Google ‘Zooey Deschanel’ and it doesn’t take long for the search engine to suggest the word ‘quirky.’ The site offers over 224,000 results, which I must admit I thought seemed kind of low, all things considered. No female celebrity of the past two decades has been so thoroughly defined by her supposed pastel zaniness quite like Deschanel. You’ll find listicles on 15 times Zooey was THE Quirky Girl, an interview where Deschanel says she hates the way that ‘quirky’ is applied to her, and one especially caustic think-piece lambasting the singer-actress for her seemingly contrived embraced of the trait as her chief industry commodity. A kind Redditer also offers a helpful Quirky Girls starter pack guide. Vintage clothing and bangs are recommended.
When I was a teenager, Zooey Deschanel was at her peak as a celebrity. She’d had her big break-out role as the protagonist’s uber-cool music-loving sister in Almost Famous in 2000 and had a slew of indie hits to her name. Elf and The hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy primed her for the A-List. As the daughter of Hollywood mainstays — her dad is a beloved cinematographer and her mum is an actress, plus her sister is Bones - her journey into the business was relatively smooth and she arrived seemingly fully formed as a type. Immediately, her beauty was noticed but what made most people turn her heads was her seeming uniqueness. She was pretty but not unapproachably so. Charming and relatable but with a deadpan flair. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times noted that Deschanel ‘had become a shorthand descriptor […] deadpan, sardonic and scene-stealing.’ Imagine Doris Day’s vintage rom-com charisma if she listened to The Shins. While the roles weren’t exactly multi-dimensional, Deschanel won over audiences with those limiting best friend and love interest roles. She seemed primed for a particular kind of indie fame, and in the early 2000s, it was never cooler or more bankable to be that kind of girl, by which I mean, ‘Not Like the Other Girls.’ It was such a strongly enforced image that SNL mined it for jokes with a regular sketch called ‘Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel.’ The woman herself turned up in one sketch to play an Olsen twin.
Deschanel became hugely defined by this double-edged sword of fame. Profile writers fell over themselves to compliment her brand of sardonic warmth and how, even with those supposedly refreshing traits, she fit in so neatly to the current trends (rom-coms, Sundance fever.) While her performances were praised, with the likes of Roger Ebert hailing her as a nuanced performer of immense potential, it was her aesthetic that captured the wider imagination. The bangs! The baby deer eyes! The Porcelain skin and rosy cheeks! The vintage-inspired clothing! A 2003 interview with IGN opens by saying, ‘It’s true, she’s terribly cute… I just wanted to get that observation out of the way right at the start.’ Long Beach Press said she was ‘not your typical Hollywood starlet.’ Vogue declared that there was ‘something charmingly retro about a girl who favors Motown oldies and black liquid eyeliner and calls The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the wildly colorful 1964 Catherine Deneuve musical, her “ultimate fashion inspiration.”’ OK, none of these writers are saying that she’s somehow ‘better’ than other women of the era, but at a time when Paris Hilton was catapulted into the mainstream and the backlash against Britney’s sexiness barged to the forefront of pop culture discourse, they didn’t need to. Like they said, she ‘wasn’t like the other girls.’
It’s not like Deschanel embraced such a prickly public image. She never disparaged other women, at least not as far as I’ve been able to see in my research, and she never held herself up as an influence or role model to young girls. She did, of course, use her image to her advantage, something that all celebrities do. But there was something about that so-called quirkiness that seemed to inspire a lot of heated responses. The think-piece mentioned in the first paragraph, published in the New Republic, took aim at Deschanel for what they saw as her being ‘programmed to talk and behave exclusively as an adorable oddball.’ They questioned the authenticity of this image, from her cutesy tweets where she once wrote, ‘I wish everyone looked like a kitten’ to her love of the ukulele to the mere fact that the website she co-founded is named HelloGiggles. To the journalist, this weirdness was too acutely manufactured, devoid of depth or purpose, and this carries over into her then-newest character, Jess in Fox’s comedy New Girl. There, the writer claims, ‘Jess is weird for weird’s sake.’
It’s hard to get through life in the spotlight without someone accusing you of being ‘fake,’ especially if profit is on the line. Whether or not you buy what Deschanel is selling - and it is as much a consciously created commodity as anything else in a celebrity’s life - it’s also true that Deschanel seemed to be derided the most for her strongly feminine and palatable ‘weirdness.’ She was never a Crispin Glover oddball or someone whose strangeness made others uncomfortable. Rather, she was girly, and we know how the world feels about that.
Largely, however, a lot of the derision arose because of the growing awareness of a new trope: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. A term created by writer Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, the notion of the MPDG became irrevocably intertwined with Deschanel. As Rabin noted, the MPDG ‘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.’ She’s so eccentric and feminine and, yes, quirky, and she’s just what the sullen hero needed to get out of his rut.
Here’s the thing, though: Zooey Deschanel was seldom an MPDG on-screen. OK, I will let people make the case that this is what they did to Trillian in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and maybe that not-great Jim Carrey film Yes Man, but that’s it. She’s not an MPDG in Elf or Almost Famous or New Girl. In 500 Days of Summer, a sharp meta-rom-com that features one of her best performances, she’s the ultimate deconstruction of the trope. That entire movie is about how messy and creepy it is to objectify women as your buzzword-spouting saviors. It’s not even subtle about it, and yet it still gets labeled an MPDG movie. Maybe that’s just bad cinema literacy on the parts of certain viewers but I think it’s also because people simply got used to reducing Deschanel to this idea, and they seemingly did that primarily because of her looks. Combine that appropriating of a pop-culture concept (one Rabin has since distanced himself from) with the general backlash against Deschanel, and it’s clear that her career took a tumble. She never really did become the next big thing and it wasn’t because she lacked the capabilities to do so.
A few months ago, I suddenly realized that it had been a while since I’d thought of Zooey Deschanel. New Girl had been off the air since 2018 and her biggest movie role of the past five years was Trolls. I wanted to know what she was up to, so I did what any normal gossip hound did and went to her Instagram page. Her 6.7 million followers are treated to throwback images, some stylish fashion pics, and a few jokes about her bangs. Mostly, however, she’s evolved into a new kind of celebrity. She announced in late 2019 that she was dating Jonathan Scott, one of the Property Brothers from HGTV, following the split from her second husband. Almost immediately, they became a very online B-List celebrity couple. They seem cute. I have zero opinions on HGTV celebrities, so I’ll leave that one to you. What interested me more was her shift towards good old-fashioned social media sponsored content. Deschanel does a lot of Cricut ads, wherein she shows off her crafting supplies and makes me very jealous (I want a craft cart, dammit, I have nowhere to put all my embroidery hoops!) Her newest TV role is co-hosting The Celebrity Dating Game with Michael Bolton. She partners up with Air Wick to encourage people to plant their own wildflowers. She shares crepe recipes she wrote down when she was nine. It all seems, dare I say it, pretty normie.
There’s a part of me that wonders if the coolest broad of 2003, the one I had a picture of on my bedroom wall, got dull. But here’s the thing. Well, two things. One, that judgment is nonsense and sexist and rooted in the same nonsense that made Deschanel an unfair target in the first place. Two, she was always this girl. This isn’t like Gwen Stefani evolving from ska-punk’s cool queen to the proto-conservative country mom. None of what Deschanel is doing now would clash with her image at her peak. What’s changed is the perspective. The things that Hollywood latched onto about Deschanel are now openly embraced by women of all ages: vintage fashion, crafting, crying in public, indie music, home baking, and so on. You could say she was doing cottagecore before Instagram made that a thing. All the hobbies and qualities that made the film industry push Deschanel as some sort of alienesque entity of uniqueness are extremely common these days. Hell, I wear lots of tea dresses and craft and sob in front of strangers and I haven’t had a fringe since I was six years old.
It’s not that Deschanel has ever stopped being ‘quirky’ or whatever. Maybe we just finally realized how reductive such terms are and how tedious it is to boil every woman down to a series of tics that allow the patriarchy to decide whether she should be embraced or rejected. Then again, it’s not as if this cycle stopped once Deschanel exited the spotlight or originated with her. Whether it’s the Cool Girl Jennifer Lawrence or basically any woman who stopped being a ‘sex symbol’, we know the conclusion of this narrative like the backs of our hands. At least Deschanel emerged from her own flash-in-the-pan moment intact. It helps that time caught up with her. If only others could get the same privilege. And a Cricut machine. I would very much like one of them.
Header Image Source: Michael Tran // FilmMagic (via Getty Images)