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Monday, August 10, 2009

Feminist Reflection on Zooey Deschanel

I have been thinking about my investments in actress Zooey Deschanel every since I read this post from Tiger Beatdown, especially the comments. There was a big outcry in the comments because Sady referred to Deschanel as "a women who only plays hollow, personality-free fantasy objects, and is your imaginary girlfriend." I'm personally a big fan of Zooey Deschanel, so Sady's comments on her really called me out on that. I was forced to think about why I like her as an actress and a singer so much.

In the comments of her post, Sady had this to say about Zooey...

If you can't see that Zooey Deschanel has been positioned as the acceptable, "cool" fantasy girlfriend, and that this is based on lifestyle accessories and marketing and is no more inherently subversive than getting a boner over a Victoria's Secret model, I don't know what I can do for you. I will say, though, that I've never seen the girl play anything other than appropriately quirky saucer-eyed waifs, and that the positioning of this as an "alternative" to any other commodification of women as sex objects makes me want to claw my eyes out.
I understand that her popularity is largely due to marketing towards white, middle class hipsters. I'm not going to argue with that. But I think Zooey Deschanel's characters (at least in some of the movies of hers that I've seen) are more nuanced than Sady claims.

Take Tin Man, for example. This is the first movie (ok, mini-series) of hers that I lvoes and was the leading factor in my love of her. Yes, DG (Deschanel's character) is pretty naive. But, I see her journey in this movie as a transformation from a naive girl to a strong woman in her transition into adulthood. She has to start out as naive to show this transformation.

Then there was her portrayal of Summer in 500 Days of Summer (my other favorite movie of hers). Even though the movie was told solely from the perspective of a man, I don't think she was portrayed as a "personality-free fantasy object." She had a mind of her own, knew what she wanted, and wasn't afraid to express that. Her love interest (who is the one whose perspective the movie is told through) might have had some unrealistic expectations and memories of her, but I don't think thtat makes her a fanstasy object. Especially because it was clear in the movie that these were unrealistic expectations and memories.

One of the other reasons that I'm such a big fan of hers is because of the music that her band, She & Him, makes. I'm a big fan of their music and I plan on writing a "Sing-Along Saturday" post on them, so I won't go too in depth about them here. I just wanted to through that out there.

At least some of the characters Zooey Deschanel plays could be considered pro-feminist. In Tin Man, I think that the transition into adulthood and into a strong woman are important parts of the feminist's journey. Being able to fend for yourself and standing up to injustices are part of what makes a feminist. Also, not being afraid to express your own desires instead of always succumbing to the desires of others is something that all feminists should be able to do.

While not all of Deschanel's characters are like this, I think it is unfair to write her of as always playing the same, naive character. I do think that Zooey Deschanel is marketed towards the white, middle class, hipster crowd. But does that automatically make her not worth feminist consideration? Just because she isn't a totally "alternative" actress does not mean that her work is not valuable to society in some ways.
But she is marketed to people like me, so maybe I'm just too "hipster" (more on this later) for my own good. But at least I think about my investments.

What do you think of Zooey Deschanel? Quality actress or "fantasy object"? Are there movies of hers that fit into my analysis that maybe I haven't seen? Are there movies of hers that completely contradict my argument? I'm interested in your opinion.


Unpossible Girl said...

The point of distinction that I think a lot of people missed in that discussion was that Sady wasn't calling out Zooey Deschanel herself so much as she was calling out the doodz who idolize her and insist that their objectification of her is somehow different/deeper/better than other people's objectification of Megan Fox, VS models, etc. She may be marketed as an "alternative" sex symbol, but she's still a conventionally pretty, thin, young, white woman. Of course Zooey (as a person and a marketed public figure) is different from Megan Fox (as a person and a marketed public figure), and preferring one to the other makes a difference as a matter of taste - but that doesn't mean that the fundamental mode of objectification is any less icky when applied to one as opposed to the other.

Laura said...

Oh, I completely agree with you and with Sady on that point. Sady's post and comments at Tiger Beatdown just made me want to further reflect on my investments in Zooey Deschanel as an actress and "marketable object" since she is one of my favorite actresses. I just wanted to point out that despite the way that she is marketed, some of the roles that she plays do have some positive messages.

Dawn. said...

I agree with you, Laura. I read Sady's post, and it rubbed me the wrong way a little because I'm a fan of Zooey Deschanel's work and I've seen her play more complex, nuanced roles too.

Even though that did rub me the wrong way, when Sady referred to Deschanel's marketed persona as an "alternative" sex symbol, she was right.

I also think she was right to call out the hipster dudes view her as a "fantasy object." That especially stuck out to me, because as a queer lady, I've always thought she was super foxy. It made me think, "Am I objectifying her too? Since I'm a queer woman, can I even objectify her? I think so. So if I can, is it the same as when guys do, or is it different?"

Carol said...

I ugh. I agreed with most of what she was saying in that post until she started on Zooey Deschanel.

Ok where do I even begin.

First, to say that she isn't calling out Zooey Deschanel herself, as a person, I feel is incorrect.

For her to say things like, "They also shouldn't have to release adorable little collaborations with M. Ward, or - for that matter - Tom Waits cover albums. Nor should they have to do spreads for cute little indie home decoration media," and then go on to make a childish jab at the end of the post saying that her cover of a song was "boring," does come across as a personal attack.

For people who are fans of Zooey Deschanel and follow her career, they will see right through this, because Zooey Deschanel, unlike many actresses out there today, isn't trying to BE anything. She's not trying to be "hipster" or "alternative" or whatever, she makes music she likes, she plays characters she feels connected to and so what, she poses for home decorating magazines. That's just her.

I'm so sick of people who need to find something "wrong" with women who don't fit the traditional sexy stereotype. I know I might be going out on a limb here, but I honestly don't think you can market someone as a sex symbol. People who are saying Megan Fox is the new Angelina Jolie are all over the place, but I still don't find her the least bit attractive, as a queer woman. (which @Dawn I believe DOES mean I can objectify her in the same way men can. But that may just go to show the difference in marketing between what lesbians find attractive and what straight men find attractive but that's a whole different topic!)

Additionally, I don't see Zooey Deschanel as a marketing ploy, period. I don't watch a Zooey Deschanel movie and think, "Oh! I just have to get my triple soy chai organic ikea furniture and threadless tee!" NOT that there's anything wrong with that, I'm all about those things, but not because of Zooey Deschanel and that's the crucial point I think everyone is missing. Jeez just let people be themselves and quit over-analyzing everything and making up flaws.

She also must not have seen many of Ms. Deschanel's films to call her a "personality-free waif." Go rent "Winter Passing," "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," or "Flakes," then we'll talk.

I have sneaking suspicion that this woman is the same kind of "feminist" that says wearing make-up and heels makes you un-feminist.

Wow, alright I think I'm going to stop now. I have so many feelings about this. Sorry about the long comment, Laura. =]


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