So, it was recently announced that Megan Fox would be filling in for Zooey Deschanel for half of the Season 5 run of New Girl whilst Deschanel is away on maternity leave. This casting was quickly met with a fair amount of ire from the fanbase, with some even threatening to boycott the show once Deschanel leaves.
I can kinda understand some of the reactions though; Deschanel's character is the basis of the show, so how Fox will fill in with an entirely new character could be pretty tricky. However, the character of Jessica (Jess) Day is pretty interesting because of how she's been handled by the writers and the relation she has to the show's dynamic in general, which suggests that the writers might have something up their sleeve for Fox's character Reagan when she debuts in Season 5.
Why Is Jess So Important Anyway?
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope
Both Zooey Deschanel as an actress and her New Girl character Jess often still have the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl applied to them. The phrase was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin back in 2007 to describe Kirsten Dunst's character Claire in Elizabethtown; denoted as a fantasy figure who "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures".
So far so good, but it's important to remember that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) was coined as a term of criticism, whilst in pop culture it's gone on to be adopted as a trope attached to any whimsical female character. This is problematic as it's not a positive term. Rabin himself has since apologised for creating it, as he feels it's now used as a deeply misogynist blanket term to describe any ditzy or quirky female character in a negative manner.
"The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a fundamentally sexist one, since it makes women seem less like autonomous, independent entities than appealing props to help mopey, sad white men self-actualise. I coined the phrase to call out cultural sexism and to make it harder for male writers to posit reductive, condescending male fantasies of ideal women as realistic characters. But I looked on queasily as the phrase was increasingly accused of being sexist itself."
Both novelist John Green and screenwriter Zoe Kazan have spoken of the need to faze out this term; Green wrote his book Paper Towns as an attack on the trope, describing an alternative title for it being: "The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed."
How This Relates To New Girl
As I said before, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term that has been used to describe both the character of Jess and the typecasting of Zooey Deschanel. (bonus one here). Putting aside the insult inherent in using that term to describe anyone, every time someone dismisses Jess as a MPDG it feels a little like they're overlooking the entire point of the show.
Sure, Jess is daffy. She's free-spirited. She sings ALL THE TIME and lives with her head in the clouds. She's cute, but she's also incredibly annoying. She's constantly coming into conflict with the other characters, both male and female. Her flatmates - Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), Coach (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Winston (Lamorne Morris) - struggle to deal with her and they do point out and criticise how annoying her behaviour is. A noteable incident is when Jess comes into conflict with Julia (Lizzy Caplan) in Season 1:
"I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children, and I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. That’s just weird and it freaks me out. And I'm sorry I don’t talk like Murphy Brown, and I hate your pant suit and I wish it had ribbons on it to make it slightly cute. And that doesn’t mean I'm not smart and tough and strong."
New Girl's Jess' isn't a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she doesn't just exist to fill a void in the life of a sad man - she's allowed to be both a multidimensional character and a ukulele-playing, song-singing airhead regardless of how that affects the men around her; indeed her flippant ditziness drives men away just as often as it attracts them. Describing her as such is an insult worthy of poor writing, a nadir which New Girl hasn't reached yet.
Yes, there are moments where the male characters will band together to support her - such as in the Pilot episode - but this isn't something singular to Jess. The premise of the show is these characters who exist as a group of friends; they all come together to support, and similarly come in conflict with, each other on a regular basis.
The important thing to take away from this is: Jess is the central character and the events of the show and the other characters revolve around her. Elizabeth Meriwether, who created the show, explains that most of the narrative is anchored on Jess, a character who would likely have been relegated to a secondary character or one-dimensional love interest on other shows.
We're with Jess throughout all her ups and downs and repeats of Dirty Dancing, she doesn't exist as a figment but as a person, and that's important. She's not held up as a figurehead for femininity, she's flawed.
The same can be said of Jess's model best-friend Cece (Hannah Simone); she is initially held up to be the 'perfect woman' by Jess' flatmates, but as the series unfolds we're offered a more nuanced view of a complicated woman. The point of New Girl is that it goes beyond the archetypes in favour of half-decent writing, which is admittedly a nice change for a mainstream show.
So, Back To Megan Fox
As I said earlier, there's been a lot of negativity surrounding Megan Fox's casting. The main criticism people seem to have with her is that she's not really proven herself as an established comedic actress, in the same way Deschanel did with the likes of Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die.
The reason I mentioned the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that New Girl was initially criticised for seemingly enforcing that critical trope through the emphasis on Jess' over-the-top girlishness, but it in the end it turned out pretty well and the show has gone on to general success.
Like Deschanel, Fox is often shoehorned and typecast in her movie roles, specifically as the 'sexpot' character/love interest. On a show like New Girl however it's unlikely that she would be confined by this redundant trope, and so it could be really interesting to see how her character fits into the framework. Perhaps we should wait and see what Megan Fox brings to the show before we start throwing stones.
New Girl can be a problematic show to look at critically, but that's okay. It's a fun, inoffensive sitcom designed for mainstream prime-time US television and there are far worse things out there, like cheques without baby farm animals on them.
New Girl Season 5 has been confirmed for a while now, but there's no solidified air date yet for the new season - watch this space!