Show Hide image

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.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster