OCTOBER 1, 2012
Dear Television is Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. We will be writing epistolary criticism about TV. If Clarissa Harlowe were writing about Girls — and she kind of is, isn’t she? — this is what that would be like. Abridged. This season, we’ll be corresponding about FOX’s New Girl and The Mindy Project from our new home at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Join us in the comments section!
“Party Girl vs. Rom-Com Girl”
PARKER POSEY HEMORRHAGED TO DEATH as Liz on Louie in the same week she appears as Shot Girl in New Girl’s “Re-Launch,” where she plays the Ph.D from MIT who got in a car accident and lost half her brain. As you’ve both hinted, we’re witnessing the curious death of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the hands of the small screen.
Party Girl’s gone dark on New Girl. She’s “twenty-six,” she’s an effective (if unnerving) shot girl, and her eyes are as dead as the eyes of the doll Louie gave Lilly for Christmas. “This is the easiest job in the world!” Nick hollers at Jess when she, too, tries to be a shot girl and drops the bottle after nearly choking a patron. In a way, he’s right. When Jess finally climbs up and dances, people shout her name — “Shot Girl! Shot Girl.” Except, of course, that’s not her name. That’s when you see understanding dawn: to be a Shot Girl is to be a deceptively unique cipher, a “T-ball,” in Posey’s words. A “Katie.”
Shot Girl, Party Girl, Manic Pixie Dream Girl
What’s interesting about New Girl’s “Re-Launch” is the way it front-loads how being a woman onstage (or on a table) confers a weird interchangeability. What freaks Jess out about going onstage is the unexpected loss of self. She’s not Jess, or a teacher. She’s just Shot Girl. What was supposed to be just a job has become an identity. (Zooey Deschanel knows something about that, I suspect.) I wonder whether there’s a pun living in “Shot Girl,” and whether we’re supposed to understand her as both the girl who pours shots and also the girl who gets shot. On film. By a camera. In any event, Jess ran away from that role at first, but the second episode of New Girl’s second season is all about Jess trying it on for size and finding out both how fun it is and how badly it fits.
New Girl is all about bad fits, it seems to me. Even when Jess is doing Shot Girl right, it’s a bad fit, and the show has demonstrated a real talent for substituting bad fits where you expect good ones. Take Posey and Deschanel, a theoretical match made in heaven. In practice, it’s the opposite — as a pair, they’re almost unwatchable. Watching Parker Posey be good at being Shot Girl is uncomfortable. Watching Jess be bad at being Shot Girl is uncomfortable. Watching them dancing together is uncomfortable. (And it’s supposed to be — Nick and Schmidt’s horrified faces index this for you in case you missed it.) Seeing these two women slotted into one role that’s completely weird for them both, but which they both insist on occupying — in quite different ways — is instructive: the real surprise of this episode turns out to be that if you put Posey and Deschanel side by side onstage, they seem to belong in completely different movies. They clash. They’re doing totally different dances in entirely different costumes. They don’t go together at all.
That might not seem like a big deal until you think about how persistently Posey and Deschanel are paired as “indie queens.” Together, they’ve come to constitute a category. It’s only when we see them side by side that we see how odd that is and how artificial any category built around them turns out to be.
We’re quick to overgeneralize when it comes to female performances — as xkcd famously showed — and New Girl and The Mindy Project are interested in exposing and breaking us of the habit. The practice of letting similarities leap to the eye while differences — important differences — melt away in a cheery conflagration of confirmation bias created the monster category of the Hipster-Party-Manic-Pixie-Quirk-Dream-Girl, and it all felt like a bit of a revelation, for a while.
But it’s the sort of revelation of which we grow overfond, and this one (as many have pointed out) backfired: the MPDG is a once-useful critical hammer that has since taken almost every funny woman in film for a nail. “[The MPDG] is starting to feel like an undeserved insult,” Virginia Pasley writes, “tarnishing even the classics of comedy.”
That’s the trouble: if you have a proclivity toward selectively seeing sameness and ignoring difference, you’re missing the stuff that makes characters and comedy great. Harder to do this with television than movies, partly because television allows those “slight” differences we keep missing in film to be magnified into visible distinctions by virtue of sheer hours of exposure.
Fixing this bad habit, this blindness to variety, requires that we, as an audience, be re-trained.
New Girl more or less announces in the title that this is what it’s trying to do with the “____ Girl” trope. It’s insisting on the possibility of a new girl, and chooses for that “new girl” one of the most typecast film actresses of our time. Not just typecast — archetypecast. The opening sequence shows the archetype’s bright shiny frame quite literally, then shows it collapse as all the characters walk away from it. By showing us Deschanel next to Lizzy Caplan, by showing us Deschanel next to Parker Posey, we’re slowly being trained to see difference precisely where we’re tempted to generalize most. It’s like we’re learning that there are more colors than red and blue. If this sometimes feels overly didactic, I think, under the circumstances, that it’s forgivable.
That brings me to Phil’s point about this being generational comedy of a very particular type.
The Rom-Com Girl
For movie-watching humans Jess and Mindy’s age, the alternative to the Party Girl, the blue to her red, was the Rom-Com Girl. For every Posey and Deschanel there’s a Bullock, Roberts, and Ryan. These have been the two main roles for women in film. I’ve argued elsewhere that the romantic comedy has served a much broader function for female viewers of that generation than one might suppose. If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places in film (besides indie movies, and usually not even there) where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority. One result of this is that the Mindys of the age — which includes, I think, a hefty percentage of early-thirties American women — have developed a viewing practice that precisely opposes the aforementioned over-generalizers: where the latter see sameness everywhere, the former have become experts at spotting slight, apparently irrelevant variations in romantic comedies and savoring them. Within the genus of the Rom-Com Girl there are many species. If she’s blue to Party Girl’s red, we see shades of teal, cerulean, cobalt, navy, etc.
Mindy Kaling is building on this starved generation’s super-detailed knowledge of the romantic comedy corpus, and on its hunger for some kind of legitimacy.
Phil, I’m sort of restating your point about the rich generational work the references in The Mindy Project do, but I’m pushing on the female half of your generational argument because I think there’s a particularly interesting form of self-hatred Kaling unearths there. More interesting than the critical evaluation of the romantic comedy as an art form is the effect that critical conversation has had on a generation that, for better or for worse, grew up on them.
I’ll get to what that effect is in a minute. First, a none-too-subtle thought experiment:
If the only stories little boys were ever given to watch happened to be karate stories and they grew to love them because this is what the Great Purveyors of Cultural Magic fed them; if this was the communal fiction-fabric of their childhood and adolescence; if they remember watching karate movies raptly with their friends and trying to think of themselves as adults through this (extremely narrow) karate lens; if they grew up trying to stretch that lens out to include their own experience of karate, because that’s what teens do, what happens when the entire culture decides to deride karate stories — the only stories in which boys were allowed any meaningful participation in the cultural narrative — and the people who love them?
This is the case for a lot of women of Mindy’s generation and for Mindy herself in the show. As a demographic, it’s a fact most of us live with. Whatever else we might say about that, it’s a totally fascinating psychological experiment. No one designed it, but there it is, and here we are. To the extent that fiction shapes us — and I think we’re finally starting to understand just how powerful communal stories are — many women have been hard-wired to be genuinely moved by storylines that we have also, much later, been taught to regard as stupid. The result is that the genuine emotions that arise in response to a romantic comedy come with feelings of shame. Some of us try to keep our responsiveness to these storylines secret, since it privately confirms our schlockiness and bad taste.
This has nothing to do with whether romantic comedies are Good or Bad. The point is that Kaling has latched onto a mode of mental gymnastics most women of her age understand, and it’s an aspect of coming-to-adulthood that few people have explored in an interesting way. Undoing your cultural programming is hard (ask any male feminist), and it’s a kind of work that goes mostly unnoticed and unsung. I don’t know whether Mindy is going to fight her addiction to romantic comedies or give into it, but it’s a rich vein, and I’m eager to see what she does with it.
What excites me about both shows, though, is how they seem to be recovering specificity for female protagonists within genres we’re used to seeing on the silver screen. Jane, you suggested that The Mindy Project is marrying rom-com logic to sitcom logic, where women have always had more options. I think New Girl is doing more or less the same thing. It’s bringing the MPDG down from the silver screen and inviting you to read her a little more charitably, with an eye toward noticing the humanizing detail over the generic type. As you said of the moment when Mindy “misreads” The Deadliest Catch in exactly the way Danny misreads romantic comedies, “if you watch closely enough, they are all slightly different, and they all add up.”
Same ending, different path,