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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.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.