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New Girl - Why Jess Isn’t Really the Protagonist

New Girl’s title and its theme song tell us what this show is about: the latest addition to a loft of big personalities, Jessica Day. After a major breakup, Jess explores a new chapter of her life: one that centers friendship and fulfillment. But while the show started out following Jess’ journey, as it continued, the focus changed. Her roommates became more dimensional, with great development and comedic timing. Meanwhile, as Zooey Deschanel’s hipster schtick faded in cultural relevance, Jess’ cutesy, quirky “thing” started to feel a little played out. The longer she relied on this gimmick, the harder it became to ignore the truth of her character: for someone who falls while standing still, Jess has her life deceivingly together. Here’s our Take on why Jess isn’t the protagonist of New Girl, what made her too unlikable to lead for some audiences, and how her supporting role in the series actually led to a show—with ample screen time for other characters who ended up being more interesting.

TRANSCRIPT

New Girl’s title and its theme song tell us what this show is about: the latest addition to a loft of big personalities, Jessica Day. After a major breakup, Jess explores a new chapter of her life: one that centers friendship and fulfillment. But while the show started out following Jess’s journey, as it continued, the focus changed. Her roommates became more dimensional, with great development and comedic timing. Meanwhile, as Zooey Deschanel’s hipster schtick faded in cultural relevance, Jess’s cutesy, quirky ‘thing’ started to feel a little played out.

Jess: “Oh, I didn’t know I was doing a thing.”

Julia: “It’s a great thing. I mean, the big, beautiful eyes, like a scared baby.” - New Girl 1x11

The longer she relied on this gimmick, the harder it became to ignore the truth of her character: for someone who falls while standing still, Jess has her life deceivingly together. While we’re used to watching our main characters try to mature through one core flaw, Jess’s defining weirdness isn’t something she needs to grow out of — so instead, she waits for everyone else to catch up with her.

Here’s our take on why Jess isn’t the protagonist of New Girl, what made her too unlikable to lead for some audiences, and how her supporting role in the series actually led to a show — with ample screen time for other characters who ended up being more interesting

The Life Span of Twee - A Manic Pixie Dream Show

Without watching an episode, most people would recognize Jess from the same traits that Zooey Deschanel became associated with: her love of vintage fashion, excessive ukuleles, and bicycles with bells. Jess was created during the height of twee. The late ‘00s and early ‘10s were a heyday for everything quirky. They gave us the start of New Girl alongside some of Wes Anderson’s quaintest works, and plenty of comedy aimed at the swarm of hipster tastemakers of the time. New Girl’s promo relied on this moment and Zooey’s hipster cachet, as evidenced in its tagline “simply adorkable.”

Whereas some of Deschanel’s other iconic characters were more aloof or mysterious, Jess fits the spirit of twee, too. She’s sentimental and quaint-feeling; her whole personality feels like a performative throwback. James Parker writes for The Atlantic that the message of twee is: “Be as crap as you like. [...] The crapper, the better. ” When Jess feels mediocre or doesn’t have her next move planned out, she still feels pretty secure about her fundamental value as a human being. Parker also quotes Marc Spitz, the author of Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film, that twee’s core values include “a healthy suspicion of adulthood”; “a steadfast focus on our essential goodness”; “the cultivation of a passion project”; and “the utter dispensing with of ‘cool’ as it’s conventionally known, often in favor of a kind of fetishization of the nerd, the geek, the dork, the virgin.” — all of which Jess exemplifies to a T.

In retrospect, though, the twee moment was relatively short-lived. The world just grew tired of everything needing to be quirky or vintage. As quickly as they had become cool, Jess’s penchant for the adorkable was all of a sudden annoying in the popular consciousness.

In the end, using a fad to create a main character backfired. When twee went out of fashion, so did the appreciation for a lot of qualities that are crucial to who Jess is as a person.

Jess: “I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours.” - New Girl 1x11

And the cultural irritation with everything quirky led to her being sidelined in the show. Spitz understood the impulse to dislike people like Jess, but asked us to look deeper: “There’s a level of preciousness to some of these people that you just want to wipe the smile off of their face. [...] It’s a true, honest emotional reaction, but that doesn’t mean that [...] [the] people who have annoying tendencies aren’t sincere in wanting to make the world a better place.”

Some of the hatred for hyperfeminine girls like Jess can border on misogyny. Before Jess existed, Zooey Deschanel had been painted as the real-life example of the manic pixie dream girl, a term that’s slightly ridiculous to apply to an actual person as it’s used to criticize the unreal one-dimensionality of how a quirky fictional love interest is written, especially by male screenwriters. As people misread her character in 500 Days of Summer — a direct commentary on men who see women this way — Zooey herself became a prime target for hating unconventional women.

Abby Elliott: “I’m Zooey Deschanel and my soul was born in 1901.” - SNL Season 37 (Host: Zooey Deschanel)

Jokes about her actual quirkiness were exaggerated until public perception had a hard time distinguishing between the real person and the caricature they’d made of her. She even got backlash against her vocal fry, a criticism that’s increasingly recognized as sexist.

Eric Singer: “Most of the time when people are complaining about vocal fry and uptalk they’re complaining about women’s voices, and especially young women.” - WIRED

Thanks to these external cultural factors and the show’s marketing decisions, Jess was doomed to fail as a protagonist. New Girl banked on her hyperfeminine quirks and style to carry the character, which limited where she could go after her adorkability wore out its welcome. But to her credit, Jess is known to take a stand against any misconceptions about her femininity.

Arc to Nowhere

When we meet Jess, she’s at a seriously low point of her life — she learns her boyfriend Spencer is cheating in the worst possible way, and now she’s stuck living with three guys she met online. This kind of beginning is actually pretty common; traditional stories start with some kind of disruptive change for the main character, called the inciting incident. Jess leaves behind the relationship she had planned her life around — and in return, she gets a new life that suits her much better.

But the inciting incident usually does more for the story than introduce a new chapter. It’s also related to a personal trait that defines the main character’s arc, in terms of both their problems and their growth. At the beginning of Friends, Rachel Green is sheltered, spoiled, and helpless; by embracing risk in New York, she sets up an arc to become more independent, savvy, and self-assured. Similarly, How I Met Your Mother starts with when Ted Mosby meets Robin. And while the show claims to be the story of Ted meeting his wife, this inciting incident tells us it’s really the story of how he initially wasn’t right for Robin and how he (supposedly) grows enough to become the partner she needs.

Jess’s story is different; being cheated on doesn’t speak to any central problem within herself. All we learn from the situation is that Jess is awkward, and spending that long in a single relationship hasn’t given her much experience with adult dating. In the first season, she’s learning to deal with the consequences of being cheated on in a long-term relationship — like a discomfort with sex,

Jess: “I don’t know what I’m doing emotionally, or let’s be honest, sexually.” - New Girl 1x02

casual dating, and sometimes even herself. But this uncertainty is just a phase, more from Spencer’s mistake than her own. In most situations, Jess is resilient, bouncing back from insults about her weirdness and rarely willing to let someone else’s opinion interfere with her self-image. The breakup is merely a brief detour from her default of being comfortable with herself a state that doesn’t leave Jess much room to keep evolving.

After an inciting incident, comedies often use positive arcs to show how characters improve over time. But by the time she starts dating Nick in season 3, Jess has already reached a good, stable place. She’s over her Spencer-related insecurities — he hasn’t been mentioned since the first season. Finding the strength to try things with Nick marks the end of her arc since Nick is much like a kinder, more charming version of Spencer and Jess still finds the courage within herself to give him a chance. When they do break up, it has a lot to do with Nick being so unstable.

Nick: “What do you want from me, Jess?”

Jess: “I just want you to take a little more responsibility.” - New Girl 3x20

Her steady commitment to doing what’s best for herself keeps Jess from needing a positive arc for the rest of the show. She has a kind of maturity that most characters — and maybe most of us — don’t have: she knows how to make the hard decisions in relationships that don’t work for her. Most of her long-term relationships end with her recognizing something wrong and respecting herself enough to take it seriously.

Rather than an overarching growth, what we see in Jess is more of a zig-zag. She learns a lot about life in and out of relationships, but she ultimately doesn’t discover anything huge about herself — because the truth is, she already knows herself pretty well.

In her professional life, too, she’s aware of what she loves and she’s doing it: she’s a dedicated teacher with a uniquely Jess brand of care and passion for education. Life ends up throwing her a few career speed bumps and changes, but she remains happiest when she’s doing what she’s always been good at.

Jess: “Sometimes I think I was bred in a lab to help people.” - New Girl 5x12

If Jess is a little emotionally mature and grounded for a protagonist, though, her messy life is definitely familiar to the millennials who watched New Girl as it aired. HuffPost contributor David Anthony’s description of millennial life reflects Jess’s situation perfectly: “The thing that remains the most constant in your life, is that nothing is ever the same.” For a generation defined by uncertainty about growing up and entering the post-Recession workforce, watching Jess and her friends’ chaotic life changes can be comforting. And her sense of self is strong enough to encourage us to trust our weirdness, even if the external details haven’t yet lined up.

A Supporting Character

Between a battle with being one-note and her pretty solid sense of self, Jess has the hallmarks of a supporting character. And the other key reason Jess was sidelined over time was to give more space for her friends to develop. They not only proved to be compelling and funny characters, but they also were still discovering themselves and had more conventional growing to do in order to catch up to Jess.

One of Jess’s defining qualities is how deeply she cares about people. So her personality sets her up perfectly to get involved in her friends’ business, and she really shines most when she’s helping her friends.

Cece: “I’m getting married tomorrow and I look like Mike Tyson.”

Jess: “Okay, nothing little cotton balls and olive oil can’t fix! In a few minutes we are gonna laugh about this.” - New Girl 2x24

As early as the third episode, Jess shows us how well she plays a supporting role by pretending to be Nick’s girlfriend at a wedding. We see already how Jess’s stable self-assurance makes her a naturally good friend. Also in the first season, she’s willing to throw Schmidt a birthday party at the last minute, even when she doesn’t yet understand him and his friends. And when she needs to, Jess is ready to put aside the quirky gimmick to give out some tough love.

Jess: “You want me to get real and stop being all cutesy and whatever, fine. Let’s get real. You don’t do anything.” - New Girl 1x15

When she’s called to Jury Duty, the joke is that all the roommates are falling apart because of how much they rely on her.

Winston: “Hey, uh, Jess? If one were to put a hammer through a wall, what would one do?” - New Girl 5x03

And throughout the course of the show, she’s helped three separate couples with marriage proposals.

At Jess’s core — in her careers, relationships, and friendships — is a desire to help people, so she shows off what’s good in her character whenever we see her exercise this side of herself. And in the end, she illustrates how turning the supposed star of a show into support for an ensemble can make for really good entertainment.

Conclusion

Jess’s transition from main to supporting character was gradual, but eventually, it was undeniable: she wasn’t the protagonist anymore. The “Who’s that Girl?” theme song just became a quick instrumental motif. When Zooey Deschanel’s maternity leave took Jess off the show for six episodes, the show was fine without her by most reports — and some argued, better. For six episodes, the show forgot about her hyperfeminine twee ideal and eagerly shifted to focus on Megan Fox, playing to type as the quintessential cool girl. Meanwhile, over time, Winston surpassed Jess in quirkiness, providing all the “weird friend” comedy the show needed.

By the end of the series, Jess was far from the New Girl anymore. Yet it’s striking that she never lost the qualities that defined her as a person — even the ones other people found annoying.

Schmidt: “I’m gonna have to go on a craft run, aren’t I?”

Jess: “I’m gonna need pipe cleaners, glitter, glue, finger paints, and six different types of macaroni.” - New Girl 7x3

In any role, at any stage of her life, Jess shows us the ultimate power move: she never stops being Jess.

Jess: “I’m about to go and pay this $800 fine, and my checks have baby farm animals on them.” - New Girl 1x11


SOURCES

Anthony, David. “My Life Is a Mess: A Millennial’s Tale.” HuffPost, 26 May 2016. www.huffpost.com/entry/my-life-is-a-mess-a-mille_b_10135550

Blickley, Leigh. “Zooey Deschanel Wants You To Stop Calling Her ‘Adorkable’.” HuffPost, 20 Apr. 2015. www.huffpost.com/entry/zooey-deschanel-adorkable-driftless-area_n_7088906

Gross, Terry. “From Upspeak To Vocal Fry: Are We ‘Policing’ Young Women’s Voices?” NPR, 23 July 2015. www.npr.org/2015/07/23/425608745/from-upspeak-to-vocal-fry-are-we-policing-young-womens-voices

Kyle, Joseph. “Take Me Down To Anorak City: A Conversation with Author Marc Spitz.” The Recoup, 6 Feb. 2017. therecoup.com/2017/02/06/take-me-down-to-anorak-city-a-conversation-with-author-marc-spitz/

Parker, James. “The Twee Revolution.” The Atlantic, July/August 2014. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/the-twee-revolution/372273/

Singer, Eric. “Accent Expert Breaks Down Language Pet Peeves” WIRED, 23 July 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTslqcXsFd4&t=331s

Unger, Alli. “How To Write Character Arcs.” SoCreate, 1 Dec. 2017. www.socreate.it/en/blogs/screenwriting/how-to-write-character-arcs