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Women In Hollywood: Is 'Girliness' The Real Problem?

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Jada Yuan's profile of Zooey Deschanel in last week's New York Magazine asked whether Deschanel's distinctive brand of adorableness reinforces Hollywood stereotypes about women or expands them. Deschanel, whom Yuan describes as "the paragon of femininity," is the Katy Perry doppelganger who's spent the last decade cementing her place as a darling of the indie-film world. This fall, Deschanel steers her acting career in a different direction, starring in a new sitcom called "New Girl" about an eccentric woman who moves in with three single men following a difficult breakup.

I haven't yet seen "New Girl" (it premieres tonight on Fox), but it sounds equal parts worrisome and promising. Some of Deschanel's character's traits -- "watching 'Dirty Dancing' six times a day, sobbing uncontrollably" -- seem like echoes of some of the most unfortunate clichés about women that exist. On the plus side, "New Girl's" comedy ostensibly has a screwball bent that's been lacking on network TV in recent seasons. Even better, it was created by a female writer named Liz Meriwether who based Deschanel's character on herself and who told Yuan approvingly, "I didn't think I could find someone as weird as I am."

Where Meriwether sees weirdness, others see girlishness -- and some critics have a problem with that. According to Yuan, some women "resent [Deschanel] for seemingly playing into the male fantasy that women are only attractive when they act like girls." Yuan quotes a handful of men who find Deschanel attractive ("She's so hot!," etc.) and alludes to a controversy that briefly lit up the feminist blogosphere earlier this year when the writer and comedian Julie Klausner wrote a post claiming that women who adopt a cutesy Deschanelesque sensibility make it easier for men to denigrate women. (In the New York profile, Deschanel responds to her critics, saying, "I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined.")

What I find baffling about the controversy surrounding Deschanel's trademark adorableness is that she doesn't fall neatly into a feminine pigeonhole. Yes, she is thin, white, conventionally beautiful, and bubbly, and she has an apparently authentic enthusiasm for cupcakes and baby animals. But she has played characters who curse indiscriminately ("The Good Girl"), defy their parents ("Almost Famous"), and reject the men who love them ("500 Days of Summer") -- not exactly ladylike behaviors -- and her laugh (which Yuan describes rapturously as "as the joyous union of a bray, a bark, and a honk") is decidedly unfeminine. Deschanel, as far as I can tell from her films and Yuan's profile is, like all of us, complicated: a mix of soft and hard, girly and nerdy, silly and serious.

The fact that Deschanel's aesthetic seems to have struck a chord in Hollywood and America at large, so much so that she is now carrying her own sitcom, doesn't bother me -- more power to her. Getting to where Deschanel is in her career undoubtedly requires a significant amount of hard work, talent, and drive, and if Deschanel's natural good looks and childlike idiosyncrasies have helped her along the way, so be it.

If anything bothers me, it's that there aren't enough female faces and voices in Hollywood that look and sound significantly different from Deschanel's. Where are the sitcoms written by and starring women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, women whose bodies don't fit into sample-size clothing? Where are the scripts about women who hate movies like "Dirty Dancing," who attack every problem with unflagging rationality, who don't really enjoy baking cupcakes or sewing clothes? These women are no worse or better than the kind of woman Deschanel epitomizes -- but they exist, and Hollywood would be a far more interesting place if it began representing them, too.