When New Girl started this past September, it kicked off a new, louder round in the ongoing debate about emo-boy love object Zooey Deschanel and her particular manic pixie dream girl appeal. The synopsized version of that debate: Zooey Deschanel is adorable and and gorgeous and quirky and some girls would like to be her, and more boys would like to sleep with her (in a gentle, adorable, quirky way, of course). While this is, more or less, the description of most successful actors and actresses (half the population wants to be like them, the other half wants to have sex with them), this formula got complicated for Deschanel by her particular brand of “girliness.” Deschanel and her big blue eyes, high-pitched voice, and sweet, spacey attitude are indubitably, extremely girly, and insofar as Deschanel is the ultimate indie-hipster wet dream it suggests something fairly icky about what men want — girls, not women — and how women modeling themselves on her are choosing to present themselves to said men, and the world more largely, as girls, not grown-ups. Deschanel and show creator Liz Meriweather have previously spoken about their feelings on this particular issue (“I can’t be girlie? I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. I don’t think that it undermines my power at all”), but there’s no reason to leave it at that when you have a hit TV show with which to issue a more forceful rebuttal. And so last night we got a very meta, in-defense-of-girliness episode of New Girl. At least Meriweather’s sense of fair play is such that she got Lizzy Caplan as the stand in for Zooey haters everywhere: The script may be rigged, but charisma wise, Deschanel-Caplan is a pretty fair fight.
The episode begins with Julia (Caplan) and Nick in bed, content and sweet, but both too chicken to admit they want to see each other exclusively. Julia is having a bit more difficulty acclimating to Nick’s roommates: She finds their weird voices and shared bathroom situation off putting. (Certainly, who wouldn’t be a little weirded about how Schmidt pronounces the word chutney? Or that he has sculpting chut-e-ney at all?) Still, she agrees to help a very friendly Jess try to get out of a parking ticket. When they sit down to discuss said ticket — after Jess has wrapped Julia in a blanket and offered her a cupcake — Jess explains that, though she has been captured on-camera running a red light, it’s only because there was a wounded bird in the intersection. And she missed her first court date because her ex-boyfriend doesn’t believe in mail.
Julia’s two-pronged reaction neatly encapsulates the two main criticisms of New Girl: First she shoots Zooey a “you’re a dummy” face, standing in for all those people who find New Girl irksome because they think Jess behaves like a brain-damaged Teddy Ruxbin, and then she throws cold water on Jess’s “whole thing.” Julia says to Jess, all polite condescension, that she could still get out of the ticket because, “A judge might buy into this whole thing … Your whole thing with the cupcakes and the braking for birds and the bluebirds come and help me dress in the morning. It’s a great thing. The big beautiful eyes, like a scared baby. I’m sure that gets you out of all kinds of stuff.” Burn.
Rather than speak up right away, even though she immediately knows she’s been insulted (“Though my peripheral vision is almost too good,” she says instead), Jess has a chat with her girlfriends, CeCe and a new lesbian friend who has barely been introduced in previous episodes. The girls all agree that Julia is being a bitch: “She said you have “a whole thing”?” CeCe yells. They explain to Nick that sometimes girls fight without a lot being said, and that in girl land, “Jess, you rock a lot of polka dots” can be a friendship-ending insult. (Of course, meanwhile, Jess and Co. can’t stop insulting Julia for “not being a dessert person,” because hating polka dots, or glitter, or baby voices is petty, but not liking desserts is a moral failing. Really though, this episode seems to take this position. Vulture reps hard for Team Carbohydrates, but this is maybe not such a well-thought-out stance.)
This whole scene is getting at something real about the coded way in which women can insult each other — though it might be nice if there were some indication that being catty and condescending about each other’s clothes wasn’t understood as the only way that women fight — but then it takes a misstep. Nick defends Julia as “one of those girls who doesn’t have a lot of girlfriends because she thinks like a guy.” Obviously, this is a huge red flag: Girls who don’t like other girls are the worst, in the logic of New Girl and, also, in life. Since Caplan is standing in for all the Zooey haters, New Girl is implicitly suggesting that women who have issues with Zooey are the kind of women who have issues with all other women, which … nope. Not true. Later on in this episode, the writers will issue an excellent defense of girliness, but this one is bogus.
Later, at the bar, Jess tells Nick that Julia asked him whether he was sleeping with other people while they were talking parking tickets. Nick asks Julia about it and instead of just fessing up, she freaks out and pretends she’s still seeing other people. Nick does the same, eventually grunting into the counter top, “I’m having sex right now, under the bar and she’s on top, so figure that out,” as Julia runs to the bathroom to cry. Jess follows her there to apologize. Julia tells Jess she “doesn’t like her” (some women don’t have to use polka dots to get their insults across!) and she knows what she’s up to — she’ll be the one Nick turns to in the end. (In the particular logic of the show, this is a totally justified fear — Nick and Jess are going to end up together eventually, whether that be in season three or seven — but since everything in this episode is happening on a meta level as well, we feel it’s important to note that, no, not all critiques of Zooey’s persona are coming from a place of jealousy.) Julia asks Jess to leave so she can sob, unfairly monopolizing the public crying space.
Despite this fight, Julia shows up to help Jess get out of her ticket. In a nice nod to just how dopey Jess can be (Meriweather, playing fair again), she pleads “guilty” to the ticket by accident. When Julia starts to sass her, Jess gives her impassioned, defense of girliness speech:
“I brak for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children, and I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird and it freaks me out. And I’m sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pant suit and I wish it had ribbons on it to make it slightly cute. And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.”
There are two particularly great things about this speech (which was delivered more resoundingly by Deschanel than it reads). The first, more workaday one is that New Girl is actively trying to explain Jess’s quirks as a side effect of her occupation. She may seem like a childlike weirdo to adults, but this makes her a great teacher. Again, it’s a little something for all those people who find Jess too idiotic to believe. The second: “And that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.” Yes, exactly. And it’s a message nicely echoed by the giving of the speech itself: Jess may have farm animals on her checks and a ribbon hat, but, when it comes down to it, she’s strong enough to stand up for herself.
Julia later shows up at the apartment to see Jess, and without either of them really having to apologize, they sit down to crochet together. Julia went to an all-girls Catholic school and doesn’t hang out with a lot of girls. She’s touched that Jess is letting her spend time with her girlfriends. (Because Caplan’s arc is only three episodes, her little spaz about her bad crocheting skills serves as a reminder that the girl has anger management issues. They will probably resurface in full next week.) Nick comes home and Julia, following Jess’s advice, tells him she only wants to date him. He only wants to date her, too, and they smooch while debating leatherman versus letterman jackets. Aw. Write Lizzy Caplan into this show forever.
So, there you have it. (Sadly omitted, the amazing Nick-Schmidt dirty towel fight, which we will embed when we can.) If the episode skirted some lady essentialism — women are catty and fight about clothes; only women who don’t like women could be offended by Zooey Deschanel — it mostly got it right, by making the case that liking ribbons and acting dippy doesn’t necessarily make one an insubstantial female, and, even more so, by delivering this message in a typically entertaining half-hour of television. Girls, they may brake for birds, but they can make you laugh too.