Ten Years After ‘New Girl,’ Zooey Deschanel Is Still an Underrated Comic Genius

Remember: Hating on Zooey Deschanel was a personality in the late 2000s. I myself was more invested in the politics of her fandom than I was in the 2012 presidential election. I thought of myself a feminist, but my reasoning was the same as any sexist: She was feminine in a way that didn’t appeal to me. There was something about her I found irritating. The epicenter of this rage was the 2009 indie 500 Days of Summer, a movie about a man who projects a fantasy onto a woman and then has a breakdown when she isn’t interested. “She is always scrupulously honest with him,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “She is her own person, and Tom can’t have her.” 

It was as if millions of people made a secret pact to misunderstand this. “Summer turns out to be the bewitching villain in this story, breaking Tom’s heart without a second thought,” the Daily Beast mourned. “I hated her blank-eyed, dress-twirling turn as the object of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s obsession in 500 Days of Summer—the role that launched 1,000 indie wet dreams,” a critic groused in Slate. “Still haven’t forgiven Zooey Deschanel for what she did to Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer,” a fan wrote on Twitter as late as 2018, to great discussion. 

A lot of us felt a kind of misogynistic fury toward ultra-feminine-presenting women around the time of the New Girl premiere: Taylor Swift is the prime example. Their cutesiness—Deschanel starting a blog called Hello Giggles, Swift lived on a Christmas-tree farm—felt like a threat. It’s not that it’s anti-feminist to dislike women. It’s that the hatred of women like Deschanel is often coded as a feminist critique, but seems to come from a place of dislike of women in general.  

Initially, promos for New Girl courted this dynamic, using the tagline “Simply adorkable,” with Deschanel’s crooning voice over what sounds suspiciously like a ukulele. The premise of the show is undeniably annoying: What if there was a girly girl who had, like, a bunch of guy friends?! She could bake and knit and not know things about sports! But quickly it was clear that the writers’ actual intention was to parody Deschanel’s supposed quirkiness, and eventually have her own it.

In the first season Jess squares off with Julia, played by Lizzy Caplan—a cynical, emotionally distant corporate lawyer who doesn’t have female friends. Julia represents the hater’s take on women like Jess, and like Deschanel. “It’s so fun having another girl around here,” Jess says, welcoming Julia to her home. “There are tampons hidden all over the apartment.” Julia repays her friendliness by mocking and attacking Jess. “I know that I’m the mean lawyer girl who wears suits and works too much,” she spits, on the verge of tears. “And you—you’re the really fun teacher girl with all the colorful skirts and you bake things.” New Girl protests, basically, that this supposed war between women is dumb. Every kind of person, it demonstrates, can be funny.  

Hand-wringing conversations about how to be a woman have followed Deschanel throughout her fame. “I’ve examined and reexamined myself,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2012, sounding weary. “And I really don’t feel that liking to wear dresses is a problem for the feminist world.” It didn’t matter how many times Deschanel declared herself to be a feminist (which she did first in Glamour!). “Here I was, expecting her to go into her Muppet voice and claim not to know how babies were made,” a writer in The Cut responded to the Glamour interview.

On New Girl, Zooey Deschanel demonstrated that the choice between being feminine and being funny is a false choice. And still, people mostly think of her as a bug-eyed 2000s starlet with bangs. It’s not that Deschanel’s talent as a comedian is overshadowed by her quirky reputation. It’s just that her talent as a comedian is mostly ignored.

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter. 

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