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Laurie Penny on New Girl: not so much a sitcom, more a new front in the war on twee

It's not technically impossible to fight patriarchy in a Hello Kitty thong.

It's not technically impossible to fight patriarchy in a Hello Kitty thong, although it might be a little uncomfortable.

New Girl, Channel 4's flagship US import whose second episode aired last night, is not a sitcom so much as new front in the war on twee. The show stars every lonely child-man's fantasy indie girlfriend, Zooey Deschanel, as a hapless twenty-something who moves in with a group of, can you believe it, men, after breaking up with her boyfriend.

That's the plot. That's the whole of the plot. Cue a succession of lacklustre 20-minute riffs on the theme of boys and girls and how hilariously incompatible we are, during which Deschanel gabbles and twirls around with her candy-coloured skirts tucked into her knickers until female viewers with an ounce of self-respect get an overwhelming urge to rifle through our fix-up bags, find our sparkliest, prettiest make-up pencils, and push them firmly into the wet meat of our eyeballs.

The posters for the show depict Deschanel -- an adult woman whose real-life website is called "Hello Giggles" -- in a pastel tutu and a confused expression arriving in a packing crate, like a kitten waiting to meet her new owners. Treading the fine line between insulting and merely infuriating on dainty ballet pumps, New Girl was created by a woman and designed to appeal to women - Hollywood execs having finally realised that female viewers actually like to watch female leads with real personalities and real emotions.

Enter Jess, a character who seems to have been created, like the plot, by committee, specifically a committee of bored, sexist hipsters rummaging for inspiration in the reject bin of noughties pop culture.

Jess is the sort of manic-pixie-dream-cliche for whom words like 'kooky' and 'zany' were invented. She is precisely what mainstream culture believes a woman with 'personality' looks like: ram together some vintage bird-themed jewelry, wacky accessories, the sort of sunny disposition that wanders around singing little songs all the time, and an overplayed clumsiness - "oops, I fell off my heels!" - that, as several commentators have already noted, is the standard 'flaw' given to lady characters in a universe where women are required to have all the solid, three-dimensional weight of a cigarette paper - and voila, real female personality!

In its conviction that oversized glasses are an adequate substitute for actual character traits, New Girl is hardly guiltier of concessions in the war on twee than hundreds of Shoreditch teenagers. Jess is a two-dimensional caricature of the sort of girl-woman who, in real life, really does wear Hello Kitty thongs and kiddie clips in her hair and bakes endless cupcakes that don't even have any drugs in them.

I have met many iterations of 'that girl', and occasionally I have been her myself -- the girl who lisps and giggles as a way of making the men in the room feel better about the presence of a woman with a job and a mind of her own. When stereotypes are trotted out on television, sometimes we should ask ourselves what roles they play in real life.

It's not just Hollywood that's painfully uninterested in three-dimensional women with complex emotions. In a world where women and girls grow up negotiating a soup of stultifyingly gendered aesthetic cliche, sometimes the best way to tell the world you're hurting really is to cry theatrically and watch Dirty Dancing on repeat. So, we dumb down; we prattle when we could speak our minds; we play retro-cutesy as if to apologise for the modernity and maturity that so often terrifies the men in our lives.

It's not technically impossible to fight patriarchy in a Hello Kitty thong, although it might be a little uncomfortable. The war on twee, however, is a much an aesthetic crusade as it is a feminist one -- and as long as lisping, kiddie-clips and drug-free cupcakes remain in vogue, I'll know which side I am on.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.