Broad Recognition


“New Girl,” Old Story: The Gender Politics of Fox’s Newest Hit

My favorite moment of the new Fox sitcom New Girl came within the first two minutes.  As Zooey Deschanel batted her baby blue eyes for the camera, the credits rolled, and the caption “Created by Liz Meriwether” appeared on the screen, I almost cheered.  I want to be a screenwriter, and in a world dominated by Matthew Weiners, Aaron Sorkins, Ryan Murphys, and Joss Whedons, a showrunner with the first name “Liz” is cause for celebration.  A Yale alum, Meriwether is a veteran playwright and screenwriter who recently wrote No Strings Attached.  And although I’m hesitant to approve of movies and TV shows simply because they’re written by women (you won’t catch me watching Whitney…), I’m pleased to report that New Girl, though choppy at times, has the potential to be a comedy that makes me laugh without feeling guilty about what I’m laughing about.  Its gender politics, however, require a closer look.

The premise of the show is relatively simple: after being dumped by her boyfriend, the socially awkward Jess (Deschanel) moves in with three complete strangers.  Who happen to be men.  Bro-ish, masculine, horny men.  Jess also has a best friend—the tall, beautiful, little-black-dress-wearing, professional model Cece.  New Girl takes much of its humor from the juxtaposition of the Dirty Dancing-watching Jess with her manly new roommates, whom she appalls with her various antics.  Oftentimes, this contrast breaks down into familiar gender stereotypes.  Woman cries, men stare.  Woman talks, men stare.  Woman wears sexy dress, men stare.  Woman makes huge faux pas, men stare.  Then, of course, hilarity ensues.

It’s because of this last formulation—faux pas followed by stare—that New Girl makes me somewhat uneasy.  Many of the interactions between Jess and her roommates (Nick, Schmidt, and Coach, although in later episodes, Coach is replaced by a roommate named Winston) involve the men trying to stop Jess from manifesting one of her many quirks in public and then wincing in horror when she does so anyway.  Having taken her out to a bar to get over her ex-boyfriend, the men attempt to help Jess pick up a one-night stand.  “You’re going to have to do some very bad things,” warns the obnoxious Schmidt pedantically, before critiquing Jess’ attempts at a seductive smile.  The three then observe, faces segueing from encouragement to dismay, as Jess sidles up to a man, puts her hands on her hips, and drawls, “Hey there, sailor.” For me, this scene called to mind the Greek myth of Pygmalion.  A pure and chaste sculptor, Pygmalion loathes all the women that he meets because of their imperfections, so he creates a statue of the perfect woman with which he promptly falls in love.  Every day he speaks to the statue, bathes, dresses, and caresses it, until the goddess of love takes pity on him and brings the statue to life.  The sculptor and now-living woman promptly get married and have a child.  George Bernard Shaw took his play Pygmalion (later adapted into My Fair Lady) from this myth. The idea of man as artist and woman as art, or of man as teacher and woman as pupil, is an ancient theme, and a disturbing one, as it places the balance of power entirely in the man’s hands.  The wise, discerning man has all the answers; the woman’s best bet is to passively let him sculpt her, mold her, until he has eradicated her imperfections.  Only then is she a fit partner for him—or, in the case of New Girl, a fit roommate.

Does New Girl deviate at all from this paradigm?  Or, despite its female creator, is this yet another show that mines women’s supposed ditziness for laughs?  The answer, cop out though it may be, is that I’m not sure yet.  Yes, Jess is a klutz, eccentrically and adorably quirky (this is Zooey Deschanel, after all).  But she’s also self-aware and completely unashamed of who she is, qualities that all three of her roommates lack.  Further, the show makes clear that all the men, each of whom has their own fair share of unappealing, laughable qualities (particularly the inept playboy Schmidt) have as much to learn from Jess as she does from them.  The character of Cece adds to this impression.  The only mature one in the group, she calls Jess “the best person” she has ever known, and she has a point.

So, I’m willing to give New Girl a shot.  Jess may continue on the “adorable but helpless” route, a mere ditzy foil for her more practical male roommates, in which case that’s half an hour every week that could be better spent doing problem sets.  If, on the other hand, the show makes clear that its other characters are just as eccentric and dysfunctional as Jess (but simply less honest about it), and that nuttiness is the province of all people rather than one restricted by gender, then that problem set will just have to wait.  “Don’t make me laugh at you,” says the levelheaded Cece, responding to Schmidt’s blundering attempts to hit on her.  But universal laughter—at men and women—is exactly what I hope the show’s writers have in mind.

Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick is a freshman in Yale College.  She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (3)

  • Excellent piece, though perhaps overly optimistic.
    We’ll see. Lets’ hope I’m wrong. But from long experience, I am NEVER optimistic about anything that gets on network television. After all, for Fox to get the maximum audience, they must appeal to the most awful sexist male viewers imaginable. And why should they care if they offend feminist viewers?

    These last two sentences directly above, I assure readers, are written with bitter sarcasm. But this bitter sarcasm comes from too many hours of actually watching network television. And often cable TV is no better. While there have been some advances and some wonderful shows in the last decade, Hollywood remains profoundly sexist and misogynistic.

    posted by Bob Lamm      October 12th, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  • I hope you have found the show worthy of your hopefulness, as I have, and I’m typically a very skeptical, jaded viewer. It’s the only thing worth watching on Fox and rises above the stereotyping on all other successful sit-coms (ironically using male writers).

    posted by Katy      May 10th, 2012 at 3:00 pm

  • i love this show. its so funny and excellent. can’t wait for season 3 to start

    posted by estie ackerman      August 9th, 2013 at 7:59 pm

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