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”
[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