyzing inability to navigate most of her life, and it’s actually refreshing to see a female character join the ranks of the manchildren that Judd Apatow and Co have thrown at us for the past seven years, expecting that we’ll find their stunted incoherency charming—which we do, we eat that up. Deschanel plays her with an impressive sense comedic timing; her muted wackiness thankfully doesn’t relegate her to either the straight-man role or the femme-fatale-lost-lamb-in-the-woods position. Her character is well-written and well-rounded; she’s just peculiar enough to hit the funny notes a sit-com needs, but not aggravatingly so.
Since 500 Days, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has been talked about ad nauseam. Even Nathan Rabin, the columnist who coined the term, wishes he could take it back. It’s safe to say the subject is a dead horse that I don’t want to beat more than necessary. But I do think it’s important to recognize Deschanel’s individuality and talent; she’s a lot more than one script, and one archetype. New Girl is fresh and witty, and she’s a large part of why it’s so enjoyable. As we shift from Summer Finns to Jessica Days, let’s relieve Zooey Deschanel from the load of abhorrence. After all, it’s not her fault she’s got those big eyes and nice bangs.