Kirsten Dunst may have created the Manic Pixie Dream girl with her performance as the impulsive Elizabethtown flight attendant Claire Colburn, but, by the time FOX's New Girl came around in 2011, Zooey Deschanel was the official face of the MPD. Audiences saw in Deschanel an even more cutesy spin on the trope, with her massive, doe-like eyes, affinity for retro, super femme dresses, and love for the kind of singing that always sounded like it needed a ukulele accompaniment. In a word, we all decided Zooey Deschanel was “adorkable.”
And, so, the entire marketing scheme of New Girl’s debut was born. Every poster was a close-up of Deschanel's purposefully awkward, smiling face as she was clad in some dress straight off of Modcloth Dot Com and the world’s hippest bangs. Surrounding this image of twee perfection were two words: “Simply adorkable.” Yet, despite all of these shouts of dorky adorability, New Girl has spent the last seven years proving it’s heroine Jessica Day (Deschanel) is more than her packaging. If you don’t believe that, you need to look no further than the Tuesday night premiere of New Girl’s seventh and final season, “About Three Years Later.”
In the season opener, we see an admirable steeliness to Jess's personality. This is a woman who clawed her way up through the shockingly gossipy and nasty world of the Los Angeles education system to become a principal. Then, somewhere in New Girl's three-ish-year flash forward, she got caught up in a shadowy “impending Justice Department investigation” and is currently a State’s witness. And, even with all that bizarre, intense drama, Jess is so competent, her own ex-boyfriend, “fancyman” Russell Shiller (Dermot Mulroney), still wants her to run the non-profit he’s creating.
While Jess’ professional success is important, her emotional fortitude is just as necessary here. Throughout “Three Years Later,” the former principal is confronted with questions about why she and longtime boyfriend Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) still aren’t engaged. Traditional New Girl hijinks do arise when Jess creates a fake engagement in response to Russell “hectoring” her, but she comes through in the end. Instead of crumbling over why Nick hasn’t taken her as a wife yet, which would be the adorkable option, Jess responds like an adult woman who knows what she wants. “I don’t need to be married to be know who we are,” she says. “The moment when someone suggested we weren’t where we should be, I went crazy. Because we're great.”
Jessica Day is a wildly competent woman.
This is a far cry from the Jess we met in New Girl’s pilot so very long ago. That Jess was essentially an example of what would happen if a Disney cartoon bird was transformed into an L.A.-by-way-of-Seattle woman and then set loose upon a bunch of dudes with an impossibly large loft apartment. The series premiere leans heavily into the entire precious pixie schtick at every chance it gets. In fact, in Jess’ first introduction, it is revealed she is so very awkward she is unable to think of a stripper name other than either “Two Boobs Johnson” or “Tiger Boobs.” In a later season 1 episode, “Naked,” an entire minute of comedy is dedicated to the fact Jess is unable to say the word “penis” with a straight face or normal voice.
Original Jess deals with a breakup by spending hours every single day — like, 12 full hours — crying on the couch watching Dirty Dancing and only drinking pink wine. While Jess says she has a job teaching, this behavior points towards otherwise. Jess sings everything in clumsy verses and falls down, onto the actual ground, while putting on high heels.
Remember what I said about a magically transformed Disney woodland creature?
Even Jess’ big emotional showdown with her cheating ex-boyfriend Spencer (the well-coiffed Ian Wolterstorff), in second episode “Kryptonite,” is built around her getting back a ridiculously large collection of silly hats and an ultra-hip bike. But, even with those details, there is a hint New Girl would end becoming exactly what it now is, a comedy about a woman who loves kitschy things, but is far more than her Pikachu cap or Jam-bouree t-shirt.
“Yeah, I was scared to start over, I didn’t know what to do … but I love these guys. I barely know them, I just met him, but I love them,” she monologues. And, yes, of course the “him” is sweet, sweet prince of prank chaos Winston Bishop (Lamorne Morris), who entered the picture an episode later than everyone else with “Kryptonite.”
That why, season 1’s tenth episode, “Jess And Julia,” proves to be the series’ true mission statement, as even feminist TV deep dive Stealing The Show has pointed out the installment as a turning point. In “Julia,” Jess faces off with the side eye of a tough-as-nails lawyer played by Lizzie Caplan, who is predictably named Julia here. Julia is a Strong Female Character with her powersuits, leather jackets, and signature Caplan cutting sarcasm. But, the point of the whole episode is that Jess is also a strong female character. She says as much to Julia, pointing out all of her adorkable traits — breaking for birds, the omnipresence of craft glitter in her life, her desire to put ribbons on Julia’s pantsuit — but, Jess bellows, “That doesn’t mean I’m not tough, and smart, and strong.”
The term adorkable, along with “basic” and “guilty pleasure,” have always felt like words specifically used to criticize the kinds of things women enjoy. Oh, you love bedazzled headbands and crying over cute puppies? Adorkable! Adorable, half of the root of the word, is literally a word only applied to children and tiny animals — not adult women with a normal penchant for cute things. If we’re being honest, it’s not like we’re going to call someone we respect or find powerful “adorkable.” That's a big reason there isn't a version of the word for men.
But, Jess is damn respectable. She is the soon-to-be head of a non-profit, and next week’s episode, “Tuesday Meeting,” is all about Jess getting the respect she deserves at the office. Who cares if she’s dressed like a 1950s housewife while she does it?
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