Zooey Deschanel and the Commodification of Quirk


Attention! Bangs, glasses, sundresses, and headbands have the power to transform a grown woman into the equivalent of a bumbling, incoherent toddler! At least, that seems to be the premise of Fox’s latest foray into attempted relevance, The New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel–that googly-eyed sack of saccharine in human form.

Everyone loves ripping on Deschanel lately, myself included. But I should make a confession. There was a time when I really enjoyed Deschanel’s baby blues, her seemingly endless collection of blouses, and her endearingly husky voice. In the early aughts, most of her appearances were confined to supporting roles that sported a droll or  sarcastic edge. Remember the mysteriously morose older sister in Almost Famous, or the deadpan checkout girl in The Good Girl? Deschanel’s salty charm was still present as recently as 2006’s TERRIBLE Failure to Launch (don’t judge me…we’re all home and bored on a Friday night at some point). Even M. Ward, a totally respectable musician, saw something appealing in Zoooooooey and started She and Him with her (confusing, I know).

What the hell happened? My current working theory is that Deschanel may have actually worn so many sundresses and headbands that they’ve permanently altered her consciousness, reducing her to an overgrown child.

Scratch that, she’s an overgrown 13-year-old.

Deschanel has become the poster girl for what is sometimes called “the manic pixie dream girl,” or as I like to call it “the quirky girl.” The gist of this character trope is that there exists a woman–fully grown, always white–who still holds onto her sense of childlike innocence, wonder, and authenticity. The quirky girl always serves one of two functions in movies and TV:

1. to pair off with a “sensitive guy” who is so disconnected from himself he can’t see the value in life’s mysteries and so the quirky girl love interest helps awaken his sense of possibility, getting him more in touch with himself than he’s ever been. WHAT A GREAT PARASITIC RELATIONSHIP THAT SHOULD HAVE JUST BEEN HANDLED IN THERAPY

2. the quirky girl is so disgustingly unprepared for life, and yet still beautiful and weirdly charming, that she inspires a mysterious desire for care-taking in all who surround her, namely some guy (or guys, as is the case with The New Girl). THAT SOUNDS LIKE A CODEPENDENCY ISSUE THAT SHOULD BE WORKED OUT IN THERAPY

In order to BE the quirky girl, you have to differ from all the other insensitive, scary women who wouldn’t even glance at the poor guy who is so self-obsessed, I mean confused. You have to convey innocence, a lust for life, and for christ’s sake, you HAVE to have “indie” interests, which all seem to hearken back to a childhood spent in some nonexistent fairy land where everyone’s parents can vegetables and bake bread and let you scramble up and down trees and be as in your own head as you like. You put all those traits in a jar, shake them up, and what you get is just the sweetest, charmingly weird, adult child.


To be fair, it is always surprising when you find yourself overdressed in a field on a Schwinn

I'm pretty sure I did this same pose for every picture when I was 4.

Wittle baby feels saddy-waddy?

Here are the key elements you’ll need to be the quirky girl…

1. Hair accouterments like bows and headbands and barrettes that they sell at places like Claire’s Boutique (except most quirky girls live in cities and many large cities don’t have a Claire’s Boutique because C.B.s live in shopping malls and most cities, if they have a shopping mall, opt for more upscale shops like Ralph Lauren):

Nice bow, woman child

2. A LOT of sundresses:

"My favorite is Ringo, because that's the 'weirdest' Beatle interest and I'm super neat and like unexpected things that will help you also be more authentically idiotic."

Sundresses make LA even more magical

Oh I'm sorry, I just got a cavity from looking at this

That’s pretty much it. If you want to be the quirky girl, you just need to remember how your mother wanted you to dress when you were 5. Long hair and bangs are also a must.

But after all of this, Deschanel is just a person, you guys. Stop being such dicks! Gawd. She’s in the unfortunate position of being used by the ever-so-savvy-and-yet-somehow-always-hit-you-over-the-head marketing world. Here’s Zooey when she’s not on a photoshoot, or in a movie being styled like an Italian pastry:

Big ol' lumpy jeans

Totally fine

No biggies at all

This seems unrrelated, but bear with me. Last week I went to see the best show I’ve seen in at least ten years, maybe ever. Wild Flag. Wild Flag is a sort of 90s girl rock super group comprised of Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole. It’s really flattening to even call them a “girl rock” super group, because when it comes down to it, they’re just a straight up super group who engages in 7 minute Zeppelin-style breakdowns in the middle of their already exciting songs.

Check IT!!

So then it came to me. Quirky girls are the result of the proliferation, mainstream incorporation, and commodification of the “indie” aesthetic that the generation just above my own began in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest! OH MY GOD!

See, we’re all grown up now and presumably have money to spend (incorrect, but whatever), and love being nostalgic about ourselves, and so here we are. Here we are, going to see horse shit movies like 500 Days of Summer, which features a scene that makes me want to stab myself in the eye:

Oh yeah, The Smiths! Yeah, that’s super different. You love The Smiths? REALLY? Wow. I only know about 6.97 BILLION other people who love THE SMITHS YOU STUPID FUCKING MOVIE!

Except the marketing and entertainment industries, being as miss-the-point-because-they’re-sexist as ever, have gotten it wrong because they’re just recycling the same old tropes of bullshit domesticity and condescension, but in a package that’s meant to look like a nod to a subculture. So unlike real life quirky girls, the quirky girl developed and sold by the entertainment industry can’t actually have any skills or deep thoughts or attitude, because she’s just an empty prop. She’s still just June Cleaver, but with “weirder” interests and clothes that speak to the now 30 and 40-somethings that launched the DIY/indie movement twenty years ago.   That’s also why there are no quirky girls of color. Because white dudes assume girls of color can’t be innocent (seriously, read that Racialicious article I linked to up top), or domestic, or care-taking because they’re too “strong” (read: aggressive).

The original manic pixie qurikydream girls…

...Except that they have no interest in saving any self-obsessed boys because they're too busy fucking shredding

So in conclusion, we can all blame 1990s Portland and Seattle for the eventual emergence of this infuriating persona. See? I can oversimplify, too.

About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.


  1. i agree with a lot of what you’re saying here, but i also feel like zooey deschanel has suddenly become this, like, posterchild for a movement and is getting a lot of hate right now and that that hate isn’t necessarily deserved.
    this isn’t the first post or article i’ve seen discussing her “persona” and how annoying/damaging it is. see also this: http://theprogressiveplaybook.com/2011/09/learning-to-tolerate-zooey-deschanel-a-feminist%E2%80%99s-struggle/

    i certainly think some of the overly girly qualities are a bit infantile, but i find her to be much more reflective of myself and my aesthetic than many of the other female celebrities i see. i mean, she seems smart, creative and interesting…and that’s what i think i am, too. i connect way more with zooey deschanel than i do with say, jessica alba or kate hudson. clearly she’s being used to market and to represent an image, this etsy-ized woohoo cutey tights world, but i would much rather be in that world than in lindsay lohan’s, you know? and i get the impression that deschanel is more in control of her own image than many other female celebrities.

    and also deschanel is one of the ONLY female celebrities i know who is outspoken about feminism. and if some 14 year old girl that wants to be “quirky” can look up at her and read an interview with her where she’s advocating being a feminist and being yourself, i have to say hell yes, you know?

    julie klausner on similar issues: http://julieklausner.tumblr.com/post/6331886267/dont-fear-the-dowager-a-valentine-to-maturity-an

    are you familiar with the concept of the gurlesque? i’ve been thinking about it A LOT in relation to deschanel and klausner’s article. and michael, when we corresponded by email, i mentioned i wanted to write a dummy post for IBC called “the tyranny of twee” discussing a lot of this stuff.

    (full disclosure: i write a food column for hellogiggles.com, which zooey deschanel co-founded. but i’ve never had any communication with her or anything.)


    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Haha! I actually agree with most of what you say, which is why I was like “hold up! she’s a person, too!” I actually don’t have any problem with Zooey the person, it’s the mass-marketed persona of Zooey that irritates me. And yeah, I suppose the quirky girl is a better representation of femininity than all the sex symbols, but the problem as I see it is more the way in which the persona is used to infantilize the character, rather than communicate an actual interest in or talent for say, DIY culture, art, rock music, etc.

      The issue is that the “indie etsy” girl is being filtered through the sexist, reductionist lens of industry. And so while the Zooey persona might have its roots in something real–indie, etsy, music, art fashion, it comes across when filtered through this reductionist lens as a woman who isn’t self-possessed at all. She just serves the interests of whomever is around her. She doesn’t espouse any interesting thoughts other than pithy little tidbits about things of no consequence.

      So then there’s a message that comes across as “either you can be a sex symbol, or you can be a little girl that helps men come into their own.”

      So to be clear, I still actually like Zooey the real life person and I think it’s hard in general to be in control of your persona as a woman in the entertainment industry. If faced with the choice between quirky or sexy, I’d probably choose quirky, too. But at some point can there be a choice that’s more like Carrie Brownstein?

      I also separately just thought it was interesting to be old enough to be able to see where the evolution came from. I kept thinking “I feel like they’re selling this to ME, but why??” Every generation creates its own bastardized, money-making version of itself I suppose.

  2. I watched an episode of New Girl to see what all the hype/hatred was about, and yeah, Zooey’s Jess is an overgrown child who drives the men around her crazy. What struck me was that this was a gender flip of a more long-running sitcom and movie premise, in which an overgrown manchild drives the women around him crazy (see Judd Apatow franchise). Maybe this is, um, progress? (White) women are no longer too busy being “strong” to be ridiculous?

    If I were to get my wish (from a manic pixie dream fairy?), there would be more shows/movies about mature people who weren’t inherently a drag. I think that’s why I love Parks & Recreation. The characters are loopy, but Leslie Knope is this hardworking nerdy (not quirky) feminist who’s devoted to her job, and Ben is this geeky (not quirky) accountant, and they’re both genuinely competent and genuinely loveable.

  3. Molly Spacefire

    This article was sent to me from a nonexistent god to help me in a pseudo-magical convergence of artistic soul-searching and recent watching/singing in cute indie lady choirs. You rock in many, many ways. Thanks.

    Also, what do you think of Zooey’s older and less cute/more badass sister Emily who plays a genius and socially weird (but not cute at all) forensic scientist in the show Bones? I think they present a hipster dichotomy that eerily resonates with the virgin/whore thing.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      I didn’t even KNOW about that Deschanel! I feel like her existence suddenly explains a lot. At least based on images. You can’t ever escape the social emotional impacts of birth order.

  4. anissegross

    Utterly brilliant! You’re the best combination of smart and hilario….

  5. Amazing! This explains why I have so few female friends.

  6. Michael von Braithwaite

    Thanks y’all!

    Vanessa, you don’t have a lot of female friends because there are too many quirky girls out there, because YOU’RE a real life quirky girl and are mistakenly disliked for it, or because you don’t like Zooey Deschanel but other girls do? Any one of those options has the possibility for a club started by you.

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  8. Cathy

    I agree 100% with what you said & i feel exactly the same about zooey. There really was this time that i was genuinely fascinated by her & she seemed like an interesting actress in almost famous & even in failure to launch. But she seemed to be layering on the quirk and the sickeningly sweet persona a bit too thick lately & it’s beginning to be really annoying. People just think she’s so damn adorable but i find her demeanor & acting so affected now.

  9. Emily

    I found most of the captions under the pictures of Deschanel to be quite rude an uncalled for. For instance, I didn’t quite understand the meaning of your sarcastic, rudely worded caption “Oh yeah, The Smiths! Yeah, that’s super different. You love The Smiths? REALLY? Wow. I only know about 6.97 BILLION other people who love THE SMITHS YOU STUPID F*****G MOVIE!” under the link to the 500 Days of Summer clip. If you had actually watched the movie, you would have known that he is so dumbstruck not because she also loves The Smiths, but because he is in love with who he thinks she is. Also, there is nothing wrong with commenting on someones music selection. (Just a side note – I find it ironic that the IBC warns us to ‘Stay Classy’ with our posts when the writer of their blog says F**k, s**t, and d**k in her own article. Not that it really matters.) She says at one point to stop being rude to Deschanel because she’s a person too. I find it ironic because half of this blog does exactly that.
    Just as a little side note, I am 17 year old girl (a highly impressionable age) and while I find Zooey Deschanels characters to be adorable, I am a much bigger fan of her abilities as an actress and do not find myself interested in making fun of her appearance and/or acting roles in her professional career.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      Hi Emily! First of all, while you might be 17, I highly doubt you’re very impressionable.

      As for your critique of my post, I think you make some good points, but I think what you’re picking up on in the piece isn’t irony or hypocrisy on my part (e.g. half of the post talks about how she’s a person/half critiques her persona). Rather, I’m guessing you sensed the fact that I began to slightly shift my own view of Deschanel as I wrote the post–it’s not an academic paper or an article, so this happens more with blog posts than say, when I write a long form, more formal piece. I can see how it would be confusing, or read like I’m not taking my own advice.

      I actually DID see “500 Days of Summer” and I saw it with high hopes because, as I mention in the post, there was a long time when I enjoyed Deschanel’s roles in movies. I found the movie insufferable. And I don’t think it’s Deschanel’s fault. You’re right, she’s a good actress. She’s a person. I have friends who know her and they say she’s a nice person and I believe them. With “500 Days of Summer,” I actually found his character more annoying than hers, but overall I found it troubling to see yet another example of the entertainment industry using the “quirky” girl as a savior figure. I will say, I was glad her character at least ended up dumping him. He was a drag.

      So while Deschanel the person sounds and seems lovely, I also personally believe (and I’m not alone in this, there have been countless articles written on the subject) that she also has a public PERSONA that has been carefully constructed by the industry in which she works and that persona is problematic. The “rude” captions were in reference to her persona, not her person. It didn’t even occur to me that someone would think I was making fun of the person, since I’m guessing Deschanel didn’t put herself in the clothes she wears on photoshoots, nor does she conceptualize the shoot, nor does she come up with her own poses/facial expressions. There’s a whole team who tells her how to be and what to wear (i.e. the industry). When she’s in yet another sundress on a bike in a field looking positively manic, that’s the persona created in large part by the industry. Her PERSON happens when she’s walking around in big ol’ jeans looking like a cute little person just having a life. And I didn’t poke fun of that.

      The overall point I was trying to make ended up having little to do with Deschanel the person (as you note) and instead was about the ways in which the entertainment industry appropriates and flattens the myriad of ways that women can be women. While Deschanel USED to represent a sort of smart, sassy, “artsy,” and more nuanced persona, the rise of the marketability of Twee has created a series of character types, or personas, (of which Deschanel’s is one) that reduce “quirky” women to a nonthreatening, always-child. This isn’t a new way to envision femininity, in fact its as old as time, but it IS a new way of manifesting the age old sexism.

      So, for the record, my critique (which I probably could have fleshed out more clearly) was about the inherent sexism of Twee, the way its cultural lineage has its roots in a much more empowered 90s version of feminine reclamation (hence, the example of Wild Flag), the way it’s been appropriated by industry and sold back to women as a flattened, infantilized, and impotent form of femininity, and the way that Zoe Deschanel’s industry persona is one example of it.

      Finally, as for the cursing, I don’t know what to tell you. I have a sailor’s mouth. I like cursing. It feels good and when I get worked up, I let it fly. I want the last words before I die to be “I’m dying, goddammit.” Other classy ladies with sailor’s mouths include Diane Keaton and Katharine Hepburn, so I’m in good company.

      When we tell people to “stay classy” in the comment section, we mean don’t be racist or crazy sexist, don’t personally attack other people commenting, and don’t simply skim the post and then write comments filled with rage that are only tangentially related to the post itself. But they can curse all they want, so long as they’re not doing any of those things. Which you weren’t!

      At any rate, thanks for reading, Emily! Given your level of passion and thoughtfulness, I’d wager a guess that you might be pretty good at writing your own post with a series of counterarguments that are pro-Twee. If you do, let me know. I’d love to read it. My opinion is just my opinion and it’s always nice to read points of view that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’m guessing that Twee means something different to a 17-year old than it does to a 32-year old. 🙂

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  11. carrieleilamlove

    I am just now reading this! Incidentally, I think you do quite a fair job of separating your critique of her marketed persona from Zooey the person. My hatred for Zooey has nothing to at all to do with twee. As you know, I never hate anyone — Except when I’m blinded by jealous rage!! I have a big ol crush on Joseph Gordon Levitt 🙂

  12. Wow Michael von Braithwaite you have some seriously good rhetoric skills! I Love the way your almost ‘cathartic writing’ makes your view points come out so clearly. I think your a good communicator but I still like Zooey Dechanel. I think she is just making a way for herself in a cut-through business that cares way to much about ‘what you look like’ and ‘what you should look like’ rather then skin deep kind of beauty.She has a persona that ‘makes a profit’, a projection of a reality which may not please many but that pleases some (but aren’t all picture making projections of reality? – do we even get to know what’s real and what’s not?) The thing is that she is using her persona to ‘inspire’ young girls to empower themselves and embrace their femininity and even if you don’t agree with ‘the way she is doing it’ there is no doubt that she has touched some girl’s life, and in the end isn’t that just a tiny bit of a positive outcome?

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