Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Young Straight Women May Love Danny Castellano and Nick Miller

For two shows that have been branded “for women,” The Mindy Project and New Girl, both Fox comedy shows have few prominent speaking roles for women outside of Jess Day and Dr. Mindy Lahiri, of course. The original humor of New Girl was that Jess is surrounded by all male roommates, each with their own particular quirks and strange antics, so it makes sense that there is only one other major female character on the show: her best friend, Cece.

For The Mindy Project, the lack of speaking time makes a little less sense. Originally, Mindy’s best friend, Gwen, played by Anna Camp, shared a lot of screen time with her. It served as a great foil, and a life problem a lot of women relate to: Your best friend gets married and has children and you lose her to a new life, or you try to blend seamlessly into her new life, yet botch it up somehow. Think of Mindy building beds for Gwen’s daughters in her not co child-friendly apartment, which end up breaking down and falling apart.

But now both of the shows feature less screen time for either Jess’ and her friend Cece, or Mindy and her best friend, Gwen, or even Mindy’s female co-workers. The shows have started to revolve around the men in their lives. A key focus for The Mindy Project has been her numerous, calculated attempts to get hitched to the Hugh Grant lookalike of her dreams.

It follows that a great deal of her time would be spent angling towards that goal, and in some ways I think it’s justified, because it’s a parody of romantic comedy tropes. If you’ve ever read Mindy Kaling’s book, “Why is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” you know how she feels about canned romantic comedy stereotypes.

But as a show that is acknowledging female viewers by featuring a main female character, and a female character of color no less, it would be nice to show women talking to each other a little more often, instead of Mindy going to her male co-workers for advice on men, or chasing down the latest love interest. The female talent on the show is as undeniable as the male talent on the show, but showcased far less often than it should be.

New Girl is also painted as being very woman-centric simply because Jess Day is the main character, and she is supposed to be the pretty girl next door, who is just dorky enough, that women are perceived as aspiring to and finding likeable at once. If she were “the hot girl,” who wears sexy, less girlish clothing, sans eyelash-grazing bangs, and carried herself with greater confidence, I doubt it would be considered a show for women. Again, this is a larger perception of how women think about female television characters, not necessarily how women relate to women, or how women actually see Jess Day.

But she isn’t really a main character anymore. Since her relationship with Nick developed, Nick and Jess appear to be the main characters on the show, equal in importance. So why do so many women love these shows? First of all, we’re used to it. There are so few female television characters on sitcoms that function outside of typical girlfriend and wife tropes, that we’re really grateful for the few characters that fall outside that mold, even if they’re not completely fresh. It’s attracting women to New Girl, which has 3.3 million female viewers vs. 2.2 million male viewers, according to Nielsen, Time reports.

The reason the shows may appeal to many young women (the average age of viewers is 34 for New Girl and 35 for The Mindy Project according to Vulture) lies with the two main male characters in the show. They represent a type of man that young, single women, who are more often looking for equal partners, always hope to find in their real life love interests. Nick and Danny start off as stereotypes of a certain single, straight man. They have a hard time expressing their emotions. They carry outdated ideas about what women and men do. Danny tells Mindy he doesn’t want to listen to her “girly” music and proceeds to tell her what kinds of dresses men like to see on women. Nick doesn’t believe men can be friends with exes, but women can. But they are slowly transforming.

Danny becomes less emotionally stilted and opens up to Mindy when they get stranded in the desert in last season’s final episode. When Danny dates a younger woman, and later, a “boring” woman, he realizes how uncompromising and introverted he has become. He realizes that he needs to leave his comfort zone. Nick has a similar realization, and Jess persuades him to express himself when he becomes emotional, instead of withdrawing.

At a time when the discussion on feminism and women’s work/life balance has become increasingly elevated in the media, in part thanks to “Lean In,” and in part because of the increasing power of the feminist blogosphere, young women find their ideas greatly mismatched with men who haven’t caught up. When the chances of meeting a man whose ideas on gender are more evolved appear slim, the Nick Millers and Danny Castellanos of the world are a young straight or bisexual woman’s fantasy.

How many times has a woman dated a man whose views on women appeared modern at first, and later turned Byzantine as the relationship progressed? And how many times have women been told by their elders to wait for the men in their lives to grow up, while quietly steering them in the right direction?  It’s as if Danny and Nick are cuter, quirkier (and in Danny’s case more financially successful) Stan Kowalskis, who actually decided to walk into the modern era, and it was all because a stylish, smart and driven woman gave them a little nudge.

They are likeable because once they change their tune, the flaws that are left over are relatively benign. Nick and Danny aren’t fashionable, something our society almost celebrates and expects of straight men, however problematic that is.

They also act older than their age. Nick once jokes that he has grown into his personality as he has become older, and a flashback shows young Nick yelling at another little boy for accidentally throwing a ball into his yard. Danny likes old Westerns and music from 50 years ago, and in one episode he is shown wearing reading glasses. Maturity is a quality that women have been socialized to prize, not reject. As ridiculous as the old man side of their personalities are (Nick wears a long shirt as pajamas), it also makes them seem slightly grounded in sitcoms chock-full of more boyish, flaky characters.

That is why, despite the lack of frequently featured side female characters, they are attractive shows for young women. I have yet to speak to a female New Girl fan who doesn’t find Nick Miller strangely irresistible, or who doesn’t root for Mindy and Danny to find each other (though I’m sure a few naysayers are out there). I hope that New Girl and The Mindy Project show more women talking to women, as they did in past seasons, but until then, female viewers always have the fantasy that is the modernized but ever-masculine boyfriend.

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