In this day and age, there is no lack of opportunity to employ a critical eye towards the media. Tv shows and movies are chock full of questionable texts. While this may be initially disheartening, certain tools have proven themselves worthy at taking a deeper, more critical look at these texts and sometimes even deriving some pleasure from them despite the flawed basic texts. The text I chose to analyze comes from the tv show “New Girl”. Even though the dominant reading of the text, that women exist to serve men’s wishes and desires, is flawed, pleasure can be derived from dissociating from roles and appreciating unrelated aspects of the text.
Starring Zooey Deschanel, “New Girl” follows the lives of quirky but loveable Deschanel and her three male roommates. In the particular episode I chose to analyze, Nick is going to a wedding of which his ex-girlfriend will be in attendance. In order to “one-up” her, Nick brings Jess as his date.
The main reading of this particular episode is that Jess’ role is to make Nick look good and be desirable to another woman. Her femininity is useful for the man’s goal. She also has the role of taking care of Nick; she is to invoke jealousy but also keep Nick from getting back together with his ex-girlfriend.
The dominant reading of this show is flawed because it negates Jess as her own person with desires and needs. Her wishes are repeatedly shot down. At one point she says “suppress the Jess…got it”. Later, when she is complaining about how uncomfortable the compression shorts she is wearing in order to look desirable in her dress, a male character sarcastically tells her “Ok. Let’s talk about my problems now”.
She is quite literally a tool to invoke jealousy in another. In the beginning of the episode, Nick and another male character “help” Jess pick out an outfit. They immediately shoot down her outfit of choice as it is too ugly.
This shot uses perspective to put the audience in the position of the male gaze, seeing and rejecting this dress for not meeting the criteria of envoking male desire. As Laura Mulvey points out:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle. (Female Spectatorship, section III A).
You need to look hot, they tell her. You are useful only if you can be hot and invoke jealousy. “We don’t want to be mean…we just don’t want you to be yourself…in anyway” is the rationale they give her. In one shot at the wedding, she is quite literally hanging off Nick like a medal he’s won.
So part of how Jess is used is for her hotness. Additionally, she is used for her apparently innate ability to take care of someone else (a man). Near the end of the episode when Nick of course gets back together with his ex, Jess is scolded: “you should have been taking care of Nick”.
It is apparent Jess is worthwhile for the roles she offers to men. She is either the temptress or the maternal figure.
So how would one employ the oppositional gaze to derive some pleasure from this text? As laid out by bell hooks, the oppositional gaze has many different modes of operating. One of particular interest:
Black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator […] [Spectators] created a critical space where the binary opposition Mulvey posits of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look” was continually deconstructed (hooks, page 122-123).
People who feel misrepresented in film can recognize the dominant reading, disagree with it, and choose to neither identify with the victim or perpetrator. This occurred with Jess and Nick. I recognized that Jess was expected to act and talk certain ways to appease Nick. I chose to dissociate from this role as it is not a role I have chosen from myself and have tried to stay away from. In addition, I did not identity with Nick’s character either. I like to think I allow my friends to be themselves and am not using them selfishly for my own personal gain.
Another way to derive pleasure from this text is to appreciate the female humor present. In McCabe’s essay “Textual Negotiations: Female Spectatorship”, she writes on the richness and boldness of female comedics: “Given the repressive conditions of the 1950s, humor might have been women’s weapon and tactic of survival, ensuring sanity, the triumph of the ego, and pleasures” (page 62). Extrapolating past the 1950s, this tactic is very much alive and well today. To buck the roles her male co-characters have placed on her, she takes on a humorous character none of them appreciate. Donning fake teeth and an outlandish accent, she employs humor to maintain some freedom of self and bring some pleasure to the show. Consequentially, seeing her humorous nature come out is part of how oppositional gaze can find some pleasure in this otherwise insufferable story line.