Metamodernism, Quirky and Feminism*

As metamodernism as an idiom, philosophy, sensibility and cultural force are being developed, conceptualized and analyzed, I think it is time to address an important and central aspect so far overlooked, namely that of feminism. What kind of feminist implications does metamodernism entail? What kinds of femininity does metamodernist art and popular culture depict? How can we (re)conceptualize feminism within metamoderism? This essay wishes to address these questions and issues within the context of recent tendencies in film and television by looking at the female representation in FOX’s sitcom New Girl (2011-present) and NBC’s Parks And Recreation (2009-present).

Metamodern films (and TV shows), as argued by James MacDowell (2010 and 2012), are often situated within the style, tone and sensibility of the quirky. So what kind of female representations and images of women exists within this quirky sensibility? One of the films mentioned by MacDowell, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) is probably one of the first films to depict what I will term ‘rainbows and kittens’ femininity. Director Miranda July situates the female lead, played by herself, as a naïve, über-romantic, childlike girlie-girl performance artist, dreaming about the One True Romantic Love in her fluffy pink apartment.

The queen of quirk perhaps, also known as the manic-pixie-dream-girl, is Zooey Deschanel. Her role in New Girl is a striking example of what ‘rainbows and kittens’ femininity entails. New Girl depicts a quirky but also highly infantilized femininity. Deschanel seems to be the leader of a pack of pink bloggers who are spending their spare time baking pink cupcakes, chasing rainbows and as Deschanel actually tweeted, wishing that everyone could look like kittens.[i] Indeed, Deschanel’s character in New Girl, Jess, is so immature that she cannot even dress herself. I would argue that because she is portrayed as immature or even childlike – obliviously naïve and with a lack of strong agency – the show and Deschanel can be said to become increasingly associated with the infantilization of women and anti-feminism.

In her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), Laura Mulvey argued, deeply influenced by psychoanalytical theory, that there is a heterosexual active/passive division of labour inherent in classical cinema that positions women as passive objects for the active male subjects to be gazed upon. The male gaze controls women as spectacle trough classical cinema’s camera techniques, movements and editing. Women are thus subjugated to a position of to-be-looked-at-ness and sexual objects. Mulvey’s description of sexual imbalance in audiovisual, narrated fiction seems appropriate to explain why the femininity displayed in New Girl appears so problematic.

In New Girl Jess is situated as infantilized but also, disturbingly – through the narrative, framing and camera movements – as an object of desire. Jess shares a flat with three men.The framing and editing usually positions Jess in one frame while her male roommates are in the next, watching her with a mixture of condescending bemusement and astonishment. The roommates’ condescending gazes underline a narrative power imbalance, which prevents identification with Jess. The narrative invites the male characters and spectators to gaze at Jess rather than stare with her. Jess is as such simultaneously situated as the silly child and the woman that deserves looking at. Jess’ to-be-looked-at-ness is further underlined by her appearance. Usually dressed in short, flowery ‘cutesy’ dresses and ballerina shoes, she evokes the sexualized image of the innocent schoolgirl.

Infantilization has long been argued by feminists to be a patriarchal strategy to depower women’s subjectivity. Mulvey contends that the male spectator either controls the female object through fetishism, or by demystification and possession, so as to avoid castration anxiety. Infantilization (paternal control) and asexuality (renouncement of sexuality and demystification) takes away the threat of castration and as such both are ways in which men can control, posses and suppress the female characters.

On the other hand it is possible to argue that New Girl is to be interpreted as post-feminist or, more correctly, that it belongs in a post-feminist or third wave feminist discourse. Post-feminism, put rather crudely, is female emancipation through lipstick and high heels or in the case of New Girl, shiny lip gloss and ballerina shoes. Post-feminism is linked to the belief that patriarchal suppression is something that belongs in the history books, and that (second wave) feminism is limiting to female expression. Post-feminists argue[ii] that women should be able to buy, wear, want and do whatever (or whomever) they want. Indeed, it has often been argued that post-feminism connected to postmodernism’s commodification culture.

Jeffery Sconce argues that quirky, metamodern though it may seem, too, should be understood as a marketable category[iii]. Post-feminism can be exemplified by TV-shows such as Ally McBeal, Sex and The City and the Charlie’s Angels reboot and the postmodern girl power movement. In this perspective, Jess is liberated because her oblivious, naive and infantilized femininity is as valid as any other femininity. Post-feminists do have a point here, I think, and I would never dispute a woman’s right to shoes. But my point is this: I personally, experience great pleasure from putting on my Christian Louboutin shoes and I feel very sexy wearing them. However, the illuminating question that divides feminism from post-feminism, and demonstrates how feminists and post-feminists concerns are located on different levels, is: Why do I feel more sexy in what are extremely pretty, but also extremely uncomfortable shoes? Yes, my pleasure is real, and it should therefore of course be validated, but that does not mean that I should not critically explore the social and cultural mechanisms that make me experience pleasure from wearing uncomfortable shoes.

How can one conceptualize feminism within metamodernism? The main characteristic of metamodernism as argued by Vermeulen and van den Akker (2010), is oscillation. I will propose that a metamodern understanding of feminism should be positioned in-between the structuralist, second wave critical feminism and postmodern, third wave post-feminist ideas. Thus a metamodern understanding of feminism can never only be the femininity aestheticized by Deschanel and New Girl (although a lot of her wardrobe is pretty great). ‘Rainbows and kittens’ femininity is make-believe and fairytales – it is cupcakes filled with empty calories. What the ‘rainbow and kittens’ femininity in New Girl lacks, for it to be metamodern, is the pendulum movement that pulls Jess back into reality. Kittens as we all know, if they are not drowned or hit by a car first, eventually become fat and smelly cats. My contention is that the quirky pixie girl can only exist within the parameters of metamodernism, if she is positioned as such ironically. For example, Me and You poses implicit criticism through ironic depiction. What separates early 2000 quirky cinema and a show such as New Girl is in fact a level of critical irony.

I will argue that the best example of a metamodern femininity can be exemplified by the awesome Leslie Knope, the main character in the hilarious and as I have argued elsewhere, metamodern sitcom, Parks and Rec. Indeed, thematically, stylistically and in terms of tone and sensibility Parks and Rec can be argued to represent the pinnacle of metamodern sitcoms. My claim is that Leslie Knope signifies the perfect example of an oscillating representation of metamodern femininity and feminism.

First of all Parks and Rec can be argued to be a feminist sitcom. Leslie is portrayed as the narrative driving force. All the big story arcs are driven by her agency. She is the active character that initiates action and sets the other characters’ actions into motion (for example the pit-plot (season 1-2), The Harvest Festival-plot (season 3) and the campaign-plot (season 4)). She is positioned as the active subject and as such denies patriarchal control. Furthermore, feminism is an integral part of the show’s discourse (see for example ‘Women of The Year’ (2:9) and ‘Pawnee Rangers’ (4:4)). Leslie is a self-proclaimed feminist and icons such as Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright are ever present in the show’s mise-én-scene as pictures in her office. She also is an advocate for the value of female friendships (for example galentinsday) and the female characters are often seen talking about other issues than men and babies, as such creating a narrative space where the female characters exist independently from the male characters. Leslie is also repeatedly vocalizing feminist thought such as: “Girls should be able to do whatever boys can, just better.“ However, Leslie’s form of feminism is also interspersed with puppies, romance, the occasional pretty dress, high heels and shaved legs (I think).

What makes Leslie a metamodern female character is how her character is constantly oscillating between different poles of femininity. She is probably one of the characters with most agency on TV. She is depicted as an intelligent, accomplished, ambitious and super effective (too effective, according to her boss Ron Swanson) career woman, but she never becomes the self-centred career woman so common in film and television (such as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada). Whenever she gets too caught up in her job, she will do something exceptionally caring, emphatic and loyal (too caring and emphatic, according to her boss Ron Swanson especially when it comes to his birthday) towards her friends. A similarity she shares with Jess is that Leslie is portrayed as hopeless with men, a bit eccentric and rather lovesick at times, but she is also depicted in mature, balanced and realistic relationships with men who respect her for being awesome (see for example ‘Dave Returns’ (4:15)). However, she is never portrayed as a perfect character: she can be petty, childish, too, competitive and plain out weird sometimes (another similarity she shares with Jess, that and the fact that she enjoys to write poetry about Unicorns). When Leslie’s negative childishness and social awkwardness are about to become overshadowing, she is again depicted as smart, proficient and caring. As a character Leslie oscillates between nuclear notions of femininity (nurturing, hysterical irrationality, love object) and feminist ideals (empowerment, female bonding and independence). Leslie Knope is as such a perfect imperfect character, well rounded and complex, and a truly metamodern feminist.

As a small postscript: Laura Mulvey was mentioned as “the feminist film critic who wrote a major essay that helped shift the orientation of film theory to a psychoanalytical framework” by Andy and Chris uses the phrase “male gaze” in the Parks and Rec episode Lucky, which happened to air on the international women’s day.


* The full title of this essay is: “Manic-Pixie-Retarded-Dream-Girl vs. The Awesomesauce that is Leslie Knope – A short inquiry into rainbows and kittens and some feminist implications of Metamodernism”

[i] http://julieklausner.tumblr.com/post/6331886267/dont-fear-the-dowager-a-valentine-to-maturity-an

[ii] See for example Stasia, Cristina Lucia (2007) ”My Guns Are in the Fendi!” The Postfeminist Female Action Hero in Third Wave Feminism. A Critical Exploration (2007) S. Gillis et al (red) Palgrave

There are 12 comments

  1. WatchingPreacher

    Very, very, very good. I do see your points, and Jess is much more “eye-candy” than a complete, well-rounded character (at least as of yet). Jess is more of a sitcom caricature – the weird guy/gal who say stupid things sometimes – than Leslie, and I heartily agree about your conclusion: there is no doubt in my mind that Leslie, along with Parks & Rec, “wins” this, both in terms of quality and character.

    But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I like Zooey Deschanel, mostly because of her role in (500) Days of Summer (IMO the best film of 2009). Here she openly states “There’s no such thing as love. It’s just a fantasy.”. Sure, she’s cute and a bit quirky here too, but she’s well-rounded and with depths. That movie is how I discovered and why I like Deschanel – New Girl is merely alright television. Though if they keep hitting it like they did in episode 12, then it might become something truly special…

  2. eugenie

    Deschanel’s “kittens” twitter was intended as an ironic parodying of her image. Her portrayal as Jess is utterly knowing, and Jess herself is a knowing and self-determining character. I think it’s less that the show is anti-feminist and more that this essay is.

  3. Sparrow

    I don’t agree with you Eugenie. Her character in New Girl and in 500 Days of Summer were to fill a gap of cultural preference that men AND women have begun to identify with through anti-pop and millennial angst. If people act all cute, albeit “childish”, guiltless, and without sin…life just seems better. Other people seem better. I would argue that reality is a different story, re: syria, health care, trayvon martin, etc. Men still have to be the same Men, as Hymowitz pointed out in her Daily Beast post, but women are take their third-wave feminism to new boundaries regardless of their desire for the other sex. Men are also pushing these boundaries and pushing back.

  4. Caleb Steele

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you’re saying that they (who – the producers – who?… aren’t at least some of them women?) are structuring the narrative to position us men (and women?) to see Jess Day as the ideal woman: an object of our fantasies to control? Well, that certainly isn’t the case. First, just because the main character of a text may be “dumb” etc., it does not mean that they represent their sex, race, or whatever. If this were true, I guess all men are like Homer Simpson. That, of course, is clearly false. Not all texts have to have protagonists representing what is “good” etc. Who are you, Plato?

    They’re positioning Jess as problematic, and this “quirkyness” detracts men. This means they are unattacted by her personality, at times. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they cannot be sexually attracted to her; people are attracted to others, ontologically speaking, on many higher or lower levels. Um, I don’t exactly know where you’re coming from ideologically, but I hope you don’t believe that everything is a social construction; if so, go do Biology 101. Anyway, these men within the text in question, are repulsed, somewhat, from her personality, and don’t want to see her as an object, but wish to get away from her, or at least change. This desire for the changing of her (Jess’s) personality is not sexist, at least per se. Changing could lead to a “feminist” (whatever that word means aanymore) personality.

    The men in the show that like Jess, besides the other “quirky” guy(s) she’s dated, like Jess for other reasons, other than the extreme “quirkyness”. You might say that either this reduces any everything she has to nothing, rendering her merely as a “sexual object”, or, men are attracted to this, but this means she is merely seen as “sexual object”. Well, I clearly dismissed the latter as a possibility, so let’s continue with the former.

    I don’t think the producers – and other people involved in the creation of the show – intend for her (Jess) to be “the ideal woman” (and/or something merely seen as a sex object). Are you saying this is intentional, or not? Jeez, is everything a big conspiracy? They’ve taken a woman (Zooey), and created a new character which has perhaps some similarities to her. What you are doing is taking ALL the quirks, and dismissing them as unfeminist, when, you must really question: what are quirks? What seems “quirky” might not actually be quirky at all. If you study any history, you’ll see that humans have believed in not only contradictory beliefs, but, our social attitudes are affected by these – consciously and unconsciously.

    What’s hilarious is when people who spout out a lot of the stuff you have, do not even realise where some of those ideologies began with and how they were precisely formed. When you genealogically trace back these conceptions (the ideologies you’ve put on display are a great example), you’ll see where they have been influenced from, and then realise it’s very easy to make a mistake by perceiving a social event, action, or whatever, as “wrong, stupid, bad, good, moral” or whatever… In short, I believe what you think as “quirky” isn’t quirky at all.

    Another thing: what’s wrong with the “kittens” statement? You say: “Kittens as we all know, if they are not drowned or hit by a car first, eventually become fat and smelly cats.” This is beside the point. If, hypothetically, kittens never turned out this way (oh, wait, they all don’t when you carefully not overfeed them, and, well, they keep themselves clean – especially in a house where they can’t go outside), then the original statement still stands as it does; whether or not it is stupid (etc.) is the next question.

    Are you against things being aesthetically pleasing to the eye? I know a lot of people who do spout off this idea tend to be ugly themselves (yes, there is an objective sense of beauty, it’s not relative… relativism is just stupid). Now, although this is an ad hominem attack on these people (you, I don’t know), it is justified; you cannot universalise this fallacy in all contexts. Anyway, before I ramble on too much: Zooey’s statement was that she liked seeing things as being “nice”, you could say. Not everything has to be ugly, to meet the “perfect narrative”. This is a statement which indirectly shows Zooey’s (not Jess) inner beauty. Also, there’s nothing wrong with what she wears. Yes, let’s all condemn this type of apparel, because “it means you’re a child, and something that men will try and impose on you to control you”… oh, wait, some women actually like this, because, um, let’s see… ah, yes, these things are objectively pretty in and of themselves. You make the fallacy of thinking: if it’s linked to other things, then anything to do with them is “oppressive”.

    Also, you’re making too many assumptions. For example, are you really in the know of what the camera operators, and producers were thinking at the time when filming? No, I doubt it. You make the fallacy of thinking, “hey, this makes sense” (as it fits within my ideological frame – yet, perhaps you believe you don’t subscribe to any ideologies… “above them”, ha!).

    I didn’t understand you’re statement on asexuality; do you think men use asexuality to become dominant, or, are themselves asexual and/or something else? I didn’t understand.

    Yes, yes, I am biased as I’m defending Zooey Deschanel; she’s a great person. I’m still looking at this objectively, though.

    Anyway, I could go on, but, I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Toske

    I have a question about the second reference, I can’t find ‘My guns are in the Fendi’ in Third Wave Feminism, A Critical Exploration. Did you mean ‘‘Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am!’: The New Public/Private Female
    Action Hero’?

  6. Nancy Greer

    The problem with New Girl is that it isn’t really funny at all. It is composed of strings of crummy jokes. The jokes rely on Zooey just acting perky and wacky. Her character isn’t even that quirky. Some women are energetic, funny and maybe they do look like a pixie. So what? Should we abolish fun-loving, eccentric female characters–if they happen to look like elves? All adult women are suppose to be serious corporate or academic types? Sounds like you want everyone to grow up and act/look like you and your mom.

  7. Sam

    Zooey’s character in New Girl in no way represents every modern women. However this essay was a real eye opener when regarding the modern feminist. I always found Jess’s quirks to be quite endearing and there’s nothing wrong with craftsmanship, rainbows or watching Disney movies in your thirties. But I don’t feel like her character is growing. She’s now madly in love with Nick and the other characters are getting up to their usual shenanigans. We also get to meet her sluggish hyper sexual sister.
    Where is Jess heading? What is she learning? I get this is a sitcom but characters still need depth.
    I agree infantilism is completely and utterly wrong in grown women. I also love the comparison you made with Parks and Recreation. Jess never seems to encompass the ability to snap back to reality – or comprehend reality even exists for that matter. Not every women should be the cooperate workaholic types but for goodness sake have some sense of responsibility or maturity. We may see this in future episodes I hope. Same goes for Nick, who’s an even bigger baby.
    Also why did Zooey feel the need to argue for Jess when feminist critics spoke out? Instead of just saying she’s a fictitious character she was defending her character’s quirks. And she states she doesn’t like girl on girl bashing. I get the sense Jess’s character closely represents Zooey’s personality. There’s nothing wrong with girly girls but when you see the social, historical and psychological aspects behind the ‘girly girl’ and it’s relation to patriarchy and infantilism it sort of makes you wonder. She can wear what ever the hell she wants and act the way she wants (that’s feminism yeah) but then again why does she act the way she does?

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