In this week’s issue of TIME (subscription required, but of course you have one, right?), I preview the fall TV season by looking—as several others have as well—at the many, many new shows this fall that have female stars or mostly female ensembles. It’s impossible to draw a single conclusion from so many different shows, of course: some are dramas, some comedies; some are specifically about what it’s like for women today (or in the 1960s), some aren’t; a show like Prime Suspect is overtly about a tough woman cop working in a boys’-club homicide department, and a show like Unforgettable is essentially a CBS cop show that happens to have a woman starring in it.
For my essay I looked mostly at the specific subset of TV shows that are, one way or another, talking about women by talking about girls. (A corollary to my earlier column on the manxiety shows of fall.) Which is to say: shows that deal with their characters by tweaking a retro idea of femininity, or by embracing it, or both. The headline in the magazine is “Femme TV,” but I might have also titled it: What’s the Deal with Cupcakes?
Cupcakes, which started having a foodie renaissance several years ago, had one of their biggest TV moments in an episode of Sex and the City that featured New York’s Magnolia Bakery (subsequently making it impossible to shop there without standing in a line longer than Samantha’s dating history). The cupcakes were a kind of eucharist of childhood in the middle of adulthood, a symbol for a show that always tried to straddle (sorry) fantasy and grown-woman’s reality.
This fall, cupcakes are the dessert that Kat Dennings’ tough, cynical waitress on 2 Broke Girls wants to build a business around. If it’s not intentional, it’s at least significant not only that Broke Girls comes from SATC producer Michael Patrick King (and Whitney Cummings) but also that cupcakes were the stock-in-trade of Kristen Wiig’s character in this summer’s Bridesmaids. In that (hilarious) movie too, the cupcake was a kind of signifier that there was some sugar to Wiig’s spice, that there was a part of her that was fanciful, childlike and not completely (so to speak) bitter; ditto for Dennings’ guarded, self-reliant character on Broke Girls. And in a profile of New Girl star Zooey Deschanel for New York Magazine, writer Jada Yuan visits the elfin star on set, were she’s tried to brighten up her trailer—”It’s so brown!”—by draping it with linens printed with, yes, cupcakes.
Ah, Zooey Deschanel. She could probably be the poster girl for the girly-women trend of fall, which also brings us, among other things, a remake of Charlie’s Angels and women as Pan Am stewardesses and Playboy Bunnies. Deschanel’s kind of retro femininity is a different one, refracted through her particular, Brooklyn-hipster style of reclaiming examples of mid-century domesticity and artisanal whimsy. Actress, singer and fashion tastemaker, Deschanel is a hanger of retro prints, a strummer of ukeleles, a wearer of vintage. She’s what etsy.com would look like if it grew legs and came to life.
Deschanel is, therefore, a very polarizing celebrity. She provokes certain guys to flights of emo adoration: I was, yes, at the TCA press tour session where a male critic asked her, “When did you first know you were adorable?” (In context, the question was meant sort of jokingly. Sort of.) And since New Girl was announced—and heavily, heavily promoted—many friends (especially women) have volunteered to me that they can’t stand her. Like really can’t.
She—or at least the characters she plays—represents to detractors a form of hot-womanhood rendered big-eyed and safe for a certain breed of boy-men, an archetype that critic Nathan Rabin dubbed the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”: women characters who are in a state of ecstatic perma-childhood and whose ultra-hotness is “hidden” by charming geekiness. (Basically, it’s an elaborate indie-hipster variation on the librarian who looks hot when she takes her glasses off.)
New York magazine describes this conceit as “the male fantasy that women are only attractive when they act like girls.” Or, as humor-essayist Julie Klausner put it in a perceptive essay about the character of Pam on The Office: “The ultimate emo-boy fantasy is to meet a nerdy, cute girl just like him, and nobody else will realize she’s pretty.” In this fantasy, someday a girl like this will come a long, and only you will see her inner Zooey Deschanel, and only she will see your inner Michael Cera / Jesse Eisenberg.
So, yeah: New Girl (debuts Tuesday, after Glee, on Fox) is a sitcom that is likely to annoy the hell out of people who get the hell annoyed out of them by Deschanel. You take the premise: Deschanel plays Jess, a quirky young woman who comes home early to her boyfriend one day—having decided to spice up their love life with a clumsy striptease—and finds he’s cheating on her. Through Craigslist, she finds an apartment share with three guys, who platonically adopt her, like a little sister or friendly alien, and coach their awkward charge through the rebound process. Think of it as Snow White and the Three Wingmen.
I’m annoyed by this on paper, but you don’t actually watch the show on paper. And the theory of New Girl–written by Liz Meriwether of No Strings Attached–runs up against the fact that it’s actually a very good pilot (currently available on Hulu), probably the best sitcom pilot of the fall. (Not a staggeringly high bar, but still.)
To answer the most obvious objection: yes, it is utterly implausible that someone who looks like Deschanel is a loser with guys. This is television, where attractive people play the objective correlatives of people who, in real life, would be less attractive. (The real-life Jim Halpert, likewise, would not be as good-looking as John Krasinski, and probably not even as good-looking as Martin Freeman.) Jess is an exaggeration, but so is her male roommate who continually tears off his shirt to show off his abs (see clip, above). As if to distract from Jess, the pilot gives her a best friend who’s (literally) a model, who renders Jess’ roommates awkward and dumbstruck when she visits. (This is probably the flip side of the manic-pixie fantasy: she has exactly the kind of in-your-face, supersexy attractiveness that Jess’ goofy cuteness is the less-frightening alternative to.)
If the characters of New Girl are playing to type, though, one of the charms of the show’s first 22 minutes is that it’s aware of the types it’s using and has intelligent fun with them. Jess’ three roomies are different varieties of bro-dudes, for instance, but they’re also self-conscious about it; anyone who says or does something too obnoxious must kick in to a “Douchebag Jar,” which I’m naming 2011 TV’s greatest contribution to society. One of Jess’ eccentricities—breaking into song and making up sitcom themes for herself to narrate her life—seems like a backhanded spoof on Deschanel’s hipster-chanteuse image itself. And Jess’ spritely cuteness does not go un-remarked on: “I could pretend to be more like you,” a roommate tells her during an argument, “and live on a sparkly rainbow, drive a unicorn around and just sing all the time.”
Another thing I like about New Girl is a usual route it doesn’t take: in the pilot, at least, there’s no element of will-they-won’t-they between Jess and her roomies, who have their own romantic lives to worry about. Above all—considerations of Deschanel’s casting aside—I love that the show is built around the recognition that there are actually women who like things that geek guys like, contrary to the ridiculous (and sexist in their own way) “No women like fantasy” accusations that came up back when Game of Thrones debuted. As Jess’ new friends work to find her a rebound date, one tells her, “”I’ll be your guide.” “Like Gandalf?” she asks.
It’s a funny scene. And ultimately, being funny will excuse a lot in a comedy—not just because it’s entertaining, but because it’s a sign of perceptiveness. The way that New Girl is funny suggests to me that it knows its characters and is smart enough to treat them like people going ahead. (I would cite as evidence, though not proof, the fact that Mrs. Tuned In—who first refused to watch the pilot because Deschanel starred in it—ended up catching the preview on TiVo and liking it in spite of ZD.)
Conversely, NBC’s Playboy Club (about which I’ll write a little more later) is not an awful show because it is about women in a sexist situation—compare Mad Men—it’s an awful show because it’s awful: badly written, risibly plotted, derivative and dishonest about how “empowering” the job of Bunny is for its characters. (Ditto, in different ways, the mostly forgettable Charlie’s Angels remake.) Whereas Pan Am—also about women in a service business in the ’60s hired largely for their sex appeal, much like actresses on primetime TV—is, while definitely middlebrow escapism, a better show simply for being better written, and by being better written it’s slightly more sophisticated about the tradeoffs the characters make.
In other words, issues of gender in these TV shows are, like gender always is, complicated. Putting “Girl” in a show’s title doesn’t automatically make a show dismissive, and putting “empowerment” in the dialogue doesn’t necessarily make it empowering. What separates the women from the girls? For starters, quality.