One of my favorite romance novel tropes is the brainy-but-ditzy, tomboyish-but-cleans-up-good, cute-as-a-button heroine (henceforth referred to as the BBDTBCUGCAABH) who somehow doesn’t realize she’s cute as a button or that all the men she meets really do want her. She’s forever feeling like she just doesn’t do the girlie well enough and that all the guys just want to be her friend.
The problem with tropes, of course, is that they can easily become stereotypes. It’s hard not to wonder how a woman gets to her mid-twenties or early thirties without realizing that she gets hit on a lot, or that all her guy friends keep asking her out. It’s hard to come up with new, fresh ways to make a character oblivious to her own attractiveness and yet smart and self-aware in all other respects. Still, in the hands of a skilled author, the BBDTBCUGCAABH is a fun character to read.
It’s much harder to pull off the BBDTBCUGCAABH in movies or on TV. The vast majority of actresses who make it to the large or small screen are physically attractive. The less physically attractive ones, no matter how talented they are, don’t get cast in many lead roles, so a movie or TV show featuring a BBDTBCUGCAABH has to make the viewer believe that this beautiful woman, who isn’t an idiot, still somehow doesn’t realize she’s beautiful or that men are crushing on her. Usually they just stick a pair of glasses on the BBDTBCUGCAABH and dress her badly, because in Hollywood, I guess, eye glasses and poor fashion choices render people unable to tell if you’re pretty.
Still, there are some actresses who, while beautiful, can pull off a believable BBDTBCUGCAABH. Diane Keaton did it back in the day. Keaton’s still adorable way into her sixties. More recently, we had Parker Posey, although Posey was always a bit too sly, a little too street smart, not to be able to rate her own hotness.
I think the current go-to actress for this trope is Zooey Deschanel. She can play both the BBDTBCUGCAABH and the manic pixie dream girl, which is a rather different kind of trope (you can read about it here.)
In New Girl (Tuesdays 9:00 EST on Fox), Zooey plays Jessica Day, a school teacher who went home early one afternoon to surprise her live-in boyfriend with his favorite fantasy, a sexy stripper dance. Unfortunately, the scumbag was entertaining another woman at the time. Now Jessie has to find a new place to live.
She answers an ad placed by three guys looking for a fourth roommate. (And let’s agree to ignore the whole four-roommates-to-an-apartment thing. These are people in their late twenties who seem to have grown-up jobs, so why do they want to live four to a box? Maybe the show’s set in New York; I don’t remember. Is this normal in New York?) The guys are reluctant to take on a girl roommate (girls are like, crazy, and weird, and they totally mess with your head), but once she mentions that her best friend’s a model, and all her friends are models, then it’s all over but the deposit.
I was already predisposed to like New Girl because I adore The Zooey, as one of my favorite gossip bloggers calls her; I’ve had a girl crush on her ever since I saw Elf. The more I think about it, the more she really does seem to resemble Diane Keaton. Like Keaton, she can do both straight drama and screwball comedy. She’s beautiful but not intimidatingly so. Sexy, but also not intimidatingly so. Guys want to do her and play video games with her afterwards. Girls would like to hang out with her. If Angelina Jolie walks in the room, all the other women sort of wilt, while keeping a death grip on their husbands and boyfriends. When Zooey walks in, we squeal “I love your shoes!” and then we all drink margaritas and talk about men (and shoes.) Besides, if a married guy made a pass at her, The Zooey would say “Dude! We’re both married! That’s gross!” Angelina Jolie, on the other hand... Also, while she probably doesn’t eat like a normal woman, I’m pretty sure Zooey eats, and I like that in an actress.
The show turned out to be just as cute and funny as I expected, as was Zooey. I plan to keep watching. That’s not to say I didn’t have any complaints.
The character of Jessie Day has been called “adorkable,” a term I love. It’s very appropos, but while she’s plenty adorable, I think the writers have made Jessie just a little too dorky. She has these strange tics and socially inappropriate habits that made me wonder how she ever got a boyfriend in the first place. A cute guy walks by and she wiggles her glasses and does a “va va va voom,” like an old cartoon eye-goggler. When her roommates take her out to get her back in the habit of meeting guys, she zeroes in on this one hottie and does a weird kind of shimmy, saying “Hey there, sailor.” It reminded me of something Laverne or Shirley might have done, or Chrissie Snow, Suzanne Somers’ character on Three’s Company. (In fact, Jessie is a lot like Chrissie, a bumbling bombshell.) She has her own theme song, which she breaks into often, and in front of other people. When she gets all dressed up and models her lovely, refreshingly adult cocktail dress for the guys, they gush over how well she cleans up. She blushes, then launches into an adolescent, arm-swinging air guitar thing. I’m not saying I expected her to drop to one knee, throw her arms up in the hair and grunt “Superstar!,” but I wouldn’t have been surprised, you know?
The dorky thing is endearing, but it could be carried too far. Instead of being a likable, relatable character, Jessie could turn into a clown. I hope the writers tone it down in the future.
Then again, Zooey can get away with a lot more than your average sitcom actress. She’s got the incredible hair, and the bright blue eyes, and the breathy/raspy voice. Her comedic timing is perfect, her face is as infinitely expressive as Lucille Ball’s (or Diane Keaton’s), and she’s even good at physical comedy. (I loved when she fell off her high heels.)
I liked her roommates, Damon Wayans, Jr., in particular, which is a shame because he was replaced after the pilot episode (he was already in another show that got renewed). Wayans, who looks exactly like his father, played a personal trainer who reminded me of my husband (“I’M NOT MEAN! I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU!”) Then there’s the Nice Guy Who’s Just Been Dumped Himself—he’s a bartender—and the requisite Guy Who Thinks He’s Way Hotter Than He Is. In fact, the other two guys have a Douchebag Jar – every time the GWTHWHTHI acts like a douchebag (“Are you warm? I think I’m warm. I’m just gonna take off my shirt…”) he has to put a dollar in the jar. There’s a lot of dollars in there.
Touchingly enough, it’s the GWTHWHTHI who seems to connect best with Jessie. He’s the one who finally tells her, after she’s spent a week wallowing in her misery, that watching Dirty Dancing over and over while crying until your nose falls off isn’t healthy.
After he’s convinced her to go out with the three of them, he’s talking to one of the other roommates while Jessie’s in the shower.
GWTHWHTHI: Did you shave your legs?
Jessie: (pause) I will now.
GWTHWHTHI: Both front and back?
Jessie: (pause) Okay.
GWTHWHTHI: Thank you.
And at the end of the episode, GWTHWHTHI ends up walking away from the hottest party of the year—he’s already spotted the scantily-clad Native American chick bouncing up and down—to go with the other guys and rescue Jessie from a round of fresh humiliation.
The pilot episode pulled in ten million viewers, and I’m not surprised. There’s a lot of affection for The Zooey out there. Like Diane Keaton, she doesn’t wear out her welcome. She seems to stay fresh, no matter how many times you see her. You don’t just like her—you want to like her. I predict New Girl is going to run for a while. (Then again, I’m a huge Joss Whedon fangurl, so you might not want to put money on my predictions.)
Incidentally, I ran across a Vanity Fair discussion of the adorkable vs. just dorky thing after I’d written the first draft of this post. It addresses a lot of the same issues I had with the episode.