New Girl's Hannah Simone (left) and Zooey Deschanel (right)
The other day, after my roommate finished watching Glee (which she is fond of and I am not) she left the TV on long enough for me to start paying attention to it, and I happened to catch the latest episode of New Girl. I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the show before, mainly because I was curious about whether Zooey Deschanel could do comedy (and she can, although it’s simply not my brand of comedy).
The show isn’t terrible, and I can see why people watch it. It’s interesting if only for the set up: one (MPDG) girl living with a group of guys, one person of color living with a group of White people, one person of mixed race commenting on the situation while also being a part of it…quirky enough for comedy gold! Plus, it was created by a woman (Elizabeth Meriwether) and is produced by a team of women and men.
I didn’t have high hopes, but I had higher than normal ones. This week’s “Valentine’s Day” episode killed those hopes. Cranky old man/roommate/probable soul mate of Jess (Deschanel)–Nick (played by Jake Johnson)–has a new lawyer girlfriend, Julia, who’s fond of berating and condescending to her inferiors in racial terms.
Here are snippets from a phone conversation that Julia has with one of her colleagues:
Well, I guess it’s time to take that Chinese head outta that Chinese ass, Ming!
(To Ming) Confucius say ‘You work for ME!’
Meanwhile, Nick and one of Julia’s interns are sitting there listening to the conversation and inexplicably not commenting on it during or afterward. There was no “Hey, that was kinda harsh,” much less a “That was sort of racist.” It was one of those uncomfortable moments for viewers like myself where we expect at least an acknowledgement of (and at most a joke about!) the offensive phrases that were just uttered. It’s like when you tell someone you love them and they give you the vacant eyes. Or maybe more like telling someone you’re having their baby, and they go “Fuck.”
What’s happening is that in that moment the kyriarchy is saying, “Fuck you, viewers who expect stuff. Just fuck you.” In her Bitch Magazine post entitled “TelevIsm: Not Just A Joke” Rachel McCarthy James set up a condition for jokes that depict and reinforce the kyriarchy (systems of oppression):
IF a character on a television reflects or reinforces the kyriarchy through problematic/loaded language or actions.
AND the joke is ignored, applauded or otherwise validated by another character
THEN the joke constitutes a reinforcement of kyriarchy in society.
For me it’s not just a theory; it’s something palpable that gets me right in the gut. It’s a voice in my head that tells me Nobody is standing up for you right now, and you are being marginalized. It’s a microaggresion. And it makes me want to shut the TV off and curse the New Girl writers and type this blog post.
For some reason (probably that I’m a masochist), I didn’t shut off the TV. I kept watching until the end. In the same episode, CeCe (played by Indian Canadian actress Hannah Simone) is seen hanging out with/taking care of her high-on-shrooms boyfriend as he surfs a tire swing at a nearby playground. The boyfriend, probably due to his being high, yells
“I love brown people!”
and Cece replies with “That’s racist, Kyle.” It is at this point that I am befuddled. They choose to comment on race only when someone isn’t sober and therefore cannot fully comprehend that what he said was offensive?
What. are. you. writers. doing?! Was that supposed to make up for the fact that you let Julia’s earlier remarks slide? Is that supposed to show us that CeCe as a woman of color has more of an awareness of racial issues than does Julia, a White woman? There are too many unanswered questions for my liking.
There’s so much potential in New Girl: the episode in question was about Jess being supported by lothario Schmidt (Max Greenfield) to have a one-night stand, and the B story was about Winston (Lamorne Morris) crashing/participating in a Galentine’s party to ask for a second chance from a woman he stood up. It’s got all the makings of a pro-woman sitcom, but it sadly doesn’t deliver in any satisfying way.
Some people have postulated on forums that perhaps the writers are setting up Julia to be the villain to Jess’ Girl Next Door or CeCe’s self-confident Femme Fatale–and by villain I mean Mean Girl, or Bitch. Maybe Nick’s going to realize what a self-righteous racist she is and dump her. But I don’t really want to stick around to find out how these problematic characters will pan out because I cannot stand when writers write women into positions of power (like lawyer Julia) and then waste a golden opportunity by turning them into negative stereotypes instead of giving them good material.
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